We’d been looking all over for nasturtium seeds or seedlings at places like Good Earth Greenhouse and Empowering Gardens in Forest Park, as well as at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market. No luck. Apparently, everyone is planting nasturtiums this year. We’d pretty much given up our hunt for these delicate and colorful flowers.

Then, on a daily hike around Oak Park, we saw in the window of Lickton’s bike shop  (310 Lake St.) a sign that announced  “Free nasturtium seeds.” We walked in and owner Bob Lickton gladly offered us a bag of nasturtium seeds that he’d collected from his garden.

“I’ve been working with nasturtiums for three or four years now,” Lickton told us. “I collect the seeds at the end of the year so that I can grow flowers indoors throughout the winter. When there’s snow on the ground, we still have flowers – we put them in our front window. The flowers don’t know what season it is, and we had flowers December through March.”

After the first frost, nasturtiums develop seeds; when the seed pods drop off, Lickton collects them. He told us he had about a thousand seeds to give away this year; we got a packet of twenty or so and planted them when we got home. “Just push the seeds into the ground with your finger,” Lickton advises. “Cover them up with a little dirt and water them. People say you don’t need fertilizer, but we always use a little. They’ll blossom in about fourteen days.”

So why do we like nasturtiums? Well, they’re lovely flowers, of course, but you can also eat them. We enjoy nasturtiums as a garnish or mixed into summer salads; as I find salads generally less than enthralling, I’m always looking for any way to make them more appealing.

On a summer salad of just lettuce and tomatoes, a few nasturtium flowers add visual interest, and we like the way they taste. The flowers and even the leaves have a light peppery tang, somewhat like mustard greens picked early in the season. They add a pleasant floral accent and a whimsical dimension to a bowl of even the most pedestrian vegetables.

We usually grow our own nasturtiums, though in a pinch we’ve bought small plastic containers of the fresh flowers at places like Whole Foods. They’re comparatively expensive, so it’s better to grow you own.

When making a salad with nasturtiums, we recommend a vinaigrette, something light and clean tasting, rather than a dollop of, say, ranch or blue cheese dressing. You want to be able to see and savor the flowers. And when adding the flowers, just a few sprinkled on top, along with some chopped nasturtium leaves, is all you need (the leaves are intense, so go lightly with those).

When the frost hits and you have seed pods to harvest, you can hold onto the seeds as Lickton does or store them in vinegar; the seeds can then be used throughout the winter as a type of caper that you can use on deviled eggs…or in a salad.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...