Tropaeolum majus

Tropaeolum majus
As a botanical painter I have a wish list, many miles long, of numerous plants I’d like to document each season. After our interminable, monochromatic northeastern winters when spring finally arrives I’m bursting with impatience to select my specimens and get to work. Most of the early plants I encounter in my neighborhood are various shades of white, pale pinks, pastel mauves — snowdrops, lily-of-the-valley, hyacinths, magnolias. Since botanical illustration is so meticulously detailed, commanding scientifically accurate visual information, it is, alas, painstakingly slow. So my wish list stays as long as ever!

Spring blooms show new and different faces every few days — here today, gone tomorrow. As I usually need four to eight weeks for any single painting I can never keep up. By the end of spring my pallette is yearning for a change and when I look outdoors bright green shields like miniature lily-pads are twining and spreading, basking in the sun. In their midst splashes of saturated color, almost blinding in their intensity, make every other growing thing pale in contrast. They insist it is now their turn.

I study them closely, observing the sinuous stems, translucent with sap, and the way they branch out to support leaves of varying sizes, some quite enormous, the veins forming harlequin patterns. The buds show up with a little spur, curling like a comma. And then they unfurl, slowly, tantalizingly, opening to reveal dark guiding tracks on two petals leading to nectar sacs while the three remaing serve as a landing pad for a visiting bee. When the petals eventually wither and drop, a seed remains — pale green, ridged, globular.

It is my task to chronicle this story, as faithfully as I am able, in all its various phases. One entire life span, albeit one short season for a commonplace plant, and yet how is my own existence any different, I wonder, when measured against the duration of generations gone and those yet to come. These are the thoughts that occupy my mind as my eyes rest upon the plant that defies me to communicate its unique features on to paper with water, paint and brushes.

Commonly — and mistakenly — known as nasturtium, Tropaleolum majus is a popular favorite in gardens, borders, planters, window boxes with bursts of fiery yellows, oranges and reds. It asks for very little, thriving in poor soil and is not especially appealing to pests, except garden slugs. Native to Peru, by the 1680s, via Spain, it was well established as a garden plant in Europe.

To Linnaeus, the venerable giver of plant names, the broad circular leaves suggested battle-shields and the the flowers reminded him of helmets stained with blood. From the Latin for trophy, Tropaeum, the plant derived its name. Its resemblace to the peppery taste and flavor of watercress, which actually belongs to the genus Nasturtium, Latin for pungency, led to its other name — Indian cress. The brilliant flowers and leaves serve as a garnish in salads while the seeds are a good substitute for capers. All parts of the plant were used in folk remedies and legend has it that a poultice from the stems and leaves if applied to the head could prevent baldness!

Every spring I sow the seeds which eventually result in intense flame-colored flowers and magnificent leaves, spreading, climbing, trailing their way through my low-maintenance garden, smiling back at the sun.

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