Starving for that delicious-looking appetizer, you reach for those crispy little nuggets of deep-fried mushrooms, but … What the hay? Golden and delectable, those morsels turn out to be tasty little dandelion flower buds that have been fried up soft, tender, and reminiscent of wild morel mushrooms. The colorful salad is sprinkled with violets, nasturtiums and calendula petals. Not only that, the ice cream is flavored with pastel specks of lavender-colored … well … lavender. The ruby-jeweled jelly is created from summer rose petals. And even the tuna salad bowl is edible: It’s a hibiscus blossom.
From the finest restaurants to the humblest farm kitchen, more and more cooks are finding that adding flowers to an ever-increasing number of menu items adds color, excitement, flavor and a touch of enticement — and maybe even some romance.
For ages, bakers have been making candied violets to decorate party cakes. Nasturtiums look pretty sprinkled on a salad. Diners now are discovering that flowers have more than visual appeal — they also have flavor. Specific flowers are mingling pleasantly with a variety of entrees, salads and desserts — as one of the ingredients, no longer merely a pretty decoration.
Flowers are most commonly used fresh or as garnishes. When cooked, they frequently wilt and lose their bright colors (though cauliflower and broccoli are actually “flowers,” too). Topping cakes with bright pansies, garnishing soups with chive flowers, or using flowers such as tulips or daylilies as bowls to hold tuna salad or cottage cheese are all good ways to experiment with blooms fresh from your garden.
Of course, as with any other foods you use, you will want to add flowers to your meal carefully. Roadside flowers are often polluted with vehicle exhaust residues, roadway hydrocarbon runoff, dust and trash. Some flowers do not taste good, and some are actually toxic, such as potato, foxglove and sweet pea. Flowers served at the table should be grown organically, with no residual pesticides clinging to the petals.
The best-tasting flowers are usually the most fragrant; the more fragrant the flower, the stronger the flavor. So use them with discretion. Although some marigolds are tasty, some taste terrible. It is wise to experiment first and not try out new ideas on unsuspecting guests. Always taste before you cook. A large number of garden flowers are edible, but as with any other plants — tame or wild — before you start eating them willy-nilly, you must learn the edibility rules.
Most popular edible flowers
These top-choice flowers taste good, are versatile in cooking, and are commonly and easily grown in gardens everywhere.
• Calendula: A flowering annual, sometimes called “pot marigold,” this fragrance-free flower has been used as a food addition (and for medicinal purposes) since ancient Rome ruled. Called “poor man’s saffron,” the bruised petals can be used in place of the more expensive spice. Blooming in yellow or orange, the calendula’s petals can be mixed into muffins, sprinkled on a salad, or mixed into a cheeseball.
• Chives: A perennial herb from the Allium (onion) genus, chives sport pink pomponlike flowers in mid-spring. The onion-flavored flowers can be used in many dishes, in addition to being used as a decorative garnish. Eaten whole and by itself, however, the chive flower can taste a bit strong. We also eat the grasslike leaves, chopped into tiny pieces and sprinkled on baked potatoes.
• Daylily: Daylily flowers are indeed open only for a day. Do not pick ahead and store for use tomorrow. The buds themselves are tasty and nutritious, and even the root and crown were used medicinally. Chinese hot and sour soup often includes dried daylily petals as an ingredient. The paler yellow and orange varieties are sweeter; darker colors are more bitter. Daylilies may be diuretic and also act as a laxative, so eat them in moderation. (These may be frozen for later frying.)
• Mint: A group of hardy perennials that may rudely take over your flower bed, these culinary herbs have edible leaves and flowers. Many varieties, from apple to orange to chocolate mint, are available. Essential oils are extracted from this plant, and the flavoring appears in everything from candies to gravies.
• Nasturtium: A native of Peru, this beautiful summer-flowering plant is a climber. Nasturtium flowers come in several colors, and with their mild flavor, can be added to salads, pastas and vinegars, as well as to many other dishes as a garnish; spicy leaves taste peppery and can be added to salads and sandwiches.
• Pansy: Cheerful, bi- and tri-colored annuals related to violets and violas, pansies have a slightly sweet grassy flavor. They are commonly used as garnishes in desserts and fruit salads, frozen into dainty ice cubes, and glazed on cookies; fresh sprigs can be planted on cakes — a spicy wintergreen flavor is encountered if the pansy is eaten whole. In the heat of the summer they fade back, but will re-bloom when autumn brings cooler weather.
• Rose: An age-old flower, the rose is used in everything from cakes to jams to beverages, often used in the same way as vanilla flavoring. Flavors of roses vary; some leave a bad aftertaste while others taste like sweet apple or cinnamon. The white base of the petal, however, is bitter.
• Signet Marigold: Although possibly harmful if eaten in large amounts, signet marigolds are fine in moderation, having a tangy, spicy flavor. Many other marigold varieties’ flavors range from bitter to horrid. Go with the small signet types — and even then, remove the white parts where the petals attach to the plant. Use in butters, muffins, salads, even quiche.
• Squash Blossoms: These yellow blossoms can be stuffed, battered and fried, or used as “dishes” to hold salads, etc. Zucchini is the most commonly eaten flower from the squash family, possessing a mild vegetable flavor.
Other posy possibilities
Other flowers can be added to vinegars, teas, sorbets, custards, butters, soups, salads, sauces, and of course, used for decoration purposes, too.
Sweet-tasting flowers include red clover, dandelion, yucca, pineapple sage and elderberry.
Floral-flavored flowers include pea, apple, lilac, dianthus, honeysuckle, pineapple guava and scented geranium. Lavender and violet flowers give a perfumed flavor to food.
Citrusy/tangy-flavored flowers include lemon, orange, and tuberous begonia flowers, while Johnny jump-ups and bee balm (Monarda) have a minty flavor. Redbud, tulip and runner beans have a beanlike flavor. Oniony flowers include society garlic, garlic chives and nodding onion.
For a biting, spicy flavor try arugula, mustard, radish, broccoli, and winter and summer savory. A bitter tang can be had by trying chicory, English daisy, chrysanthemum, safflower and sunflower. And chamomile, linden and jasmine are used in beverages.
Other edible flowers include the herbs — the flower has the same flavor as the leaf but is less intense: borage, rosemary, basil, dill, oregano, thyme, coriander and hyssop.
Hibiscus, daylily flowers and squash blossoms make dainty serving dishes for salads. Rose, apple petals, mustard, okra and red clover are also edible, along with dainty primrose, freesias and forget-me-nots. Experts also recommend cornflowers, snapdragons, bachelor buttons, marguerite daisies, and flowering maple blossoms.
Biz Reynolds lives on a farm in Missouri and knows her flowers well after working for 13 years at Powell Gardens botanical gardens.
Making an ice bowl using edible flowers
Beautiful ice bowls can be made simply by placing a smaller bowl inside a large bowl that has been scattered with edible flowers or fresh herbs. Fill the space (should be 1/2 to 1 inch) between the bowls with water. With a skewer, carefully poke more flowers and leaves down into the sides, then put it into the freezer overnight. Allow to stand at room temperature for 10 to 20 minutes, then carefully remove the smaller bowl (see Image Gallery).