Fragrant & Edible Flowers
I recently saw a wonderful old cookbook from pioneer days that was all about edible flowers. Those hard working women may have been living in cabins with dirt floors, but they still wanted to serve their friends lovely tea party treats. I paged gently through the crumbling old book, enchanted by the elegant etchings and charmed to see how many old fashioned garden favorites had made their way West with the wagons. Alyssum and calendula, roses and violets, all were discussed in curly copperplate; there was page after page of heritage forms now eagerly sought by avid hortheads like me.
My own garden holds many of the same fragrant, edible flowers that trimmed those long-ago cakes. These days, florally decorated food is as trendy as ever, but the wise cook will do a little research before covering a cake or garnishing a salad with garden gleanings. For one thing, glossy magazines and cookbooks are not always your best guide to which flowers are safe to eat and which can cause serious illness. I’ll never forget the gorgeous photo showing a deadly toxic angel’s trumpet (Datura or Brugmansia) blossom spilling over with a tumble of fruit salad. Pretty, but, yikes! Bad, bad idea. I’ve also seen lovely cakes topped with baby daffodils and lily-of-the-valley, both toxic enough to send an incautious nibbler to the bathroom if not the ER.
A Little Homework
These days, publishers are more savvy (and readers perhaps more litigious), but it’s still worth taking time to check up on toxicity before mingling plants and food. Though some flowers are not dangerously toxic for most people, if eaten, they can cause irritation even in the less-sensitive. Thus, when you see a purple calla lily loaded with rosy shrimp salad in a lush photo spread, do try the recipe but use a non-toxic daylily instead (stamens removed first).
All cautions observed, quite a number of common vegetable bed and ornamental border flowers are lovely to look at and tasty to boot. Which flowers are the safest for kitchen play? For starters, please remember that no flower is safe to eat unless it has been organically grown. This means that NO chemical herbicides or pesticides have been used on or around the entire plant. Rose fertilizers that contain systemic toxins are included in this category, as are any fertilizers of the weed-and-feed variety. This usually rules out store bought flowers, most of which have been drenched in pesticides (especially if flown in from other countries). This also means that edible flowers on plants that were brought home from nurseries and garden centers are not safe to eat unless they have been grown organically or sustainably (without toxins). Fortunately, it’s easy to grow your own edible annuals from seed, from calendulas to pansies and violets.
Always Remove Pollen
In addition, for some people, eating pollen can trigger allergies or even asthma. To be safe, remove the pollen bearing parts of each edible flower (the pistils and stamens). The sepals or calyx should also be removed from all flowers except the viola/violet clan (pansies, Johnny-Jump-Ups, violets and violettas). To make edible flowers safer still, gently immerse them in tepid water for a few minutes. Loosely wrap them in a tea towel, place them in a salad spinner and give them a whirl. Flowers that won’t be used right away can be stored, still loosely wrapped in the towel, in the vegetable crisper drawer in the refrigerator for up to a day.
Grow Your Own
Here are a few of my own favorite edible flowers, all easily grown and either long lived or apt to self-sow. Most will be equally popular with pollinators, from bumble bees to hummingbirds.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
This pollinator favorite is also called licorice mint for the mild, spicy flavor of both the foliage and the tubular blossoms. Both can be used as a scented, flavorful garnish for all sorts of dishes, from lemonade to poached salmon to green or fruity salads.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
In the cool Northwest, calendulas bloom through the year. Use the petals, fresh or dried, to add a gentle bite to soups and salads. Well chopped, the petals add color and flavor to rice dishes (much like saffron). Feed flowers to chickens for deep golden egg yolks.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Honey-scented chive blossoms have a decidedly oniony flavor that adds snap to soups, sandwich spreads, and salads. Break up the clustered blossoms and scatter individual florets over rice or pasta dishes for garnish.
Daylily (Hemerocallis species)
Common in Chinese cookery, fresh daylily blossoms or dried buds can be used year round. Buds are eaten just before they open, when in full color, and taste rather like green beans. Open, they taste mildly sweet; fill pink daylily flowers with colorful melon balls or stuff yellow daylilies to make elegant, individual pesto potato salads.
Mint (Mentha species)
Add fuzzy blue mint flowers to lemonade or fruit salad and use them to garnish chocolate ice cream treats. They also work well in curries, rice dishes, and green salads or with steamed vegetables. The leaves of many kinds of mint are decorative and tasty too.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Lovely in salads, nasturtiums can also be used to garnish salmon or chicken dishes. Slightly astringent and peppery, nasturtium flowers work best in savory dishes. Layer slabs of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzle with balsamic vinegar and garnish with golden nasturtiums.
Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana)
Velvety pansies are for thoughts, so use them to tell dear ones that you think about them often. The petals have a soft, minty flavor that lends itself to sweet or savory dishes. Use them to trim tortes, to garnish herbed tuna, or tossed into a quick curry.
Rose (Rosa species)
Sweet and fragrant rose petals are an elegant garnish for game hens or fish. Rosa officinalis, the apothecary rose, is one of the nicest, but almost any fragrant rose will taste sweet. Sumptuous in summery salads, rose petals can also grace any and all kinds of desserts.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Try sliding some culinary sage flowers under the skin of turkey or chicken, along with a few sprigs of rosemary. The flowers have a warm, herby flavor with a hint of heat. Toss orange slices and fennel with sage flowers and slivered sage leaves.
Signet or Threadleaf Marigold (Tagetes signata
or T. tenuifolia)
Spicy, lemon-scented signet marigolds are tastier than most of their kin. The flavor is somewhat like tarragon. Try the petals in carrot and orange salad, mash some into deviled eggs, or sprinkle petals over potato soup.
Squash Blossom (Cucurbita species)
Toss these pretty flowers into stews, fry them in fritters, or stuff them with herbed goat cheese. The flower flavor is gently green. New tips of young shoots often taste slightly salty and crunchy, so use those, too.