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.