You really can have your flowers and eat them, too. Used for centuries as garnishes, edible flowers are a great way to add taste and color to meals. Not so long ago in the United States, though, a handful of blooms tossed into a dish was a relatively unheard-of experience. My first time sampling a flower was in a salad in the 80’s. I can still remember the sensation of the petals in my mouth along with their delicate floral flavor.
Now, after a decades-long hiatus, edible flowers are back again. And they include many varieties that are commonly grown in the garden. Moreover, this goes way beyond nasturtiums, considered to be the most popular of all edible blooms. Now you can also eat daylilies, bee balm, borage, violas and more, lending the flower garden a whole new set of culinary possibilities.
FLOWER FLAVORS DEPEND ON LOCATION AND SEASON
Flower flavors vary considerably across varieties and change with location and season. Some flowers can be eaten fresh off the stem while others taste better steamed or sautéed. Most chefs recommend keeping the dish simple so as not to overpower the delicate taste of the blooms.
If you’re looking for the most intense flavor, harvest blooms at the peak of their flowering season in the early morning just before the buds open. Once you’ve picked them, wash thoroughly, pat dry and eat immediately to prevent wilting. Or, wrap your blooms in damp paper towels and store in the refrigerator. Most keep for up to a week.
If you’re not up to growing your own, you can also find edible flowers at local farmer’s markets, some upscale supermarkets and online shops like Gourmet Sweet Botanicals, Marx Foods and Melissa’s, which will ship overnight.
Nasturtium bud opening
It’s important to remember that in most cases, the term ‘edible flower’ refers to the petals only. Always remove the pistil and stamen (where the pollen is produced) before eating. These flower parts can detract from the taste and occasionally provoke an allergic reaction.
NEVER eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers, which may have been sprayed by pesticides. The same goes for flowers growing by roadsides that may have been exposed to herbicides. Make sure you correctly identified the flower before eating and go slow – some blooms can cause digestive problems at high consumption rates.
Ready to give it a whirl? Here are 7 edible flowers you can grow in your garden.
Easy-to-grow nasturtiums rank among the most common edible flowers. In Latin, nasturtium means ‘nose twist’, which is about right because this is no subtle flavor. They pack a punch with their strong, peppery aroma. (Young leaves are edible as well.) Moreover, the bright colored-petals, which are high in vitamins A, C and D, add a great accent to salads where they provide a tasty garnish.
By the way, the seedpods of nasturtiums, which emerge late in the summer after the flowers have faded, are also edible. The tiny green pods can be found underneath the foliage in groups of three. When pickled, the pods taste like capers (which they closely resemble) with a slight mustardy tang. Here’s a great recipe for nasturtium ‘capers’ from Garden Betty.
Also known as starflower, borage is an annual flowering plant with vivid blue blossoms and leaves with the flavor of cucumbers. Pollinators love it and its free-seeding habit can make it a beautiful addition to a cottage-style garden. Toss borage into green or fruit salads for a bright burst of color. Or, for a unique twist, try floating some blossoms in lemonade, iced tea or gin and tonics. You can also candy them. Here are 15 borage recipes from Bouquet Garni.
Blue starflowers in fresh salad
Daylily is native to Asia, and the original orange Asian species, Hemerocallis fulva, is still by far the most flavorful. Its slightly sweet-tasting flower buds have been roasted and eaten as part of Asian cuisine for years. Chinese cooking uses daylily buds all the time in such dishes as moo shu pork and hot and sour soup, where their flavor has been compared to a cross between asparagus and zucchini.
Although all parts of the daylily are edible (including flowers, tubers and stalks), it is the flower bud that has the most flavor. Harvest unopened buds in late spring and early summer while they are still firm and green, then steam, boil or sauté them with a little butter or oil. Add salt for extra flavor. Here’s a recipe from Mother Earth Living for a delicious daylily sauté, or try this recipe for daylily fritters from NPR’s food columnist, Aube Giroux.
A word of caution: do not confuse the daylily with lilies, like the Easter lily. Lilies contain a highly toxic alkaloid and are NOT edible. Although daylilies are edible, they may act as a diuretic or laxative, so eat in moderation.
VIOLA (VIOLETS, VIOLAS AND PANSIES)
Easy-to-grow violas are not only colorful, but they’re also delicious. With a slight minty flavor, the heart-shaped petals taste great in soups, salads and sautéed in butter and oil like spinach. Violas and pansies also work great for candying or as decoration on cakes and ice cream. Or, try freezing the tiny petals into ice cubes and using them to add elegance to tall glasses of lemonade or iced tea.
Edible pansies on fresh salad
Also referred to as pot marigold, calendula has a flavor that ranges from spicy to bitter depending on the variety. The red, orange or yellow blooms can be used to color and flavor butter, rice and other dishes where they are also known as Poor Man’s Saffron. Separate the petals from the flower head and sprinkle on soups, pasta, rice dishes, and salads. Only the petals are edible.
BEE BALM (MONARDA DIDYMA)
A beautiful flower known for attracting bees and hummingbirds, bee balm goes by several names including Oswego tea, wild bergamot, monarda and wild oregano. The plant is related to the Mediterranean citrus fruit, bergamot, used in Earl Grey tea, but it is not the same. All of the above ground parts of the plant are edible and are strongly flavored, with a taste like oregano and mint with a faint hint of citrus.
Bee balm, Monarda didyma
Gather flowers and leaves during bloom time in mid-summer. Separate the petals from the main head, and sprinkle over salads or sorbets. Or, place the leaves in small bundles in paper bags to dry and use as a substitute for oregano or tea.
OK, this is a weed, but everything about this member of the daisy family is edible, from the flower to the roots. You can even eat the flowers in your lawn as long as they haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Flowers are sweetest when they are picked young. Most people compare the taste of dandelion to the slightly bitter green taste of arugula.
The dandelion buds are even tastier than the flowers; pick them early in the spring when they are still close to the ground. (You’ll find them in a tight cluster above the taproot, called the crown.) The tiny buds can be eaten raw or steamed and, of course, some people make them into wine.
Dandelion’s potassium-rich greens and roots are nutritious, too. Eat the greens raw in salads or as a substitute for lettuce in sandwiches. You can also sauté them on the stove. Dandelion greens and roots have a strong diuretic quality and have long been used to treat digestive disorders.
For more information on edible flowers, check out this extensive Edible Flowers Chart from What’s Cooking America, which also includes fruit, vegetable and herb flowers.