Flowers: they're not just for centerpieces anymore-
If there's a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it's that many of us turned to cooking and gardening to cope with many more hours at home and enforced isolation. With plenty of inspiration from foodie TV shows and Internet sites, we gained expertise and became more adventurous with meal preparation over the long months of lock down. Now, with daily life returning to some new version of normal, we may be spending less time in the kitchen but making everyday food and beverages a bit more special is something we want to keep on doing. Edible flowers, which have been used for centuries and in many different cuisines, are a great way to add color and flavor to all kinds of dishes. It couldn't be simpler and you might even have the ingredients right outside your kitchen door. Getting started is easy, educational and fun.
Safety first: Do your homework
- Not all flowers or all the parts of an otherwise edible flower are safe to eat and some are poisonous and, if ingested, could cause serious illness. Doing a bit of research up front will help you determine which flowers are safe to consume. Edible flowers can also cause problems with your digestive tract if eaten in large amounts.
- A good practice is to grow your own or purchase from a reputable store. Either way, ensure they are grown without pesticides and other chemicals that could be harmful to ingest.
- Don't take a chance on flowers that are growing in the wild or on the side of the road. The plant that appears to be Queen Anne's Lace could actually be the extremely poisonous Wild Hemlock.
Next: A few easy steps
Treat flowers as you would delicate salad greens by submerging gently in a bowl of water. Swish lightly and allow the flowers to drain before spreading out on a dry kitchen towel. Some flowers, such as nasturtiums and pansies can be eaten whole. For others, you may need to remove the petals from the pistils and stamen because these parts are often very bitter. It's fun to do a bit of tasting ahead of time to get to know the flavors of each edible flower and which will work best in a particular dish.
Most edible flowers are best eaten as soon as possible after picking, preferably fresh from your own garden. If you won't be using them right away, wrap the flowers lightly in a damp paper towel and place in the produce section of your refrigerator where they will keep for 2-3 days.
How much to add and at what stage in the preparation process depends on the type of dish, the variety of flower and your own particular preference. In general, tender blossoms are added to cold foods or as a finishing touch to hot dishes while more fibrous varieties (such as lavender) can withstand longer cooking. Edible flowers also tend to be subtler in flavor so using them in combination with milder ingredients will allow their unique qualities to stand out
A bouquet of choices:
There are many varieties of edible flowers you can grow in your own garden and retail options are on the increase. Here are a few for starters:
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) - You can eat the entire brightly colored Nasturtium plant cooked or raw. They are easy to grow on the coast even in the worst clay soil, and they return year after year. The leaves provide a pepper flavor, but the blossoms are milder. The orange, red, or yellow leaves can be used in salads and as garnishes on cakes and pastries.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – Light purple chive blossoms lend a delicate onion flavor in salads, and egg dishes. Garlic chives have white flowers, which are stronger in flavor than the green chive leaves. Sprinkle both over hot baked potatoes with dollops of sour cream.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – Purslane is one of the most common garden weeds in the world, and even though it is frequently pulled and discarded, it has historically been regarded as a valuable edible and medicinal herb. The small leaves, red stems, seeds, and flower buds of Purslane are all edible. It has a slight salty and sour taste similar to spinach or sorrel and can be used in salads and sandwiches.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) - The small, daisy-like flowers grace gardens during spring and summer growing seasons along the coast. Historically, chamomile has been known for it's curative qualities, and many drink Chamomile tea to relax. The leaves and flowers are safe to eat, but use care if you are allergic to ragweed. The bright yellow centers have a mild, apple-like flavor.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – Often called “poor man's saffron,” calendula has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes and in culinary dishes. The daisy-like orange and yellow flowers have a complex spicy flavor while the leaves are rather bitter. The petals are often used in teas and syrups, added to salads or used as a garnish or seasoning.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) – Anise Hyssop has a mild licorice flavor and can be used in salads, cold soups, with fresh fruit and in cold drinks. It is a great pollinator plant for both bees and Anise Swallowtail butterflies!
Borage (Borago officinalis) - Blue star-shaped borage flowers produce showy blooms for many dishes. They have a sweet, mild flavor similar to cucumber. The flowers and leaves are edible and are a nice addition to cold sandwiches, salads and drinks.
Pansies (Viola V. x wittrockiana) - Due to their many color combinations, pansies are a popular choice for adding visual appeal. They have a mild, fresh flavor with subtle wintergreen notes and are often used as dramatic toppings for cakes and other desserts as well as a contemporary garnish for drinks in place of the old standby umbrella.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) - When sunflowers are first budding, they taste like artichokes. When in full flower, you can pull the leaves off to provide a yellow pop of color in salads and other dishes. Humans and birds love the seeds!
Man has been experimenting with and eating flowers for as long as we have been eating berries. The varieties and uses listed above are just a tiny sample of what we have to choose from. As you explore the world of edible flowers, be sure to check for plants that might cause allergic reactions or cause other health issues before adding these colorful delights to your dishes. Enjoy and bon appétit!
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener experimenting with all types of edibles that can be grown on the coast. This article was edited by UC Master Gardener Maggie Mah.