By Julie Segerstrom Master Gardener- Springtime brings long-awaited blossoms after bare months of winter. There´s color wherever you look. This year the color´s been extended with the extra long rainy season and lower than normal temperatures into May. Flowers—to cut, to enjoy, to eat? If you pick the right ones, yes, some flowers are edible.
The Romans used flowers in cookery as far back as 140 BC. In the Victorian age flowers were popular in foods and today, with the emphasis on fresh, organic and colorful produce, flowers are appearing again in foods. The cook with an eye for color will enjoy surprising guests with flowers enlivening a dish with lovely texture, flavor and beauty.
If you haven´t grown a flower in your own garden, thereby knowing its care, don´t eat it. Also, don´t eat flowers from florists, nurseries and garden centers, which may use chemicals to foster growth and lasting power. Additionally, never eat flowers growing along the roadside, possibly sprayed with herbicides. If you have allergies, please don´t eat flowers in order to avoid allergic reactions. If you enjoy a flower in a dish but haven´t eaten it before, enjoy only a few, so that if the flower doesn´t agree with your digestion, you´ll be spared discomfort. Never use a non-edible flower as a garnish.
To prepare edible flowers, wash the blossom thoroughly to remove any dirt or bugs. Drop the blossom into a bowl of ice water for 30-60 seconds. Drain on paper towels. Flowers are best used right away but if you need to prepare the flower ahead of time, wrap in wet paper towel and store in an airtight container. Longer stemmed flowers can be put in a glass of water if you plan to use soon after. When ready to use, remove the pistils and stamens (the reproductive parts inside the blossom) and trim any white part of the blossom next to the stem as it will taste bitter. You can remove petals and arrange them on a salad. Or drop smaller flowers into ice cube trays, freeze, and add to drinks.
The Allium family—flowering onions—is a great place to start your adventure with edible flowers. Alliums bloom from May to July, depending on the variety, and create drama in the garden with their distinctive shape and form. Most alliums have a ball-shaped bloom; some reach the size of tennis balls. The bloom may be tufted, spiky or clustered. Alliums like full sun, stand up to diseases and, best of all, are deer and gopher resistant. Why? Allium is Latin for garlic; the flavor may discourage herbivary. Allium´s over-400 species include leeks, shallots, chives, garlic and garlic chives. All members are edible; the flavor ranges from mild to strong. All parts of the plant are edible, with flowers having stronger flavor than leaves. As the seed heads develop, the flavor is even stronger. Use flowers on salads or the leaves cooked as a flavoring for soups. Chive blossoms have a light onion flavor and garlic blossoms impart a garlicky zing. Garlic flowers are milder than garlic bulbs and are good in salads.
Pansies are popular during the winter months and they´re lovely in salads, as are rose petals. Another common flower, the calendula—daisy-like in its bright yellow or orange color—is sometimes called poor man´s saffron and can be used to flavor soups, pasta, rice and herb butters.
The following herbs like full sun and can be used in cooking. Anise hyssop flowers are somewhat like a lavender spike. They´re used in Chinese dishes, have a delicate anise or licorice flavor, and are attractive as garnishes. Basil flowers can be sprinkled in salads and will vary, with the variety planted, from lemon to cinnamon. Bee balm has a shaggy-petalled blossom with a minty flavor and can be substituted for oregano. The leaves of bee balm can be used in tea as an Earl Gray flavor. The bright sapphire-blue borage flower is lovely with its distinctive star-like shape and delicate cucumber-like taste. Add it to drinks and salads as a decoration.
Soak carnations in wine and use as decorations on cakes and desserts, imparting a clove or nutmeg flavor. The chamomile flower adds a slight apple flavor to salads. Chrysanthemums can be blanched and scattered on foods after cutting out the base. Use citrus blossoms sparingly to impart lemon or orange flavor. Float cornflower or bachelor buttons in soups or use as decoration. Daylilies have a mild vegetable flavor between asparagus and zucchini. Stuff them like squash blossoms or use to dramatically hold dips or spreads. They look beautiful on cakes or salads but can have a laxative effect if too many are eaten! Dill and fennel flowers are edible.
You might not realize how many other flowers are edible. For instance, gardenia is known for its lovely fragrance but is also used to flavor jasmine tea. Gladiolus blossoms can hold dips or spreads. Some flowers are edible but not too tasty—hollyhock and impatiens are considered bland. Conversely, lavender´s sweet flavor can be used to flavor chocolate cake or ice cream. Or try it floating in champagne!
Innovative chefs today are using flowers to flavor their specialty sauces in four- and five-star restaurants. Use your imagination with edible flowers to create wonderful dishes to delight your friends and family. See you in the garden.
Julie Segerstrom has been a Master Gardener since 1996. She´s still learning how to ‘master´ the garden, and loves flowers and growing fresh vegetables.