And your daylilies, pansies, nasturtiums … there are several beautiful common flowers in your ornamental garden that can add flavor to your food and add color as a garnish. Here’s where to start.
Did you know that roses are red and edible too? Well not all roses are red, but they are edible and most definitely delicious too. I didn’t know that until I took a trip to England and Wales in 1999 with two girlfriends on a whirlwind tour of English and Welsh gardens.
We went from the more well-known gardens, such as Sissinghurst, Barnsley and Stourhead, to the little ones, such as The Priory at Kemerton, a small private garden. But after touring the English countryside for several days, we stopped at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, administered by the National Trust. The abbey, which dates back to the beginning of the 11th century, has been occupied by monks to the very rich and sometimes famous. Visitors have included Rex Whistler who painted a trompe l’oeil piece in the house and Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. But its gardening claim to fame is the walled rose garden designed by Graham Stuart Thomas. In 1971, he had the opportunity to establish the rose garden as a home for his vast collections of old roses. It includes gallicas, damasks, centifolias, Chinas, musks and many more.
The tour of Mottisfont Abbey gardens was a wonderful visit, and like so many public gardens, there was a little kiosk with tea and scones. There was also something else – rose petal ice cream. I adore ice cream. I consider it one of the major food groups, so while my friends had their tea and scones, I had rose petal ice cream. You know the comment “it smelled good enough to eat”? Well it did smell good enough to eat, and I thought I had reached Nirvana. It was the fragrance and flavor of the rose that enveloped my mouth. It’s a good thing we couldn’t stay or I would have eaten all of their ice cream.
When I came back to the U. S., I started investigating recipes using edible flowers and it opened up a whole new world for me. I knew that pansies were edible, as well as nasturtiums, but the list grew incredibly long as I started doing more research. Monarda, lavender (Lavandula spp.), daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), yucca, dianthus, chive blossoms (Allium schoenoprasum), tulips (Tulipa spp.), lilacs (Syringa spp.) and a lot more are all edible. Many vegetable and herb flowers are edible too.
The first rule of eating edible flowers is to make sure they are edible. I know that sounds redundant, but there is a lot of misinformation on the Internet, including websites that say snapdragons are edible. Snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.) are fragrant but they aren’t edible. While we eat the fruit of the tomato, the flowers aren’t edible either. It is best to check university websites for a definitive answer. The accompanying list (see sidebar) is based on university websites. It is also important to make sure your flowers haven’t been sprayed with pesticides unless they are organic and the label says it is OK to eat on edible plants.
A general rule of thumb for eating edible flowers is the more fragrant the flower, the better the flavor. With daylilies, the lighter-colored flowers are better than the darker ones. Start in the morning by harvesting your flowers after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot. A cloudy day is ideal. Don’t wash the flowers unless they are dirty or have insects on them. The essential oils, which give the petals their flavor. You can store most flowers in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with a damp, not wet, paper towel. They will keep for a couple of days. Flowers that hold up well in refrigeration include roses, monarda, dianthus, chive blossoms, yucca flowers, tulips (on a stem in water), lilacs, nasturtium flowers and leaves and pansies (Viola spp., also violets and violas). Daylily blossoms that are open should be harvested right before serving. The daylily buds are edible when sautéed in a little butter but can be held in the refrigerator for a few hours prior to cooking. Roses, lavender, monarda and dianthus can also be dried. When drying flowers for cooking or baking, place them in glass jar after drying to keep out moisture.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Signet marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia)
Edible flowers aren’t limited to just your flower beds. Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) flowers are edible with a fresh garden pea flavor, apple and crabapple (Malus spp.) blossoms have a wonderful light, floral taste, herb flowers mimic the flavor of the leaves, and let’s not forget vegetable flowers and florets. Cauliflower and broccoli (Brassica oleracea varieties) are florets but if you forget to harvest them in the garden they may flower and the flowers are also edible. And just about everyone knows that squash (Cucurbita spp.) flowers are edible. Stuffed with a little goat cheese, garlic and ground walnuts, dipped in batter and deep fried they make a wonderful appetizer. Garden pea (Pisum sativum) flowers and radish (Raphanus sativus) flowers are edible and add a nice flavor to a green salad.
Growing edible flowers is easy enough. They require the same care as any other flower in your garden except they shouldn’t be sprayed with pesticides. Organic and natural fertilizers are best, but you will be fine if you just want to use the “blue stuff.”
Once you harvest your edible flowers, what to do with them? Besides ice cream, you can add fresh rose petals (minus the little white part at the base of the petal, which can be bitter) to a fruit salad or candy them by dipping them in egg white then sugar as a decoration on a cake. You can also make a simple syrup of 1 cup of water to 1 cup of granulated sugar, bring to a boil and reduce to 1 cup and add 1 cup of packed rose petals and let steep overnight. Strain the next day and use the rose syrup within a week. You can add it to tea, hot or cold, lemonade, brush it on baked goods or brush it over a chicken breast before baking.
Edible Flower Butters
Butters are an easy way to add floral accents to the food without a lot of fuss. The flower should match the food you are serving. Feel free to experiment. Always start off with the lowest amount of flower since some can be quite strong. Use them on toast, on meat and fish, or incorporate it into your baking if the recipe calls for butter and the flavor would match. Lavender butter in a sugar cookie recipe would be a lovely match. Melted lavender butter could be drizzled over a smoked pork chop. Chive-flower butter on toast topped with a poached egg is a great twist on an old and sometimes bland dish.
Keep flower butters refrigerated after blending and use within a week.
Simply combine a stick of real butter, softened, with one of the following:
2 tablespoons fresh minced rose petals (white heels removed), or 1 tablespoon dried rose petals finely crumbled
1 tablespoon of fresh lavender flowers and finely minced leaves or ¼ tablespoon dried lavender
1½ tablespoons fresh minced nasturtiums including flowers and leaves
1 tablespoon fresh monarda minced or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried monarda
1 floret of fresh chives, minced
1 teaspoon thyme, basil or oregano flowers
1 teaspoon finely minced lemon verbena flowers and leaves
1 teaspoon finely minced pineapple sage
Fresh Salsa with Crushed Pineapple and Nasturtiums
15 nasturtium leaves and flowers washed and chopped
4 to 6 large fresh tomatoes, peeled, chopped and seeded
4 jalapeno or Serrano peppers, tops removed, chopped and seeded (If you like, you can add a mixture of peppers. You can also roast them first.)
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 red pepper, chopped and seeded
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 small can crushed pineapple, very well drained (press out moisture if necessary)
1½ tablespoons lime juice
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
You can make this up to several hours before needed to let the flavors blend together. Combine tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, pineapple and nasturtiums in a bowl. Make sure tomatoes are well drained. Toss with lime juice and salt and pepper. Chill until serving. Serve with tortilla chips and sour cream or as a topping for meats and poultry.
Freshly washed and dried nasturtium leaves
¼ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and patted dry
½ pound chevre (mild goats cheese)
½ cup chopped pine nuts
3 tablespoons chopped lime basil
Salt and pepper
You need one leaf and chive stem per person. Chop approximately 1 cup flowers and leaves. In a bowl, combine cheese, nuts, basil and tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste. Place 1 teaspoon onto back of nasturtium leaf. Roll up and secure with chive stem.
Editor’s Note: State-By-State Gardening does not advocate eating plants from the wild unless you are 100 percent sure of the plant; that if necessary you seek physician’s advice; and we recommend becoming familiar with known poisonous plants in your area. State-By-State Gardening will not be held responsible for any negative effects of consuming anything considered “ornamental.”
From State-by-State Gardening September/October 2013. Photos courtesy of Denise Schreiber.