Crystallized violets arranged on an iced wedding cake can beat any other decoration. That’s just one of the hundreds of flowers you can eat. Violets and its relatives like pansies are equally pretty and edible. Unfortunately, all pretty flowers are not edible; some are downright poisonous, even fatal. Learn to identify the edible ones from the non-edibles, or better still, grow the edibles yourself.
Why eat flowers?
Except for the flowers that have been eaten traditionally as a food item, like cauliflower and broccoli, and a few others from the tropics like papaya, moringa and banana flowers, they may not serve as dishes in themselves or add substantially to the nutritional content of our food. However, they add a touch of novelty and special interest when you toss a few into salad or a dessert dish. Some add a tinge of sweetness or tang; some a peppery flavor. Being colorful as they are, they might be contributing their share of antioxidant pigments too, albeit in minute quantities. If anything, it’s their visual impact that is most interesting.
Why grow edible flowers?
Flowers are often the most fragile part of the plant. They wilt all too fast, and get bruised all too easily. The flowers that seem to hold up well at the florists are specially treated for longevity. We wouldn’t want any chemical treatment done on those we want to eat. In fact, the worries about pesticides and other chemical contamination is the strongest argument in favor of growing edible flowers in our own garden.
And if you’re already growing a few vegetables and fruits, some of them will do double service, offering their blooms to enhance your meals. There are many garden flowers that you can pinch off for your dinner, too.
Some edible flowers that you should consider growing:
1. Herb flowers. Most herbs of culinary use have flowers that are equally edible; they may have similar, but slightly milder, flavors, too. Fennel, bee balm, angelica, thyme, coriander, basil, etc. are examples.
2. Allium family. There’s a saying that any plant that looks like onions or garlic and also smells like them is edible. There are non-edible lilies with narrow leaves and onion-like bulbs. There’s a climber called garlic vine (Mansoa alliacea) which just smells like garlic. Only if both the criteria are met, they’ll be edible. Nevertheless, it’s not advisable to take a risk with any plant unless you know exactly what it is. You have enough choices with shallots, chives, leeks and scallions, besides garlic and onion. Even the large flower heads of society garlic are edible.
3. Rose family. Rose bushes are just one of the rose family members with edible flowers. Apple blossoms are just as pretty on a plate as they are on the trees. Do a bit of flower thinning on your trees. While you get to enjoy the flowers, the fruits will grow bigger because of it.
4. Mallow family. Hibiscus, okra, marsh mallow, hollyhock, even the color-changing blossom of sea hibiscus are all edible. Remove the central staminal tube before you stir fry them. Dried hibiscus flowers are used for making hibiscus tea.
5. Cucumber family. The male flowers of pumpkins and squashes have always been plucked for the table. Check for a fat portion on the flower stalk found right below the female flower; you don’t want to sacrifice your vegetable crop for a few flowers.
6. Violet family. Pretty as a picture, violets, pansies, violas and Johnny jump ups all make excellent garnishes and decorations on dessert dishes. Grow them in pots or as a hedging for a regular supply.
7. Sunflower family. They have composite flowers. The outer petals belong to the female flowers. Pull them off a pot marigold or a dandelion and add to salads. Not all members of this large family are edible, though. Whole dandelion flowers are used to make tea.
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Edible flowers for different areas of your garden:
Climbers – Some climbers with stunning edible flowers are nasturtiums, maypop, also called passion flower, and red runner beans (flowers of many other beans varieties are edible, too).
Aquatic plants — Water hyacinth and the native variety of fragrant white water lily (Nymphaea odorata) have edible flowers. Use them in stir fries.
Cacti — Opuntias (prickly pear cactus) cultivated for their edible pads (nopales) and fruits have edible flowers too, if you are brave enough to pluck them.
Trees and bushes with edible flowers.
Being large in size, they will provide a good crop that you can share with friends. Here are some:
- Eastern Redbud – The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. Pickled buds are used in place of capers.
- Plums — All plums of the genus Prunus have edible flowers that have a sweet taste. Eat only a few at a time to avoid digestive problems.
- Moringa oleifera — Also called drumstick tree, this sun-loving tree growing in Arizona, Texas, California and Florida and has nutritious fruits, leaves and flowers. Collect the flowers shed by the tree by spreading a piece of cloth or plastic underneath. When sautéed in butter, they taste like mushrooms!
- Sesbania grandiflora — Another nutritious flower from Florida that can be eaten raw or cooked. It is rich in iron and tastes sweet.
Different flowers for different uses
With all the variety in taste and flavor, you can always find a flower that goes well with a particular dish. Some flowers are almost tasteless, or are extremely mild with a watery taste like that of cucumbers. Lavender flowers and rose petals go with cookies, cakes and desserts, while onion and garlic flowers are best suited for savory dishes. The peppery taste of nasturtiums adds extra zing to salads.
Some fun ways to use the edible flowers you grow
- Use them as garnish and decoration.
- Freeze flowers in ice cubes that you will add to lemonade or tea.
- Crystallize them by dipping in beaten egg white and dusting with fine sugar.
- Set them in gelatin rings along with fruits or vegetables.
- Toss them into salads.
- Stir-fry flowers.
- Stuff flowers like that of pumpkins, gladiolus and day lilies and bake or fry.
- Preserve them in vinegar to use in salads or in sugar syrup or honey for dessert.
People with pollen allergies may be at greater risk of having an allergic reaction to flowers. Always remove the stigmas and stamens before eating flowers. Rinse them well in water, too. Always try a new flower in small quantities.
Flowers you should never eat
1. Flowers you cannot clearly identify. If you are in doubt, give it a miss. There are some flowers that look deceptively similar to the edible ones, but may not be meant to be eaten. All such imposters may not be poisonous, but some can be fatal. For example, poison hemlock flowers have an uncanny resemblance to the flower heads of angelica. True tiger lilies (Lilium landifolium) are edible, but eating glory lilies with similar hot colors and upturned petals can be fatal. Always better to err on the side of caution than regret it later.
2. Those known to contain harmful substances. Many plants contain alkaloids and cyanide compounds that may be toxic to people. Some of them may have a few edible parts but other plant parts may be poisonous. A typical example is plants of nightshade family to which common vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chili and sweet peppers belong. Stay away from any other part of those plants, including flowers. Euphorbia and oleander families also contain toxins.
3. Those growing in contaminated areas. Plants growing in reclaimed waste dumps, nuclear waste disposal areas, sites of existing or previous chemical factories and oil refineries, abandoned mines, etc., may contain heavy metals and other chemical toxins.
4. Those sprayed with chemicals. Even if the flowers come from your garden, ensure that not only them, but other plants in the surrounding area as well as the ground, have not been treated with insecticides, fungicides or herbicides. Check the labels of fertilizers to make sure they don’t contain any of these toxic chemicals as additives.