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by Linda Gilbert

If you are looking for a plant for your garden that will spread like wildfire, produce decorative foliage, have an ocean of brightly-colored blossoms, and be tasty to boot, there is only one that will fit the bill: Nasturtiums.

Nasturtiums are a gardener's dream. They are virtually carefree once established. Snails don't seem to be interested in them. They will even self seed and come back the next year in mild climate. I look forward to their return each year; it signals that summer is here at last. Once nasturtiums begin to appear they quickly cover an area that is given to them, and within a very short time begin to produce an abundance of striking blossoms that appear to be made of tissue paper.

The leaves have a beauty of their own. Reminiscent of water lily pads, the more common ones are flat and round, with the stem attached to the center and the vein radiating out from there. Most varieties have deep green leaves, but there are now a number of nasturtiums that are variegated, almost speckled.

In addition to the more traditional hues of bright yellow and orange, the range of blossom colors that are available these days is exciting: "Empress of India" - brilliant vermilion red blooms; "Whirlybird" - shades of tangerine, soft salmon, deep mahogany and cherry rose; "Peach Melba" - the color of a cut white peach with an accent of raspberry in the throat; "Butter Cream" - soft cream toned colors in delicate double flowers. With names like those, no wonder Nasturtiums are so welcomed in the kitchen.

Although the blossoms appear delicate, they are actually very durable and make for vibrant and long-lasting garnishes, one of their best uses. Use the blossoms either whole or chopped to decorate creamy soups, salads, butters, cakes and platters. Their sweet, peppery taste (both in the leaves and in the flowers) adds to the enjoyment. In fact, it is for its tangy taste that nasturtium gets its common name. It comes from the Latin "Nasus Tortus" meaning convulsed nose, referring to the faces people made when tasting the spicy plant. Its scientific name is Tropaeolum majus.

Take advantage of this spicy flavor as well as the decorative color. Use both leaves and blossoms in salads. Try adding them to spinach salads for a dramatic effect. Nasturtium's spiciness is also a winning addition to cheese spreads. Both the leaves and the blossoms look and taste great in tea sandwiches. For a stunning look, pair orange nasturtium blossoms with violets on open-faced cucumber sandwiches on white bread.

Make your own zesty vinegars by using the blossoms. Place same colored blossoms in a decorative bottle (five blossoms per cup of vinegar) and cover with hot, but not boiling, white wine vinegar. You can strain out the spent blossoms after the liquid has cooled and settled for a day. Replace them with fresh blooms to make an attractive gift.

For a tasty and sensational hors d'ouvere, stuff the blossoms. Seasoned cream cheese mixtures, egg salad or chicken salad work well, although thy must be finely chopped to be able to pipe them into the tiny throat of the flower, One of the most colorful choices for filling is guacamole - a great summertime appetizer with a chilled margarita! You can also make little appetizer packets. Wrap a blossom around a mixture of cream cheese, raisins, walnuts and orange peel for a tea time treat.

Nasturtium buds also have their place in the kitchen. They can be pickled and used in place of capers, although I think I'd have to have a very large patch of nasturtiums before I'd sacrifice those beautifully dramatic blooms to eat the buds.

The chopped leaves also make a zesty addition to mayonnaise or vinaigrettes. As the summer sun gets hotter, so does the "pepper" in the nasturtiums. More sun and heat, the spicier the taste. So if you are looking for a milder tang, choose flowers from nasturtiums grown in shade or semi-shade.

Most varieties can survive when grown in partial sun. In fact, they will produce lush foliage but then you tend to miss the best part of your nasturtiums: they flower less under those conditions. Ideally, nasturtiums like to be in full sun, with moist, well drained soil. Since it is considered an annual, plant the seeds in spring when the danger of frost has passed. Once they are established, nasturtiums will continue to spread and bloom until the first frost, with little more than the occasional sprinkling.

Nasturtiums basically come in two forms: compact and trailing. The compact variety is low and busy, usually staying at about 12" tall. They are useful as border plants, creating a colorful and dense edge. The trailing variety cascades dramatically down walls or tumbles brightly out of hanging baskets. They are also perfect for window boxes and container herb gardens. Just be sure to keep them trimmed back or they will crowd out the other plants.

Unlike most of our more common kitchen herbs, which originate in the Mediterranean region, nasturtiums are from South America. The conquistadors brought these brightly colored plants back to Spain in the 1500's. The Indians of Peru used the leaves as a tea to treat coughs, colds and the flu, as well as menstrual and respiratory difficulties. Being high in vitamin C, nasturtiums act as a natural antibiotic, and as such were used topically as a poultice for minor cuts and scratches. Nasturtiums are also used in Ayurvedic medicine. The leaves are rubbed on the gums to stimulate and cleanse them. Because of it origins, early English herbalists referred to nasturtiums as "Indian cress."

Once introduced to European gardens, nasturtium's popularity caught on. Monet was rather fond of them and planted them in the border of the pathway that led to the front door of his home in Giverny. Later, during World War Two, dried ground nasturtium seeds were used as a substitute for black peeper, which was unattainable.

But don't wait for a pepper shortage to plant these showy herbs - enjoy them all summer long!

Nasturtium Mayonnaise
makes 8 servings as a sauce for fish
T his recipe is the perfect compliment to chilled summer salmon, or any fish, fresh off the grill. Also makes a great spread for tea sandwiches, or any sandwich needing some zip.

1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 tsp. finely minced garlic
2 tsp. coarsely chopped capers
1/3 tsp. grated lemon peel
2 tsp. chopped nasturtium leaves

Combine all ingredients. Keep chilled until ready to use.

Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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