Family: Tropaeolaceae (Nasturtium
it’s happened again. Every year
at this time I fall victim to a particular malady as I wander
through garden centers looking for bargains or maybe just a
little inspiration. There are always a number of fresh new
plants set out at mid-season, and often they are quite unusual.
This seems to be the time when growers stretch their offerings
beyond the garden standards available in spring. They might
be testing the waters. Perhaps they think if it sells now,
it might take root in the hearts of gardeners and move off
the shelves quickly next spring. But my heart is available
always, and hence I’m vulnerable to the malady I mention:
I find myself captivated by some beautiful plant that calls
to me now. Buy me, it sings from the garden-center
shelf. Ignore the fact that your beds are full already.
Ignore constraints posed by budgets and time. Buy me. Take
me home and plant me right now.
This year, the plant I think I hear singing to me has caused
me to reconsider my opinion of nasturtiums. I gave up the common
annual nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, years ago, when
I realized it seemed more interested in singing to aphids than
in appealing to me. Even though lovely new flower colors were
introduced every year, I enjoyed them only in other people’s
gardens or in commercially available salad mixes. The leaves
and the flowers are edible, and they share their common name
with another spicy plant: Nasturtium officinale, or
Where they are native—in South America—members
of the Tropaeolum genus are typically climbers, a
habit that’s clear from the way T. majus sprawls
through the flower bed and twines up through other plants if
given a chance to grow by the gardener and if ladybugs and
birds help it throw off the certain onslaught of aphids. Tropaeolum
peregrinum is in fact known as the canary bird vine—it’s
an annual climber that grows quickly to 12 feet in one season
here, if it’s the sort of summer we’re experiencing
this year. It does not grow so robustly during years when our
spring and early summer are cool and rainy. In any year, however,
it’s well worth growing from seed in late April for its
deep-green leaves and its yellow flowers with traces of red,
flowers that really do look—from a distance—like
little canaries. T. peregrinum seems not as susceptible
to aphids as T. majus—or perhaps it’s
just that the years I grew mine, my hose and I took special
care to blast the aphids off before they had a chance to settle
in. A bit of rubbing at them with gloved fingers was required,
too, as I recall.
I would like to
spot another canary bird vine—sometimes
it’s called a canary creeper—this year, since I
didn’t start seeds this past spring. What I’ve
found instead, however, is a local, in-ground example of the
plant that stole my heart in the garden center. It is Tropaeolum
speciosum, and unlike T. majus and T. peregrinum,
it is a tuberous perennial, rated dependably hardy to USDA
Zone 8. A gardener on the south side of Bellingham reports
hers is in its eighth year and will likely be in full bloom
If T. majus is the common nasturtium, then T.
speciosum must be the royalty of the clan. It is really
stunning, with dark leaves that appear almost blue and very
beautiful red flowers that are reportedly followed by berries
of blue encased in dark red. It is much admired and widely
cultivated in Europe, where it is known as the flame vine.
Said to be tricky to grow and hard to establish, it is also
reputed to be quite an enthusiastic rambler once it takes
hold, winding through large hedges and completely covering
small shrubs in one season. It has become a pest plant in
New Zealand. Therefore, please note this serious disclaimer:
because it is a perennial likely to be hardy here and because
it is said to appreciate the climate we have, grow it with
awareness and proceed with caution. Many noxious weeds started
their local careers as much-admired ornamentals.
If you do decide
to give it a watchful try—I have, and
I’ll keep you posted on progress if you wish—you
can find small starts now, with no tuber yet developed. There
are also a few mail-order sources that offer very limited numbers
of tubers for spring planting. Give your T. speciosum conditions
just like those you’d provide to clematis. The roots
and base of the plant should be in cool shade; and the top
should receive full sun. Keep an eye on it, and be prepared
to keep it in bounds and perhaps prevent it from going to seed.
Be ready with the hose, too, and put yourself on aphid alert.
Remember to blast them off before they have a chance to establish
a colony. Don’t overwater your flame vine—all the
nasturtiums have low water needs—and certainly don’t
overfeed it, or you’ll have lush foliage and few flowers.
and the flowers of T. speciosum are what will certainly
steal your heart, if it’s anything like mine.