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A Feast of Color

July 14, 1996|JANET BUKOVINSKY

It's hard not to fall for nasturtiums, especially when they can be seen practically everywhere in Southern California, insinuating themselves into empty lots, over wire fences, down the poured-cement facades of auto-body garages, imbuing everything in their wake, no matter how pedestrian, with the cozy dishabille of an enchanted cottage garden.

Luckily for we who adore them, nasturtiums are fierce of will, tending to anchor themselves in any old sandy soil and sending out pea-green vines that twist and curl back on themselves. Scatter seeds, and success is almost guaranteed. But like the lover who could never reveal enough of himself to you, they flourish best when mistreated--nurture them with fertilizer or solicitous watering and you'll get almost no flowers, just leaves. Most gardeners prize nasturtiums for their blossoms, which come in tequila-sunrise hues of yellows and orange-reds and manage to be showy without ever turning garish. But souls possessed of simpler tastes know there is no friendlier-looking leaf than the nasturtium's peltate, or shield-shaped, foliage--dark with a round, barely scalloped edge.

Despite a stubborn tendency to "volunteer" in the most incongruous urban settings, the common nasturtium (member of the Tropaeolaceae family) has thrived for centuries in some very exclusive flower beds. A native of Peru, it became popular when displayed in Louis XIV's palace gardens of Versailles. The Jesuit padres of 18th-century missions at Santa Barbara and Baja California cultivated it, along with oleander and hollyhocks, wherever the sun was steadfast and drainage swift and sure. Today, hybrid varieties with fanciful names beckon from the pages of seed catalogs, tempting the gardener looking for just the right decorative vine to train up her trellis: pale butter-yellow "Moonlight" or "Sungold," apricot-scarlet "Peach Melba" or "Creamsicle"; regal, dark-leafed "Empress of India"; or "Tip Top Alaska" with its cool, white-splashed leaves.

There are bush types, too, whose habit is to mound upon their own airy network of vine to resemble the summer hat my mom wore to church in 1964 with her yellow sheath dress and short white gloves. Dwarf varieties like "Tom Thumb" are well-suited to window boxes and the big dreams of gardeners who lack an actual patch of land to tend. Most compelling and most purely demonstrating the classic form of nasturtium are the semi-trailing hybrids such as "Glorious Gleam," which meander freely, producing large double blooms amid those circular leaves.

Organic-minded vegetable gardeners tout nasturtiums' reputed ability to repel whiteflies, cucumber beetles and squash bugs when interplanted and used with a regular program of spraying with insecticidal soap. Some believe in their ability to lure the dreaded aphid away from fruit trees or other crops. Others pronounce such claims balderdash. I don't know about you, but any hint of conflict immediately makes me think of food. About nasturtiums' vaunted edibility, the point is not that they taste as luscious as, say, a strawberry, but simply that they can be eaten and that it's good fun to do so--not to mention the fact that no garnish sets off a goblet of mango sorbet to more stunning effect. Strewn over a salad of baby greens, a handful of nasturtiums looks prettiest with some purple in the bowl for contrast, perhaps chive blossoms or Johnny-jump-ups. The flavor of both flower and leaf (the latter equally as palatable) is somewhere between watercress and honeysuckle but closer to the peppery end of the taste scale. This accounts for the plant's name, which comes from Latin words that, roughly translated, mean "nose twister."

Nasturtiums now flavor mustards and vinegars, and both seeds and flower buds are used in pickles. A recent Williams-Sonoma catalog shows a pasta machine exuding a gossamer sheet of lasagna, nasturtium flowers captured fetchingly within the dough. Given their delicacy once plucked from the vine, the blooms sold at produce markets are packaged in clear plastic boxes. If you pluck your own, do so in the morning, when their water content is highest. Dabble in lukewarm water, blot on a clean kitchen towel and consume with all due urgency: in a sandwich of crustless bread with cream cheese and a paper-thin slice of purple onion, on a piece of warm toast drizzled with honey, or just popped in your mouth and savored for the happy fact that no one can be blase with a ruffled orange flower on the tip of her tongue.

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