April 23, 2017

The Twisted Nose Knows: Nasturtiums Stuff of Dreams

Tropaeolum, better known as nasturtiums

Janine Pineo Photo | Tropaeolum, better known as nasturtiums

• By Janine Pineo •

I had a nasturtium moment.

It was the usual gardener’s delusion, the kind you get when you are scouring the seed catalogs and dreaming of how magnificent this year’s garden will grow.

That was when I saw it, with its velvety petals and glowing foliage.

It nearly took my breath away.

I could see it, smell it, taste it, feel it.

The sun was beating down on my head, the insects were buzzing in and out of blossoms and the scent of those brilliant blooms was drifting up through the air.

The cool, smooth flower stem was between my fingers and I felt the crisp snap as I broke it off.

The smell from the flower was enough to make me nearly swoon.

Definitely a moment.

Then I came back to reality and realized I was staring at a catalog and holding only a pen in my hand.

That was weird, even for me. Usually I find myself salivating over tomatoes and cucumbers and the like. I even have the occasional sweet pea moment here and there.

But this one has stayed with me for days, making me long for summer even more than usual and wish for a bouquet of nasturtiums in my bedroom, my office, anywhere.

The name nasturtium is Latin: nasus for nose and tortus for twisted. But I have to say that is a bit too harsh a description for the scent of a nasturtium. Nothing compares to the lovely smell of a nasturtium, fresh and spicy.

It is a scent I remember from childhood, coming from lavish bouquets on my grandmother’s table. Add that to the colors from a raging fire and who can resist nasturtiums?

A lot of folks, actually. It is such an old-fashioned flower that it often is overlooked, with many catalogs carrying only a handful of varieties, as if they were obliged to sell them.

Not so with a couple of companies. Thompson & Morgan (1-800-274-7333, www.thompson-morgan.com) has not only the basic nasturtiums, but also the Tropaeolum cousins. The range is fascinating, with T. speciosum – the flame flower – burning itself off the page, while T. azureum from Chile is a true cool blue.

But I find myself drawn to the “standard” nasturtiums, T. majus. “Alaska Mixed” has truly elegant foliage, with that singular nasturtium green splashed with cream. “Empress of India” is always striking with its deep crimson flowers against dark green leaves.

“Black Velvet” is new this year, looking quite impressive with so-red-they’re-black blossoms borne on blue-green foliage. “Milkmaid” is the opposite end of the spectrum, nearly a white variety that makes “Moonlight” look yellowed.

I think I may try “Jewel of Africa” this year. It’s a climber or a creeper depending on your purpose. It has cream-marbled leaves and the full run of colors.

Another source for nasturtiums is Select Seeds (1-800-684-0395, www.selectseeds.com), a source for “antique flowers.”

Not only do you get a thorough description of the flower, but you also get a little history about the plant.

“Golden King” is a pure yellow variety compared to the Victorian-era Yellow Larkspur, and “Scarlet Gleam” was an All-America Selections winner in 1935.

The catalog points out that “Vesuvius” was first mentioned in Burpee’s 1923 catalog, and “Milkmaid” harkens back to an 1884 catalog and a variety called “Pearl” that was nearly white, a shade most unusual in a nasturtium.

Of great interest to me is T. majus, or Indian cress, the South American parent from which the hybrids have sprung. Select Seeds has it. It is golden nasturtium yellow, and each petal is blotched with red.

It looks much as it was first described by a Spaniard in 1569. In fact, I felt a kinship with Nicolas Monardes, who was enthralled with this new discovery, according to “100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names” by Diana Wells.
Monardes, who was a physician and a plant collector, wrote in “Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde” that “I sowed a seede which thei brought me from Peru, more to see his fairnesse than for any Medicinall vertues that it hath.”

Sometimes, Nic, beauty is its own medicine.

First printed in the Bangor Daily News in February 2006.