Plant Collector: Tropaeolum tricolorum

The dainty climbing delight of Tropaeolum tricolorum

The dainty climbing delight of Tropaeolum tricolorum

It does not, alas, have a common name but give yourself a huge pat on the back if you immediately identified it as a member of… the nasturtium family. I guess if you took the common nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) and scaled it down, you might see a faint similarity. Or maybe not. The flowers are tiny but oh so exquisitely detailed and abundant. Shaped perhaps like a 2cm long Chinese lantern with a tail or spur, they are orange red, tipped navy blue with a yellow frill. Tricolorum (or tricolor) means three coloured, of course. The lobed leaves are similarly dainty.

This is a plant from Chile and Bolivia which grows from tubers resembling baby potatoes. It is dormant in summer and autumn, coming into growth in winter and putting on its peak flowering in early to mid spring, after which it dies down very quickly. It is a climber so it needs something to cling to but because it is so light and with a short season, it doesn’t smother any plants it climbs up. We grow it in abundance in two of the narrow beds beside the house which are always problematic because they are so dry beneath the eaves. It has not been as happy in woodland areas so we think it needs good light levels. It certainly does not want to be in wet conditions or it will rot out when dormant. T. tricolorum should not be confused with its thuggish cousin, the red Tropaeolum speciosum which seeds down and is reputed to be a noxious weed in Scotland as well as being a problem in some NZ gardens. Any plant that can be a weed in Scotland and New Zealand is dangerous. We have never seen our tricolorum set seed although there are internet references to growing it from seed. We find it increases gently from the tubers. There are, by the way, over 80 different species in the nasturtium family, all from South America.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.