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The nasturtium (Tropaeoleum majus) has been chosen as the Medicinal Plant of the Year 2013 by a group of organisations in Germany dedicated to protecting plants and the environment. The plant originates in South America where the Incas used nasturtium extracts to treat pain and injuries. The plant is a source of vitamin C and also contains glucosinolates, which are responsible for the tangy taste of the leaves and flowers. These are transformed, in the body, into compounds that have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and are good for the circulation. This is why nasturtium products are used in herbal medicine to treat respiratory and urinary tract infections. 

Origin

The plant that we know as the nasturtium (Tropaeoleum majus) came originally from the Andes in Peru and Bolivia, but related species are also found in the cooler regions of Central and South America. The first plants are thought to have been brought to Europe in the late 16th century. The nasturtium’s ability to grow and flower exuberantly on poor soil soon made it popular, especially in monastery gardens. Nowadays, with many hybrids and colours in addition to the familiar oranges, yellows and reds, it’s widely grown around the world. The English name comes from Latin and translates as ‘nose twister’, maybe implying that the original varieties had a far stronger peppery smell.

In the garden

Nasturtiums like a sunny spot, but there are varieties that will tolerate some shade. They’re not frost hardy so they must either be allowed to self seed or be grown from seed each year. Nasturtiums flower from June to October and the poorer the soil the more prolifically the plants will flower. On rich soil they produce a mound of leaves and few flowers. The climbing forms produce long tendrils which are useful for covering any garden eyesore. They’re recommended as a companion plant for cabbages because their leaves and flowers seem to taste better to the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies than your prized cabbages.

In the kitchen

The flowers and the fresh, young leaves are edible. You can enjoy their fresh peppery taste from early summer through to autumn. Finely chopped leaves add colour and bite to bread and butter, salads, herb sauces and dips. They’re delicious in omelettes and stir-fries or sprinkled over boiled potatoes. The flowers have a far milder taste; use them to add a splash of colour to salads, soups and even desserts. The flower buds and fresh seeds can be pickled in vinegar and used like capers to add their sharp flavour to sauces, salads and antipasti. Enjoy them in moderation because of the high oxalic acid content.

Source: Heike Kreutz, www.aid.de

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