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Edible flowers: Beautiful, fragrant, and flavorful

Alexia Miller is a freelance culinary arts writer pursuing a degree in print journalism at Penn State University.

Flavorful Flowers

The spring and summer months bring forth a bounty of beautiful flowers. From delicate pansies to bold sunflowers, they grace us with their color and fragrance, but what about their flavor? Though it may seem taboo to nibble on a floral arrangement, edible flowers have actually been a part of other cultures for centuries. Here is what you need to know to beautify your cuisine with beautiful, flavorful edible flowers.

Edible Flowers

Cultural use of edible flowers

Americans are becoming more savvy in including edible flowers in their dishes. However, edible flowers have been used in dishes by cultures all over the world for centuries. The Italian and Hispanic cultures make stuffed squash blossoms while some oriental dishes call for daylily buds. Rose petals are prevalent in Indian recipes and the French continue to make Chartreuse, a green liqueur, with carnation petals. Fortunately, you don't have to live abroad to include edible flowers in your meals, you just need to know which flowers to use.

What flowers are edible?

Increasingly more available in the produce department in the herb section, edible flowers are often sold in small packages. You can be assured that these flowers are edible, in addition to simply being pretty garnish. However, if you are interested in purchasing live plants or growing your own edible flowers, consider this list of plants with edible flowers:

  • Okra (has pretty red or yellow flowers with a mild sweet flavor)
  • Anise (lavender colored flowers with a sweet licorice taste)
  • Hollyhock (variable colors with a slightly bitterness)
  • Chive (flowers are lavender or white, with a strong onion flavor)
  • Dill (has yellow flowers that taste like dill)
  • English chamomile (these white and yellow flowers taste like apple)
  • Chervil (white flowers with a parsley-like flavor with hint of citrus and tarragon)
  • Begonia (colorful combinations that taste of citrus)
  • Mustard (yellow orange flowers that taste hot like mustard)
  • Chrysanthemum (yellow to white flowers with a mild flavor)
  • Squash/pumpkin blossoms (orange and yellow flowers with a raw squash flavor)
  • Dianthus (pink, white, and red flowers that taste spicy like cloves)
  • Rocket/Arugula (white flowers with a nutty, smoky taste)
  • Scented geranium (white, red, pink and purple flowers with a variety of flavors)
  • African marigold (white, gold, yellow and red flowers with a strong flavor)
  • Dandelion (yellow flowers with a bitter flavor)
  • Nasturtium (varies in color with a watercress and peppery flavor)
  • Tulip (various colors with a slightly sweet or bitter taste)
  • Pansy (variety of colors with a sweet flavor)
  • Violets (violet, pink or white with a sweet flavor)
And the flowers from any herb can be eaten. The flowers will taste similar to the herb.

Growing Edible Flowers

Growing flowers for culinary purposes is essentially the same as growing them for decoration. It is important to avoid using pesticides or anything else you don't want in your body. Besides that one precaution, grow your edible flowers in well-drained soil with a pH around 5.5 to 6 and include a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch. Water as often as necessary. Because of their delicateness, edible flowers may fare better if you grow them separated from your regular backyard garden. For detailed instructions on the planting and maintenance of edible flowers see The Edible Flower Garden by Rosalind Creasy.

"Poisonous" is Relative

Not all flowers are delicious nor even edible. But, toxicity depends on two factors: the chemical contents and the dosage. Some plants are used for medicinal purposes but are harmful when consumed in large doses. Here are some key points to remember when choosing flowers for a dish:
  • Don't use animal consumption as an indication of whether or not a flower is safe to eat. Animals react differently to some plants.
  • Sometimes only parts of a plant are poisonous, just make sure you know which parts. For example, the leaves of a rhubarb plant are poisonous but the stalks are edible.
  • Some plants are only poisonous at certain times of the year.
  • Don't assume that cooking flowers will get rid of all toxins.
  • Just because most members of a particular plant family are poisonous doesn't mean that all of them are toxic.
Here is an extensive list of poisonous flowers, if you have some questionable plants in your garden.

Preparing Flowers for the Plate

Flowers don't require much preparation assuming they were well-maintained in your garden (or bought in good condition and used while in their prime). Early picking: Pick your flowers in the early morning when the air is cooler. For long stemmed flowers, keep them in water just as you would for ornamental purposes. Short-stemmed flowers should be cut no more than three to four hours in advanced. Maintain moisture and cool temperatures: After cutting the blossoms, place between damp paper towels and store them in the refrigerator. Gently prepare for presentation: Gently wash the flowers and pick off any critters that may be hiding in the petals. Remove the stamens, styles and sepals of large flowers because they tend to be tough. Not sure about the structures of a flower? Check out this flower diagram.Give the flowers a taste-test: Most importantly, taste the flowers before putting them on the plate. Some flowers look better than they taste. Pair edible flowers with sweet and savory dishes: Pair sweet petals, such as lavender and rose, with quick breads, cakes, and other desserts. Partner savory buds, such as chive and zucchini flowers, with savory dishes. Another good rule of thumb is to use flowers of the herbs used in the dish.

Serving suggestions for edible flowers

In American cuisine, flowers are usually only used as garnish. However, creative chefs are branching out and taking advantage of the delicate flavors of edible flowers. Flower up your ordinary ingredients and dishes: A mixture of minced flowers can be added to herb butters, pancake, waffle and crepe batters or cheese spreads. Add edible flowers to salads: Whole buds or silky petals can be sprinkled over mixed greens for a simple garden salad. Make floral preserves: Sweet blossoms can be made into jellies or jams for scones and biscuits. Edible flowers add elegance: Candied petals dress up a simple vanilla cake or make an elegant treat on their own. Flower buds can also be frozen into ice cubes, giving you a colorful and functional décor for drinks. Make floral infusions: Flower-infused sweet syrups can be added to Italian sodas to poured on dessert cakes or fruit. Flower petals can be steeped in hot water for a delicate tea. The possibilities for edible flowers are endless and always pleasing to the eye. Try this recipe for a Spring Flowers Salad from Flowers in the Kitchen by Susan Belsinger, then start to experiment with edible flowers on your own.

Spring Flowers Salad

Serves 8 Ingredients:
8 cups of mixed salad greens (baby lettuces, chicory, endive, rocket, watercress, or spinach)
2 cups of assorted edible flowers
1 to 2 tablespoons tiny new mint leaves
2 to 3 dill sprigs
2 tablespoons snipped chives
1/4 cup olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper Directions:
1. Wash the salad greens and pat or spin dry. Tear large leaves into bite-sized pieces.
2. Wash herbs and pat them dry.
3. Gently rinse flowers and pat them dry. Remove all unnecessary part such as the stamens, styles and sepals of large flowers.
4. In a small bowl, combine the oil and vinegar with a fork, and season with salt and pepper.
5. Arrange the greens on a serving platter and scatter the herbs over them.
6. Place the flowers decoratively on top.
7. Stir the vinaigrette if necessary and serve immediately. Here are a few more recipes you can enhance with edible flowers!
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