When you think of edible flowers you may perhaps think of nasturtiums — lovely colours and a delicious peppery flavour. Or borage, with its beautiful hues of blue, and a cucumber flavour note. Or dill, popular for pickling, and a great dried flower.
Some of you may have eaten candied flower petals, or stuffed some squash flowers for a special dinner, but now the world of edible flowers is really “blossoming.” With our interest in eating better and locally, flowers offer an exciting and beautiful new world of possibilities. Nothing is fresher than what you grow or harvest yourself, and whether you forage or grow your own, fresh, flavourful flowers present an opportunity for new food and food ideas.
The consumption of edible flowers has been around since medieval times at least. Calendula was commonly referred to as “pot marigold” by the medieval monks who grew it in their kitchen herb gardens for soups.
The range is surprising. Some blossoms are spicy, some herbaceous, while others are floral and fragrant. Consider the flavour profile you are looking for and then select your flowers, or use the flowers’ flavour, colour and texture for inspiration. While you can enjoy a huge variety, not all flowers are edible. For a detailed reference visit www.epicurean.com/articles/edible-flowers.html. There is also a history of edible flowers that includes many medicinal references.
Another benefit of growing edible flowers is that they are great plants with nectar rich flowers that attract pollinators to your garden. In this regard, it is good to know that herbs for culinary use (fresh or dried) are best harvested before flowering. But remember when you are pinching off herb flowers for more leaf production that they too are edible and taste delicious. Shape your harvest to leave part of the plant to flower and create a beautiful and bountiful food source for yourself and for the pollinators.
Depending on your space, time and garden conditions, the options include perennials, annuals, herbs, vegetables, fruits, vines and native species. Whatever you are growing or choose to grow, do not use chemical pesticides. The cleaning of any edible flowers is done by giving them a delicate bath, and you want them as clean as possible to begin with. For the freshest, organically grown flowers, it is always better to grow your own, or purchase them from reputable market farmers. Do not eat any flowers that come from a florist as chemicals were likely used in their production.
Some perennials that are easy, reliable garden plants and have delicious flowers include Allium — from the onion family and with a similar flavour; Bee Balm, or Monarda, which offers shocking reds and pinks and a minty flavour; and red and white clovers — tasty, with sweet flowerettes, and they’re great on desserts.
There is a great selection of annuals that are edible, including borage — striking blue star flower, with a mild cucumber flavour calendula — beautiful petals in bright orange hues; nasturtiums — choose your colour, from deep reds to peach and multi-pastels, and their spicy flavour and tasty leaves are fantastic added to salads. Johnny jump-ups (aka violas) are a cheery pretty flower in shades of purple, mauve, yellow and blue.
Vegetable flowers also offer options. Squash, zucchini or pumpkin flowers are usually served stuffed and fried. It’s best to choose the male flowers for stuffing and leave the female flowers to produce your crop. The male flower can be identified by the smaller base at the stem attachment, and they are hairier! Pea plant flowers are very attractive and add a fresh, sweet, pea flavour to your culinary creations. You may sacrifice a few peas from your crop, but it’s worth it.
Herb flowers offer flavours similar to their leaves, and can be used to the same effect. Any herb will flower if left to grow, so the process is easy. A favourite is the beautiful mini yellow wild (rustic) arugula flower, as it has the same nutty/peppery taste as the leaves, and in the fall is covered with pollinating honey bees.
Vines also offer some edible possibilities, including the flowers from the hop vine. The fragrance is very aromatic and can be used for things other than just beer. Stratford chef Ryan O’Donnell has experimented using them in his pickling recipes, with great results. (Ryan is the executive chef at Mercer Hall, Stratford)
Edible flowers present you with a new supply of flavours and textures, and do so beautifully. They say that you eat with your eyes first, and edible flowers are definitely one way to make your foods more nutritious and tempting.
Terry Manzo is a Stratford-based freelance photographer (www.terrymanzo.com). All photos for this story are courtesy of Terry Manzo and Stratford Chefs School.