Please pass the daisies! And while you’re at it, please pass the violets, nasturtiums and roses as well. Folks are starting to realize that many flowers, so long considered fine to look at but off-limits in the kitchen, are not only delicious but actually good for you. Edible flowers have become all the rage in home kitchens and upscale restaurants alike. They provide a pop of brilliant color, often a subtle aroma or sweetness and sometimes a hefty dose of anti-oxidants as well.
Before we delve into whys and wherefores, let’s pause for a solemn note of caution: Never eat ANY flower without a reliable positive identification. No matter how pretty and no matter how delicious a culinary candidate may taste, do not take internally until and unless you are absolutely certain that you know what it is and that it is safe and wholesome to eat. Never eat flowers harvested from roadsides, where they could conceivably pick up contamination from passing traffic or roadside herbicide applications. And never eat commercially-grown flowers unless you are certain they have been grown organically. Commercially-produced flowers are not intended for human consumption, and may have been treated with really toxic chemicals, often much worse than those used in conventional food production.
Flowers-as-food no doubt predates historic times. Surely our ancestors, all too often only one step ahead of hunger, would not scruple to nibble on tasty, colorful blooms, especially if it included a sweet drop of nectar into the bargain. Perhaps some local flower-eating traditions around the globe date back to ancient times: choy sum (the tangy blooms of a pak choi relative) in China, or the sweetly scented flowers of the drumstick tree (Moringa) in India are two possible examples. Another, perhaps, is alluded to in ancient Greek literature. The lotus eaters seduced returning Homeric heroes into joining them, with a preternatural forgetfulness as the result. (Ironically, the Asian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is eminently edible — flower, seed pod, seed and root — and not in the least narcotic. So perhaps this legend referred to some other plant — an object lesson in the importance of correct identification!)
Ancient civilizations enjoyed a floral tidbit now and again. Egyptians and Romans both employed flowers in cooking, but there is more in the record about Chinese flower-eating. And in Korea, there is made Hwaejeon nori — traditional small Korean pancakes consisting of glutinous rice cakes and flowers of chrysanthemum or azalea; other versions have been made with pear or cherry blossoms, violets and roses.
Some flowers never went out of fashion. Even the most conservative cooks have used a number of flower types for ages, right up to the present. Artichokes are nothing more than the immature bud of a particular, purple-flowered thistle. Broccoli and cauliflower are in reality the very undeveloped flower heads of plants of the same names. The star-like, sky-blue flowers of borage have long been candied and stored, to grace cakes and confections at some later time. Baby corn is nothing but the female flower of the corn plant, after all. And then there are capers, which are the immature flower buds of the caper bush, usually pickled–they are used as a flavorful condiment. Finally, lavender is one herb always harvested for its flowers.
Having a full range of vibrant colors to work with brings incredible new potential to the presentation, aroma and taste of foods. But flowers are more than just a pretty face. They’re also extremely rich in phytonutrients, including anti-oxidants. It so happens that many of these also double as pigments in flowers. Red-to-yellow flowers likely contain high levels of carotenoids, while reds to purples are generally high in anthocyanins. So flowers, used carefully, are really, really good for you.
How to Harvest and Use Them
First, flowers destined for the table should be the freshest possible. Pick them either first thing in the morning after the dew has dried, or immediately before serving. Select blooms that are just coming to full maturity — skip over those that are past their prime. Inspect them closely for insect damage or even the presence of insects themselves. The blooms can then be swished in tepid water or held under the tap. Shake or spin dry, and hold in a cool humid place until the time comes for final preparation. With many types, though not all, only the petals will be used — the stamens, pistil and sepals will be discarded. But it’s best to keep the flowers intact until ready to use.
OK, so you’ve got some pure, organic flowers available. What do you do with them? There are lots of ways to use them. Garnish comes to mind, and it’s a fair point. Flowers come in so many different colors, sizes, flavors and textures, that they naturally lend themselves to many variations. Whole flowers, sliced flowers, loose individual petals — the possibilities are endless.
Vinegar infusions are another easy hack. Use good-quality vinegar, possibly a light-colored one if your choice of flower will add a delicate tint. Flowers might be used whole or chopped, and the vinegar strained after steeping for 2-4 weeks. A choice, whole bloom might be added for appearance during the final bottling. (A similar process using oil has been recommended in the past. However, botulism could develop in the anaerobic environment thus created. Better to skip the oil method.)
Petals or whole flowers (usually smaller-sized ones) may be candied. The types frequently handled in this way include borage, lavender, violets, and lilac. All are equally charming and flavorsome atop cupcakes, puddings or confections.
Flowers dress up a drink, whether it’s the adult or the family-friendly variety. Float them on top of drinks after pouring. Or freeze whole flowers or individual petals in ice cubes. (Recently boiled water should be used if possible in making the ice cubes, as it yields a clearer view of the flowers frozen within.) Use your floral ice-cubes in any cold drinks, especially iced teas.
Finally, numerous varieties are naturals for stuffing. Use such stuffed blooms fresh, or steam or batter and fry for dumplings. Or remove stamens and use as bowls or receptacles for dips, sauces and more.
Here are a few of the most widely appreciated edible flowers:
Daylilies — (Caution: Not to be confused with true lilies, which are poisonous) Daylilies are edible in bud, flower and root. Each bloom lasts only a single day, so they are most perishable. Texture is crisp and succulent like lettuce. Unique flavor can be likened to asparagus or zucchini. Often used in Chinese cuisine, including mushu pork and hot and sour soup.
Nasturtiums — Probably the most popular edible flower. Frequently intense scarlet or orange color sets up a stunning contrast with greens in salads, but they also come in deep maroon and pale yellow. The flavor is similar to watercress, which is frequently enjoyed with various forms of cream cheese; nasturtiums pair up nicely with it, as well. Infuse whole flowers in vinegar for a bold and intriguing ingredient for salad dressings. Pop whole blooms into your mouth and you’ll likely enjoy a light sweetness followed by a complex, peppery flavor. Or harvest the immature seeds immediately after the flowers drop, and pickle as a replacement for capers.
CitrusBlooms — All citrus flowers are of heavy substance, white and waxy-looking, and all have a powerful sweet fragrance reminiscent of jasmine or gardenia. Used sparingly, they may be appreciated in ice creams and other desserts.
Lavender — Lavender is harvested just as the flowers open. The blooms are small and produced by the hundreds on spike-like inflorescences, which are dried whole. Lavender has scores of traditional and well-know uses including soaps, cosmetics, sachets, and so on. It is also used as a spice in savory dishes, where it can fill in for rosemary in stews or sauces. It’s sometimes slipped into a salad or to imbue a glass of champagne. And it’s used in a number of sweet dishes including custards, pound cake, ice cream and sorbets, and many others.
Pansies and Johnny Jump-Ups — Their delicate texture and phenomenal color range team up with mild wintergreen flavor to make these common flowers a kitchen workhorse. The blue-to-purple ones also often have a mild sweet fragrance, evocative of spring, which is a delight in desserts. The flowers may be eaten whole, and a colorful, velvety pansy atop a cream-cheese-spread cracker is an absolute delicacy.
Squash — Squash flowers are large, tender, and taste mildly like squash. Squash flowers are always either male or female. The female blooms are easy to spot—they are the ones with a recognizable miniature squash fruit immediately behind each flower. It is only female blossoms that actually yield the fruit after pollination. Male flowers tend to be more numerous and are preferred to harvesting the females, each of which, of course, would yield a squash if allowed to develop. Harvest the flowers a day or so ahead of blooming, as unopened buds are easier to work with and more appetizing than flowers once they have bloomed. (Squash flowers open at dawn and usually close by mid-day, quickly withering and becoming inedible, or at least, rumpled and unattractive-looking.) Unopened buds can be stuffed with ricotta cheese or breadcrumbs, battered and fried for a striking dumpling. They can also be sliced crosswise and arranged as a very bold and unique-looking garnish.
Calendula — Brightly colored calendula flowers are usually orange or yellow. It is sometimes called “Poor Man’s Saffron”. The petals can be finely chopped, sauteed in olive oil to fix the color and added to rice; used in the right proportions the flavor and color are comparable to those provided by true saffron.
Saffron — The stigmas of the saffron crocus are harvested and dried; the result is saffron, once a fantastically expensive delicacy and still possibly the world’s most expensive spice. Stigmas are typically a fairly small part of a flower, after all, and it takes a lot of them to amount to much. Fortunately the flavor is rather intense and so is the color, so a little goes a long way. One well-known dish to which saffron is nearly essential is Paella, a rice and seafood dish. It’s also frequently included in Indian biryanis, and many other Asian and Mediterranean dishes. (Caution: Only the stigmas of saffron crocus may be harvested for saffron; other crocus types and especially the autumn crocus, are toxic.)
Herb flowers — The flowers of most common culinary herbs are very small; therefore, be especially cautious about subjecting them to cooking temperatures as they are so fragile. Add them immediately before serving instead. The flowers of these types are edible and usually are a milder, more delicate version of the leaves in fragrance and taste. Garlic and onion flowers are especially nice. Flowers of any of the savory herbs may, of course, be used as an elegant and sophisticated garnish on dishes commonly flavored with those herbs: try chive flowers on baked potatoes, cilantro flowers on tacos, or rosemary, oregano or basil flowers on pasta dishes. Basil flowers come in white or purple, and are lovely atop a scoop of lemon-basil ice cream too. On very small-flowered types like oregano, whole flower-heads may be scattered as garnish or included in endless variations on salad. On larger-flowered types, like rosemary, basil or sage, it’s best to use just the actual petals, discarding the fibrous bracts that enclose the base of each flower.
Borage — Borage flowers have some of the clearest, bright sky-blue flowers to be found. The 5-petaled flowers are starlike and large enough to draw attention on hors d’oeuvres. They taste faintly of cucumbers. (The flowers are also high in gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid.) Borage flowers are also easily candied to preserve them for later use on cakes or confections. The whole flowers are rinsed, dipped in egg white, carefully coated in fine sugar crystals and air-dried for a few days. The flowers can then be gently tucked away for later use on some toothsome dessert, possibly on a bleak winter afternoon, long after any flowers are to be seen outdoors. The blue tones intensify in storage.
Roses — The sumptuous, sweet and complex fragrance and taste of roses has been more appreciated in the east than in the west. Yet rose flavor has been increasingly embraced in cooking in recent decades. It is used in many ways in cooking. Rose jam is ambrosial on toast. Rose water can be as simple as an infusion of fresh rose petals in hot water, and is an easy way of adding rose flavoring to dishes. Combine it with raspberry and herbs for salad dressing. Rose petals may be steeped in vinegar for several days, then removed and discarded, for use on salads. The rich sweet fragrance and flavor make it a natural to combine with desserts, like India’s gulab jamun. Rose petals may be added to black tea to luxurious effect. They are wonderful included in a salad with raspberries, lettuce or spinach, bleu cheese and pecans.
Tips for Using Edible Flowers
Pick flowers at their peak of development, before they begin to fade. Usually, only the petals are used. Use fresh, uncooked flower parts, usually, as garnish. If cooking, add at the last moment of cooking to preserve flavor and color. Add flowers to vinegar for their lovely appearance and to infuse their delicate flavors. Larger flowers can be stuffed, or battered and fried. Some flowers make a nice tea.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.