Notes from the Apothecary: Nasturtium
My seven year old suggested this beautiful flower for November’s Apothecary notes. He planted some seeds towards the end of summer, and despite us worrying that it was a little late for our reasonably cool climate, they flourished, and I have seen many more across my home town this month, trailing out of gardens like fire tipped vines.
Confusingly, the Latin name nasturtium refers to a type of watercress. Whilst delicious, I am going to ignore the watercress in favour of tropaeolum, the plant we commonly refer to as nasturtium. The plant originated in South America, and was imported to Mediterranean Europe at least as early as the 16th century, although there are some anecdotes about the round, shield-like leaves being used on trophy poles in Roman times, which would indicate it left South America much earlier than the 16th Century.
The Kitchen Garden
There are about 80 species of nasturtium, but for our purposes I’m going to concentrate mainly on tropaeolum majus, the species most people will have in their gardens with the round, plate like leaves and bright yellow, orange or red flowers that start with a funnel flaring out into five, flat petals. The joyous thing about this plant is it is entirely edible. The leaves and flowers can both be eaten raw, and have a slightly peppery taste, which is similar to rocket or indeed the watercress that gives the plant its common name. The seed pods can be pickled, and have been likened to capers when used in this way.
For those who grow their own veg and herbs, plant some nasturtiums alongside your plot, as they will help keep away some pests, and even encourage ‘good’ predators, such as ladybirds, who will eat aphids and help keep your crops healthy. Also, cabbage white butterfly caterpillars love nasturtium, and the butterflies will often lay their eggs on the nasturtiums and ignore the cabbage plants; a behaviour which can be of enormous benefit to gardeners and farmers.
The flowers are relatively high in vitamin C, yielding about the same amount as parsley but with much more dramatic presentation! Vitamin C is great for boosting the immune system and is necessary for cellular repair.
Older remedies include mixing nasturtium with flax and honey, to remove pitted nails. (Dioscorides, Materia Medica). Mrs Grieve discusses the benefits of the oils of watercress, which are similar to what she refers to as the ‘true’ nasturtium, or Indian cress. She advises these oils can be used for promoting appetite, cleansing spots or blemishes on the face, and as an antiscorbutic; a food to prevent scurvy, which is backed up by the high content of vitamin C in the flowers.
The plant has also been indicated as a tonic for urinary tract infections, coughs and chest problems and as a mild antiseptic.
Some green veg, yellow carrots, and eggs contain a substance called lutein, which may have a function in maintaining healthy eyes. The humble nasturtium (the species with yellow flowers) stands alone in this field of research, as having the highest yield of lutein of any edible plant that we are aware of currently. This is an amazing fact, and if more research is done into the benefits of lutein in humans, the nasturtium could end up being a very important medical plant indeed.
The Witch’s Kitchen
The nasturtium is an extremely hardy plant, putting up with dry soil or soaking conditions, and even surviving altitudes of over 10000 feet. The roots live through freezing winters even when the leaves and flowers die away. This plant represents ‘toughing it out’; storing up your energy reserves for when they’re needed and biding your time. They are the knowledge that sometimes we face setbacks, and that’s OK. It’s OK to fall back, regroup, re-plan or approach a difficult problem from another angle. They also represent tenacity, wilfulness, and never giving up, all associated with the element of fire which is often attributed to this plant with its glowing, sun-like flowers.
The associations with sun can be drawn out in many ways; for example, you could leave these flowers as an offering for Lugh, the Celtic god with the shining visage who is often seen as a sun god. He is also a master of all trades and skills, from martial arts to music, so the nasturtium here becomes a symbol of versatility and prowess.
Experiment with the flower, and the leaves, and see how they speak to you. Remember, the leaves and flowers will fade and wilt once picked, so time your plant-picking so you can use the parts as soon as possible.
Making a meal with the nasturtiums can be a magical affair, using the flowers to bring the warmth of the sun into your meals, and the leaves to bring a peppery spice which also speaks to us of fire, heat and the passions of creativity and love. Focus on your intent whilst cooking or preparing your dishes, or murmur blessings over the meal as you decorate it with the glorious flowers.
Home and Hearth
Nasturtium flowers make a great addition to the south of your sacred space or altar, especially at this time of year between autumn and winter, when other bright flowers may be less available. The flowers can be pressed or dried, and used as a permanent representation of the sun to last you throughout the winter. You could keep one of the orange flowers between the pages of a journal, and use it as a focus for meditation, which is particularly useful for those who suffer from seasonal adjustment disorder, to remind yourself of the returning spring and that there is colour and brightness even in the darkest months.
The leaves grow on long creepers, and although they are not evergreen, if collected before they wilt, you can use these creepers much like ivy to decorate your house or magical areas; a symbol of the green that lives even in the depth of winter. Nasturtium leaves have the added bonus that as well as being decorative, you can chuck them in a salad and eat them!
I Never Knew…
The nasturtium is actually a brassica, just like cabbage!
*Image credits: Wikipedia
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.
She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.
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