Many people enjoy cooking with fresh locally grown produce or even grow home gardens for fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs. But did you know there are various species of edible flowers you can gather or plant to add to your repertoire?
While the practice of cooking with edible flowers has been around since the days of Julius Caesar, you may never have thought to try eating the plants in your back yard before now. Edible flowers can add a dash of color, a unique flavor or a decorative finish to many dishes and are often used atop pastries or in drinks for a touch of pizzazz.
Be aware that not all flowers are edible—in fact, some are quite poisonous—and also that those with spring allergies could experience strong allergic reactions to eating flowers, so please be mindful in your experimentation. Here are just some of the many species of edible flower, along with descriptions of its flavor, suggestions for preparing and cooking, and where to purchase.
Arugula flowers: These have a peppery flavor and can be used in savory dishes or salads.
Black Locust Flower: These flowers bloom for only one to two weeks in mid to late spring, depending on temperatures. The legume’s flower is pea-like and great in stir-fry dishes.
Borage Blossoms: These blue star-shaped flowers taste a bit like cucumber, which is why they’ve been used in salads since the Elizabethan Age. They’re also delicious in lemonade and refreshing cocktails like Pimm’s Cup and gin and tonic.
Calendula: Known as “poor man’s saffron,” the sunset-hued marigold flower does taste like saffron. However, to bring out the flavor it’s best to sautee in olive oil. Uncooked, the petals have a more subtle, slightly spicy taste and can add a unique flavor note to deviled eggs.
Carnations: These range from a peppery flavor to somewhat broccoli-like depending on the color, and they are the “secret” ingredient in a French liquer called Chartreuse. Pretty to look at, carnations are often steeped in wine to make a candy or used to garnish desserts thanks to their nutmeg and clove-like properties.
Chives: While the chive plant is already used in many recipes, it sprouts pretty lavender flowers that are also edible, with a mild onion flavor and aroma. Use them whole or separate into individual petals.
Clover: A common lawn weed that is sweet and makes a great tea. White clover is better for this use than red, but make sure you pick a fresh one and not one that has been treated with lawn chemicals. Some people can be allergic to clover, so please be careful.
Chrysanthemums: The flowers are commonly brewed in tea, while the greens are used in stir fry or soup. These can be very peppery or bitter especially in the base of the flower, so remove this part and just use the petals for a milder flavor.
Dandelions: With sweet honey-like yellow petals that can be eaten raw or cooked, the green parts are more Vitter and can be added to salads or avoided altogether. Some folks even use dandelions to brew a unique wine. Do not pick dandelions that are near a road as they are likely to be covered in weed killer or other pesticides.
Hibiscus: Both tart and sweet, hibiscus petals have a cranberry-like flavor that makes them perfect for teas and cocktails. Drop fresh hibiscus buds into a glass of champagne and wow your guests as they bloom before their eyes from the effervescence.
Johnny-Jump-Ups: These have a minty flavor almost like bubble gum. Serve them on cake or with a soft mild goat cheese.
Lavender: Sweet and slightly perfumed-tasting, lavender works well when the buds are sprinkled in champagne and cocktails or over desserts like chocolate cake. One reader even used lavender as the theme for their wedding, with dried sprigs on each table in little antique glass jars and baked into the wedding cake as well as for decoration atop the confectionary marvel.
Nasturtium: With spicy petals, buds and leaves, these gorgeous flowers have a slightly peppery taste, similar to watercress, which makes them perfect for summer egg rolls. You can also stuff a whole flower with a savory mousse, enjoy them with beef carpaccio or try on crostini with olive oil, salt and pepper. Hundreds of years ago, people used nasturtium in place of pepper.
Pansies: With a slightly grassy or minty flavor, pansies work well in herb-flavored summer cocktails and fruit salads. Unlike some other edible flowers, you can easily eat the entire pansy due to its mild flavor, making them popular for cake toppings and appetizers or as a colorful addition to salads. For a quick, easy and festive summer hors d’oeuvre, spread some cheese on a small cracker and top with a whole pansy.
Redbud: These purple-pink tree flowers seem to be everywhere when they bloom in the spring. The fully opened flowers are tart and slightly sweet.
Roses: While roses have the signature strong floral scent, their flavor is more subtle and fruity, lending itself well to everything from soups and salads to teas, jams and desserts.
Sage flowers: With their soft yet sweet savory flavor and beautiful color, sage flowers add dimension to a variety of dishes. In summer, pair them with lemon and other garden treats in a popsicle for a surprisingly refreshing treat.
Squash blossoms: With a mild raw squash taste, try lightly dusting the flower with cornstarch and deep frying for a fresh-from-the-garden treat!
Sunflowers: While the buds are still tightly wound, they actually taste like artichokes. Later, you can sprinkle the leaves in a salad and of course eat the seeds or use them to feed the birds!
Violets: In Europe, violet flowers have a long history of culinary use that includes violet flower tea, candied violets, and violet flavored chocolate. The American variety is not as sweet but can be used in a similar manner. With a sweet floral taste or what some have described as somewhat of an apple flavor, violets are the perfect companion for everything from salads to iced drinks. They are particularly beautiful when crystallized and used to top frosted cakes or other desserts and can also be frozen into ice cubes for decorative drinking.
Wood sorrel: These flowers come in yellow, pink and white and are sour in flavor. Great on salads or seafood, use them anywhere you might typically season with lemon.
Zucchini Blossoms: The bright yellow flowers of the zucchini plant have a delicate and slightly sweet taste. Enjoy them stuffed with herbs and goat cheese or on a pizza with fresh pesto in the summertime.
Planting some flowers in your vegetable plot will help in attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies during the growing period as well as adding a pop of color. They can also help protect the soil in your garden bed from heat and other weeds.
“It’s such a cool concept,” said Margaret Myers of Little Brook Farm in Ruckersville. “For one thing, flowers make a garden grow better. They attract beneficial insects, birds, and help to break up the easy life of common garden pests, since most insects or animals that thrive on lettuce dislike zinnias.”
While Little Brook Farm does not have any specific plans to sell edible flowers this year, Myers encourages those with the space to experiment in their own gardens, breaking up rows of crops with rows of flowers to keep the soil healthy.
“And eating flowers is so fun,” she said. “It makes me feel like a butterfly or a cow!”
When cooking with flowers, be sure to get them from your produce section, farmer’s market or grow your own, as those from a florist will have been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals to keep them looking nice. Clean your flowers by washing gently in a large bowl of cold water and let them air dry on a paper towel before cooking.
For local source of edible flowers, try Planet Earth Diversified in Greene (www.localfoodhub.org/partner/planet-earth-diversified/).