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Celebrating broccoli and nasturtiums

Each year, the National Garden Bureau selects a flower and a vegetable to be celebrated, and this year's winners are nasturtium and broccoli _ two plants that grow extremely well in Florida. Old-fashioned nasturtiums are loved for their beauty and usefulness. The brightly colored flowers, usually in warm shades of yellow, orange and red, are beautiful in the garden, as a cut flower and as a garnish. The flowers, leaves and seeds are edible, and the leaves that are used to add a tart flavor to fresh salads contain a good portion of Vitamin C.

Pickled nasturtium seeds were carried in barrels by voyaging sailors of the 17th century. They mistakenly thought that eating them would combat scurvy. Pickled nasturtium seeds are still served in Mexico today.

Nasturtium was first found growing in Mexico and Peru, where it was used to flavor foods. European botanists shared seeds of the plant, and the English, who soon discovered its edibility, called it "Indian Cress."

The name nasturtium is a combination of the Latin word nasus, meaning nose, and tortum, meaning twist. It may have been called "nose twister" because the mustard oil contained in the leaves could bring a grimace to the face of the person smelling it.

Nevertheless, the plant has been in cultivation for more than 300 years, and several popular cultivars exist today. The National Garden Bureau recommends the following as a good sampling of the nasturtium's diversity of color and growth habits:

"Whirlybird" is a bushy, compact dwarf nasturtium that reaches only 1 foot in height. "Jewel," another dwarf, has semi-double blooms carried well above the foliage. "Jewel" is available as a mix or in a wide variety of single colors.

The "Gleam" series was an award-winner in 1935 and is still popular. Growth habits make "Gleam" an ideal choice for hanging baskets. The old-fashioned single-flowered varieties of nasturtium send forth 6-foot to 8-foot runners that will climb up a trellis or lattice.

Nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed and can be started directly in the garden. They are not fussy as to soil-type and seem to prefer a less-pampered lifestyle. They should be planted when all danger of frost is past. Choose a full-sun location and keep the soil moist.

Broccoli, a native to the Mediterranean, was until recently considered a minor crop, lacking popularity. Recent publicity has brought broccoli to the forefront as scientific studies have shown that eating it and other vegetables in the Crucifer family can reduce the risk of cancer.

I was raised on Broccoli cooked to mush and hated it until the popularity of raw vegetables, Chinese cooking and microwave cooking allowed me to savor its delicious fresh or just-cooked flavor.

Nutritious broccoli, I am told, contains more Vitamin C than an orange and is also a good source of Vitamin A, the B Vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and iron.

Like nasturtiums, broccoli has an interesting history. Catherine de Medici introduced broccoli (and forks!) to France in the mid-1500s. From there it was carried across the English Channel.

In The Herbal of 1633, the virtues of broccoli and its kin (including cauliflower, kohlrabi and cabbage) were praised as being "good for dim eyes and shaking palsies, troubled spleens and does preserve a man from drunkenness. . . and taketh away freckles, sunburn."

Reference to broccoli in North America has been traced back to 1775. Broccoli was listed as one of the vegetables George Washington grew at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson notes broccoli in his meticulous records of the extensive plantings at Monticello. It was not until the 1920s that broccoli was widely grown here.

Broccoli can be grown in Central Florida from August to January. It's not too late to plant it if you start immediately with transplants. Don't worry about a late frost _ broccoli is quite cold tolerant.

Good varieties for our area include Early Green Sprouting, Waltham 29, Atlantic, Green Comet and Green Duke. Broccoli matures in 55 to 70 days, and the heads should be harvested quickly.

If left too long, the heads will open into tiny yellow flowers. Most varieties will produce lateral heads after the central head is cut.

Raab, a relative of broccoli widely grown in Europe, deserves more attention here. The small leaves and loose heads are harvested and cooked together.

Sydney Park Brown is an urban horticultural specialist with the Hillsborough County Extension Service. Send written questions to her in care of the Extension Service, 5339 State Road 579, Seffner, Fla. 33584.