“Be nasty to nasturtiums” is a bit of gardening advice that seems cruel for such a decent and delectable plant.

To be fair, the recommendation is meant to suggest that this plant can be successful even if it is paid little attention and left with less than perfect conditions. 

Nasturtiums are known for their heartiness and can be planted in poor soils. Low-nitrogen soils are good for producing lots of flowers and, strangely, rich soils with high nitrogen will result in fewer flowers and more leaves. Go figure.

But don’t get your nose out of joint over this particular plant, even if others have. The word nasturtium comes from the Latin roots ‘nasus’ meaning ‘nose,’ and “torquere’ suggesting twist. Thus, those beautiful and delicate flowers that we know as nasturtiums are really just nose-twisters — likely so named because of the peppery taste of the edible flowers and leaves.

Nasturtiums are not native to this country, though some say that they have become naturalized here in the U.S. With origins in the Andes Mountains, nasturtiums are well known throughout South and Central America. They have been planted and appreciated in this country since at least the mid 1700s. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed this flower in his garden in Monticello, though he referred to nasturtiums in his journals as a fruit, owning to the fact that he ate the ripening seeds.

Many parts of the plant are edible. The aforementioned green seeds can be used as a substitute for capers, and, during World War II, they were an easily acquired substitute for black pepper. The leaves, especially the young ones, are quite tasty and can be used in salads or other raw preparations. The flowers are a hit: fill raw ones with cheese, add the blooms to greens (red, yellow or orange varieties give you a rainbow of colors), or serve them stir-fried or sautéed for a burst of spicy flavor. 

Beyond taste, consider this plant for its nutritional value. The leaves and flowers are high in vitamins A, C and D. For vitamin C, choose nasturtiums over lettuce since it has 10 times as much as its leafy companion. Herbalists rave about its ability to heal respiratory and urinary tract infections as well as form new blood cells.

Gardeners like nasturtium for its ease in growing, and its use as a companion plant. Nasturtiums are planted with squash and cucumbers to repel the beetles that plague them, and are thought to attract predatory insects to eat other pests.

If you aren’t a fan of this nasturtium, try the other nasturtium. Though not related, nasturtium can refer to two distinctly different plants. The other nasturtium is Nasturtium officinale, also known as watercress. The only similarity between the two is their peppery flavor.

Wake up to the benefits of taste and health that this little plant will bring. Follow the suggestion of Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder, who advised: “A sluggish man should eat nasturtiums to arouse him from his torpidity.”

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.