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Nasturtiums in art, literature and gardens

Jennifer Stackhouse

Jennifer Stackhouse

October 4, 2013

Well, literature may be drawing a long bow, but nasturtiums are one of the first plants I can remember reading about and I’ve loved them ever since. When I started to read, years ago back at Figtree Pocket State School in Brisbane, we had a story in our reader about nasturtiums. I can’t imagine kids learning to read a long word like nasturtium at age five nowadays, but back then it must have been okay.

Double nasturtiums at Powis Castle, Wales

Double nasturtiums at Powis Castle, Wales

I’ve never seen the reader since but in my mind the story went like this. Someone (an old codger) planted nasturtiums next to his door (may be in a pair of old boots). The plants grew and grew and grew and when they began to flower someone called the fire brigade as they thought the cottage was on fire.

nasturtiumorangeAs well as their fiery-coloured blooms that make a splash in the garden and may even alert the local fire brigade, the flowers can also be picked to put in a vase or to eat.

As kids we used to pick them, break off tip of the spur and suck out the sweet nectar (checking first for ants of course). Also try the flowers scattered on a salad or a cheese platter. The leaves are peppery but edible and the seeds can be a substitute for capers.

Detail from 'Still life Nasturtiums and Convolvulus' Margaret Preston 1921

Detail from ‘Still life Nasturtiums and Convolvulus’ Margaret Preston 1921

Nasturtiums in art and gardens
From my early encounter with nasturtiums at age five I’ve also seen them depicted in paintings. Margaret Preston painted them – there’s a nasturtium painting in the Art Gallery of NSW – and so did Monet. They are a feature of the fabulous central path in Monet’s garden at Giverny in France.
Most recently I admired a double form spilling out of an elegant urn in the garden of Powis Castle in Wales.

Buying and growing nasturtiums
The common nasturtium has orange flowers but there are forms with yellow flowers, velvety red petals and double petals. Seed packets are normally mixed colours, but you can discover varieties or selected forms in seed packets (such as ‘Empress of India’, ‘Alaska’, ‘Double Jewel Salmon’, ‘Peach Melba’ and the cute double yellow ‘Whirlybird Yellow’). You can also buy nasturtiums as seedlings at specialist nurseries and in garden centres.

Nasturtium 'Peach Melba'

Nasturtium ‘Peach Melba’

For the botanically minded, the commonly grown nasturtiums are classified as Tropaeolum majus. There are several other flowering species you may encounter in gardens including Tropaeolum pentaphyllum, Tropaeolum peregrinum and Tropaeolum speciosum. Another species, Tropaeolum officinale, better known as cress, is grown for its edible leaves.
These species and another 90 or so are all included in nasturtium’s own single genus family of Tropaeolaceae.

Common nasturtiums are very easy to grow and a top choice for kids. All you really need is a packet of seeds and a bit of soil. If you come across a form you like, take a cutting as nasturtiums grow from cuttings. Interesting forms may not come true from seed.


These plants are suitable for sun or even a shady spot (although they don’t flower so well in shade) and grow in the ground or in a container. If you are growing them in a container, select one of the compact forms such as variegated dwarf ‘Alaska Red’ or ‘Nana’, and keep the potting mix well watered.

Caterpillar on nasturtium leaves

Caterpillar on nasturtium leaves

Although they grow and spread prolifically, they do have a few challenges. They are attacked by cabbage white butterfly caterpillars. These juicy green caterpillars seem to like nasturtiums as much as I do. Aphids and twospotted mite may also feed on your nasturtiums, particularly if the plants come under stress – such as through drying out.

Yates Nasturtium 'Cherry Rose'



Now if you are inspired to try nasturtiums and want something a little different Australian Seed (australianseed.com) has a great selection of nasturtiums in lots of colours, and as well as several species. Also search Diggers Club (diggers.com.au) and Yates (yates.com.au) for interesting colours and forms.


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10 years ago

The story about the nasturtiums was a favourite of mine too, Jennifer, but I seem to recall there was a young girl involved in some way. Nasturtiums have remained a favourite since childhood and I love picking them at this time of the year as they are so bright and cheerful. Also love the way the rain forms fat globules on the flat leaves. It was great to hear about the different species and varieties.

Jennifer Stackhouse
Jennifer Stackhouse
10 years ago
Reply to  Linda

I would love to re-read the story Linda. I think there were children involved in the plot too! May be someone reading this blog can shed more light!

Linda Macaulay
Linda Macaulay
10 years ago

That story was “Uncle Ben’s nasturtiums”. In the same reader was the sad story of the little duck which failed to fly away for the winter and then had to swim around and around to keep a little space open in the ice … and the Little Red Engine which puffed “I think I can, I think I can” as it struggled up a large hill. What a triumph as he crested the hill and sped off down the other side. Ahh, memories of those first mind-opening tales of childhood. No wonder I went on to complete a Masters Degree in Children’s Literature about 40 years later when my twins hit the story age!!

Jennifer Stackhouse
Jennifer Stackhouse
10 years ago
Reply to  Linda Macaulay

Thank you for that extra information – I remember the little engine but not the duck (thank goodness). Strangely as I was just reading your post, a pair of wood ducks strolled by outside with their little babies. No chance of ice here. Fantastic that you have completed a Masters in Children’s Literature! How fascinating. I am sure many of the books we read as children have coloured our thoughts and passions as adults. Scratch most gardeners (female ones anyway) and you’ll find they loved the Secret Garden as a child! All the best Jennifer