To many gardeners, "neon" and "nasturtium" go together. That's because varieties with bright orange flowers glowing among green lily-pad leaves are the ones people remember the best. But not all of these casual plants that drape themselves gracefully over fences and trellises, spill from baskets, creep along path edges and around boulders, can be called neon. Nasturtiums now come in a rainbow of colors, from soft apricot and peach to pale yellow and creamy white, with mouthwatering names such as 'Creamsicle' and 'Vanilla Berry', or romantic names like 'Moonlight'. Old varieties with brilliant orange or gold flowers still remain garden favorites--'Empress of India' still reigns--but new dazzlers like fiery red 'Copper Sunset' are also coming on strong. And luxuriant foliage is no longer just apple green but ranges from purplish blue to green splashed with white.
Clearly, Tropaeolum majus is an annual (perennial in mild climates) with many virtues. "Nasturtiums are great for covering bare spots in the garden," says Renee Shepherd, who has grown many different varieties over the years. "They're easy enough for kids to grow from seed. They climb, they ramble, they spill. And the flowers are attractive to hummingbirds."
Nasturtiums are also at home in the kitchen. Leaves and flowers are edible, with a peppery, watercress flavor. As garnishes, they add bite to salads and color to open-faced sandwiches or vegetable dishes. Shepherd tosses chopped flowers and leaves into pasta along with chopped basil, chives, and parsley, then sprinkles the dish with parmesan cheese. Whirlybird mix is her favorite for this use because of all the color, though some cooks find 'Empress of India' more flavorful.
Blossoms are vibrant in bouquets too, especially when they're mixed in shades of deep orange-red, tangerine, and peach. They can last a week or more if you snip off the lower leaves before immersing stems in water.
What's more, these charmers are as easy to grow as they are versatile. We grew many varieties in Sunset's test garden--both mounding plants and climbers, spurred and spurless. Our favorite ones are listed at right.
For containers, low beds
Dwarf kinds form loose mounds about 10 to 15 inches tall--suitable for hanging baskets, patio containers, and low borders.
'ALASKA'. Rounded green leaves marbled with cream; flowers in a range of gold, salmon, orange, and mahogany.
'COPPER SUNSET'. Mounding plants with spurless, semidouble blooms of vibrant coppery red.
'CREAMSICLE'. Single-spurred flowers swirled orange and creamy white; deep blue-green leaves.
DWARF JEWEL MIX. Yellow, orange, and color blends; rich green leaves.
'EMPRESS OF INDIA'. Brilliant vermillion flowers; deep blue-green leaves. Plant grows in cascading mounds.
'PEACH MELBA'. Primrose yellow flowers with bright red throats.
'VANILLA BERRY'. Custard white blooms with paw-shaped, strawberry markings in the throat.
WHIRLYBIRD. Upward-facing blossoms of rich cherry-rose, cream, gold, mahogany, scarlet, tangerine, and a mix.
Climbing types reach 6 feet tall and can gracefully twine up fences and arbors, or ramble over the ground.
'AMAZON JEWEL'. Spurred blossoms come in shades of pumpkin, peachy rose, gold, ruby, and pale lemon. Variegated foliage softly marbled in green and cream.
GLORIOUS GLEAM MIX. Lots of large, often fragrant, single and semidouble spurred flowers in shades of yellow, gold-orange, and scarlet.
'MOONLIGHT'. Soft primrose yellow flowers and bright green leaves.
PLANTING AND CARE
Plant nasturtiums in spring in mild-winter areas (fall in the low and intermediate deserts). If a freeze is predicted, cover seedlings with row covers. In cold-winter regions, wait until weather warms to plant.
Plant from cell-packs, 4-inch pots, or seed, in a sunny spot (with afternoon shade inland) with well-drained soil. Set plants about 10 inches apart.
Sow seeds 1/2 to 1 inch deep; keep soil moist until seeds emerge. Thin to 12 to 18 inches apart (half that distance in containers).
Once established, plants do best with only moderate watering. Too much water and fertilizer prompts luxuriant foliage but fewer flowers.
Plants and seeds of many varieties, including Dwarf Jewel Mix, are widely sold in nurseries. Also try the following mail-order and on-line sources.
Cook's Garden, Box 5010, Hodges, SC 29653; (800) 457-9703 or www.cooksgarden.com. Eight varieties, including Glorious Gleam Mix and 'Peach Melba'.
Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, OR; (541) 928-9280 or www.nicholsgardennursery.com. Nine varieties, including Alaska Mixed, 'Empress of India', and 'Moonlight'.
Park Seed Company, Greenwood, SC; (800) 845-3369 or www.parkseed.com. Six varieties, including 'Alaska', 'Empress of India', 'Moonlight', and Whirlybird.
Renee's Garden, (888) 880-7228 or www.reneesgarden.com for a source near you. Six varieties, including 'Copper Sunset' and 'Vanilla Berry'.