Tropaeolaceae is a monogeneric (single genus) family of about 90 herbaceous annual or perennial species that are native to Central and South America. In the 18th century, Linnaeus developed the family’s scientific name from the Greek trophaion “trophy”, for the relevant species’ habit of climbing and resting on nearby plants prompted him to think of the helmets and shields that classical armies hung from pillars in order to signify and celebrate martial triumph. Species generally put forth large, solitary, and perfect “bisexual” flowers along with alternating peltate leaves that are either lobed or divided.
The genus Tropaeolum, includes among its ranks a number of popular ornamental garden plants, of which Tropaeolum majus and Tropaeolum peregrinum are only two. Though for botanists the term Nasturtium–which derives from the Latin for ‘a twisted nose’, and here engendered by a pungent taste–refers to the watercress plants of the mustard family, gardeners commonly employ the appellative with regard to Tropaeolum species in order to evoke some sense of the genus’s typically strong flavour, the primary source of which is an oil similar to that produced by their formally categorized counterparts. Plants generally put forth rounded leaves and showy five-petaled flowers equipped with a rich nectar tube that attracts hordes of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. For the most part, the common nasturtiums–each part of which is edible–thrive in full sun, though some species require a good deal more shade, particularly around their roots.
Tropaeolum speciosum–the perennial, deciduous climbing plant featured in today’s photos–grows in the well-drained and shaded soil of UBC’s E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden. Like the hardiest of the Tropaeolum species, Tropaeolum polyphyllum, the plant is native to Chile. In the ideal conditions of its native habitat, Tropaeolum speciosum, or flame flower, can grow to over 8 metres, much of the length of which is dressed with leaves of light or bluish green. Flowers bear 5 sepals, the lower 3 of which tend to grow longer than their higher counterparts. In late summer, plants put forth a bluish orb-shaped fruit that presses like royal insignia against the burgundy velvet robe formed by these sepals. Plants are hardy to a number of climates and conditions, zones 8 through 10, and they seem to require little sustained attention. In late summer and early fall the flowers start to wither, and, along with the leaves and stems, they eventually fall to the ground before the onset of winter.