Saturday, May 16, 2015

Edible Flowers by Betty Cahill

Photo courtesy
Nothing sparks an "oh, my, how lovely" response more than beautiful, edible flowers in, on, or around food. It's a splendid presentation! Kids think it's cool to eat flowers (but only the ones you plant).

Just like the ancient spice trade, edible flowers have a long history with origins in Africa, South and Central America, Asia and all over Europe. Back then edible flowers were used primarily for medicinal or culinary uses; today it's mostly for aesthetics or garnish.
Centuries ago, determining safe flowers to eat was an exercise in trial and error or simple observation. People then realized that butterfly larvae ate the same petals and flowers that humans could eat. They found that flowers from culinary herbs like lavender, sage and oregano contained the matching — but less potent — properties of their leaves, so they were harmless to eat. Conversely, they learned that some plant leaves and flowers were poisonous, like monkshood (Aconite).
Photo courtesy
So what flowers are edible, and how should they be eaten or used? First, learn from reputable sources what flowers are safe to eat. Flowers can cause allergic reactions in some people, especially flowers in the composite family like English daisy and chamomile, so do your homework. Start here:

Always use pesticide-free flowers and not those collected from the roadside, or purchased from garden centers, florists or nurseries. In other words, grow them yourself or get them from a friend or reputable source that grows them for culinary use.

Pick flowers when they are at their freshest, just before they open (except daylilies) and early in the morning. Avoid faded, wilted and diseased flowers. Toss them on greens for a splash of color and a subtle second layer of flavor. Place larger flowers like gladiolas or hibiscus in a glass bowl and fill with your favorite dip. Be sure to remove the inside stamen and pistil first to prevent bitterness. More cooking ideas:

The edible-flower list is long, but some must-tries include:
Agastache foeniculum, photo courtesy
  • Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), the lavender flowers that bloom from June to frost are sweet with a strong licorice flavor.
  • Scented geranium, not the citronella variety, (Pelargonium spp), flowers bloom white, red, pink or purple, depending on type, and taste matches the type of geranium (mild lemon, lime, rose, mint).
  • Dianthus or pinks (Dianthus spp.) flowers in pink, white or red all summer and taste spicy with clove.
  • Lemon, lime and orange trees (usually grown indoors, but moved outside for the summer) have a citrus essence flavor, while Rose of Sharon shrubs range from mild nutty to cranberry citrus. 
  • Apple and plum tree flowers (if they don't get hit by early frost) taste like a mild, floral nectar.

 You've been eating unopened flower heads for years if you enjoy broccoli. Broccoli heads are harvested right before the flower buds open. If you miss the main harvest when the heads are green, the pretty bright yellow flowers are edible and delicious, too, most often used as a garnish or to brighten a salad.

Broccoli flowers, photo courtesy
Many other vegetable flowers are delightful and taste like a milder form of the vegetable — try radish, arugula, okra, squash and cauliflower flowers.

Read more on all things edible in the garden:

Betty teaches gardening classes in and around the Denver metro area.  She also writes the seasonal garden Punch List for The Denver Post.  Here’s her blog: