Thursday, 4 August 2016

ALL ABOUT NASTURTIUMS

“One trophy is good, but two are better. That way, when a hero wears his medals on his chest, at least his steps are level as he walks by.” - Johan Cruyff

Tropaeolum majus (garden nasturtium, Indian cress or monks cress) is a flowering plant in the family Tropaeolaceae, originating in the Andes from Bolivia north to Colombia. The species has become naturalised in parts of the United States (California, New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut). It is of cultivated, probably hybrid origin, with possible parent species including T. minus, T. moritzianum, T. peltophorum, and T. peregrinum. It is not closely related to the genus Nasturtium (which includes watercress).

The first Tropaeolum species was imported into Spain by the Spanish botanist Nicolás Monardes. He published an account in 1569 entitled “Joyful News out of the Newe Founde Worlde” in which he described, among other things, the plants and animals discovered in South America. The English herbalist John Gerard reports having received seeds of the plant from Europe in his 1597 book “Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes.”

Tropaeolum majus was named by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who chose the genus name because the plant reminded him of an ancient custom. After victory in battle, the Romans used to set up a trophy pole called a tropaeum (from the Greek tropaion, source of English “trophy”). On this the armour and weapons of the vanquished foe were hung. Linnaeus was reminded of this by the plant as the round leaves resembled shields and the flowers, blood-stained helmets. The common name “nasturtium” means “that which makes your nose twist” because of the pungent smell of the leaves.

It is a herbaceous annual plant with trailing stems growing to 1 metre long or more. The leaves are large, nearly circular, 3 to 15 centimetres diameter, green to glaucous green above, paler below; they are peltate, with the 5–30 cm long petiole near the middle of the leaf, with several veins radiating to the smoothly rounded or slightly lobed margin. The flowers are 2.5–6 cm diameter, with five petals, eight stamens, and a 2.5–3 cm long nectar spur at the rear; they vary from yellow to orange to red, frilled and often darker at the base of the petals. The fruit is 2 cm broad, three-segmented, each segment with a single large seed 1–1.5 cm long.

The Elizabeth Linnæus Phenomenon (Das Elisabeth Linné-Phänomen), is the name given to the phenomenon of “Flashing Flowers”. This is seen especially at dusk, when the orange flowers may appear to emit small “flashes of light”. Once believed to be an electrical phenomenon, it is today thought to be an optical reaction in the human eye caused by the contrast between the orange flowers and the surrounding deep green. The phenomenon is named after Elisabeth Christina von Linné, one of Carl Linnaeus's daughters, who discovered it at age 19.

The plant is widely cultivated, both as an ornamental garden flower and as a medicinal plant. It is listed as invasive in several areas, including Hawaii, Lord Howe Island, New Zealand. Nasturtiums are also considered widely useful companion plants. They repel a great many cucurbit pests, like squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and several caterpillars. They have a similar range of benefits for brassica plants, especially broccoli and cauliflower. They also serve as a trap crop against black fly aphids, while attracting beneficial predatory insects.

All parts of the nasturtium plant are edible. The flower has most often been consumed, making for an especially ornamental salad ingredient; it has a slightly peppery taste reminiscent of watercress, and is also used in stir-fries. The flowers contain about 130 mg vitamin C per 100 grams, about the same amount as is contained in parsley. Moreover, they contain up to 45 mg of lutein per 100 gr, which is the highest amount found in any edible plant. The unripe seed pods can be harvested and dropped into spiced vinegar to produce a condiment and garnish, sometimes used in place of capers.

In the language of flowers the nasturtium flower means “conquest; victory in battle”; the seed pods indicate “maternal love, charity;” while the leaves mean “patriotism, love of one’s country”.

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