Growing Nasturtium & Nasturtium Pesto
Let’s talk about a Learning and Sensory Garden favorite today, Nasturtium!
Nasturtium is a plant that I’ve been growing and loving for years. Every fall I sow the seeds, trusting that soon enough the cutest lily-pad-like leaves and brightly colored flowers will fill my raised beds and spill from the garden borders. Among the most delicious and easy-to-grow edible flowers, nasturtium has an interesting back story.
The genus of the plant is Topaeloaceae, which is tucked in the Brassica family, you know the one with the other garden favorites such as kale, broccoli and cauliflower. But nasturtiums are not like those common cousins of theirs. Oh no, this plant is more…..charismatic.
Let me explain. The plant arrived in Spain from Central America in 1969 by a Spanish botanist Nicolás Mondares and was later named by the guy we all learned of in high school biology, Carl Linneaus. Linnaeus give the plant the name Tropaeolum majus, because, he claimed that the brightly colored flowers reminded him of blood-stained helmets from defeated enemies hung on trophy poles, or tropaeum by roman army-men. The leaves and stems, he said, looked like shields and weapons.
Well, I’ve looked at A LOT of nasturtiums, and I’ve never seen them like this. I guess when you have thousands of plants to name, you have to find inspiration somewhere. The common name, Nasturtium, derived from Latin, literally translates to “nose twist”, likely referring to its pepper smell and flavor.
The peppery smell and flavor in my opinion is the best thing about this plant. Aside from being super easy to grow and extremely bountiful, the plant lends itself to sensory exploration. All parts of nasturtium are edible, the leaves, stems, flowers and even the seeds are used as a substitute for capers! My favorite thing to do with nasturtium is to invite guests of the garden to eat one of the nasturtium flowers (ants removed of course).
If you’ve ever been in The Learning Garden with me, you know this to be true. The flowers, mildly peppery, are a lovely snack for any child or adult. They are a perfect entry for kids (and parents) to explore and eat from the garden. Once they eat a flower, they may be open to exploring more tastes. However, despite its good looks and unique flavor, it’s not used often in home cooking.
Nasturtium was originally used as a tea plant, as it is said to have medicinal properties. I’ve never tried the tea, but in The Garden we use nasturtium to add flavor to salads, as a bed of greens for roasted beets and potatoes, to offer as a snack to the patrons or petting zoo animals, and we use the flowers in many arts and craft projects.
One of my favorite recipes for nasturtium is Pesto:
This recipe makes about 2 cups of nasturtium pesto.
2-3 cups packed nasturtium leaves
2 cups packed nasturtium flowers
Handful of basil leaves (optional)
1 ½ cups olive oil
3 cloves garlic (we like it garlicy, if you don’t, just reduce)
1 to 1 ½ cups walnuts or pine nuts or favorite nut
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Remove the stems of the nasturtium. Wash the leaves and shake dry. They can be slightly wet.
· Option to boil the leaves for 8 minutes before adding to pesto. This will result in a slightly less spicy version of the pesto.
2. If you have time, toast the nuts. It intensifies the flavor. Put nuts in a dry pan over medium heat, stirring every 30 seconds or so. Cook for 2-3 minutes until they become fragrant, then remove from heat. They will burn easily!
3. Fill food processor up ¾ of the way, loosely with leaves and flowers. Blend until they are chopped. Add more leaves and blend. Continue until all leaves and flowers are blended.
4. Add in basil leaves if you choose. Basil helps soften the peppery flavor and keeps this pesto true to its roots.
5. Add in toasted nuts and blend until finely chopped.
6. Add in the cheese, salt and pepper, parmesan cheese and oil. Blend.
7. Add more oil as needed, to desired consistency.
8. Taste and add more cheese, salt or oil as you like.
Serve with bruschetta, pasta, crackers or warm bread.
- This recipe can be easily modified. Play with the flavors of the nuts and spice and let us know what you like!
- If you don’t have nasturtiums in your garden, check back with us! We make nasturtium pesto from time to time and offer it as a tasting in The Learning Garden.