weeds of golden gate park: nasturtium

nasturtium in golden gate park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Nasturtium growing in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

A weed is “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”  Nasturtium is my favorite weed, of the many growing in golden gate park.   Its gray-green, disk-shaped leaves and bright orange-red-yellow flowers are undeniably beautiful, and I love how it brightens the ground under the trees in many places in the park.  But it grows so rampantly that you can practically watch it smothering everything in its path.  I’m reminded of this George Price cartoon that I cut out of the New Yorker many years ago:



Originally from South America, the plants that we commonly refer to as nasturtium actually belong to the genus Trapaeolum (confusingly, the genus Nasturtium is claimed by watercress).   There are about 80 species of Trapaeolum and they have the family Trapaeolaceae all to themselves.  The species we know so well, the one that has happily naturalized in the U.S., is Trapaeolum magus (Garden nasturtium).  It’s originally from the Andes, ranging from Bolivia to Columbia.  Carl Linnaeus named this genus Tropaeolum reportedly because the plants reminded him of an ancient Roman custom.  After winning a battle, victorious Romans used to set up a trophy pole called a tropaeum and the armour and weapons of the vanquished foe were hung on this pole. Linneaus thought the round nasturtium leaves resembled shields and the flowers, blood-stained helmets.  Not a pretty story to attach to such a lovely plant!

A prettier story has to do with the phenomenon of “flashing flowers” associated with nasturtium and discovered by Linnaeus’ daughter Elizabeth.  At dusk the small orange flowers sometimes appear to “flash” like tiny lights.  It’s not an electrical phenomenon, but an optical illusion in the eye caused by the contrast between the brilliant orange flowers and the deep green of the surrounding foliage.  Perhaps related to the green flash that we sometimes see when a bright, orange sun sinks into the sea at sunset?

You have to wonder if someone planted the first nasturtium in Golden Gate Park (could it have been introduced by John McLaren)?  Or maybe it just crept in from the Richmond or the Sunset all by itself?


About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
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7 Responses to weeds of golden gate park: nasturtium

  1. sparrow says:

    Ha! Love this post. That cartoon is too funny 🙂 Now I’m wondering what will happen with the nasturtiam I just planted in my garden. Though I planted mint, too, which also apparently takes over, so maybe it’ll be a great battle.

    • Actually, I think it was your mentioning that you had planted nasturtium in your garden that focused my attention on them. They’re pretty easy to control in a garden; a lot harder in a park, unless the maintenance budget allows for a fleet of gardeners, which is rarely the case.

  2. milliontrees says:

    I like the range of warm color in the flowers, from yellow to deep orange. It’s a very color-coordinated plant. Orange and green complement one another beautifully. It grows quickly, but it’s easy to yank out. Not really difficult to get rid of, if you don’t want it in your garden. But in Golden Gate Park I would consider it a welcome dash of color in a fairly colorless landscape.

    Thanks for the interesting stories about the origins of its botanical name.

  3. Barbara Massey says:

    I love the addition of sketches. The nasturtium story is great, and aren’t they wonderful in salads? Skill with pen and pencil definitely runs in your family – parks and twins. Maybe one day you will combine the two.

  4. Stephen Kane says:

    Enjoyed this post! As a photographer I love nasturtium accenting the hillsides in the park. But, married to a gardener with a biology degree, I can never forget its status as a Weed. I’m memory-challenged when it comes to the names of things in the natural world, but one way I’ve remembered this weed-flower — unfair and anthropomorphizing though it may be — is with the alliteration “nasty nasturtium.”

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