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Edible Flowers
by Ginny Stibolt

Hibiscus flowers are edible.  Photo by Stibolt.

These beautiful hibiscus flowers were added to a salad.

As top echelon chefs have discovered, an innovative presentation using edible flowers at the table makes a meal special-and more expensive. If the food looks fabulous, it just has to taste better, doesn't it? But you don't have to dine at a pricey restaurant to enjoy edible flowers; you can add these beauties to your own meals.

Eating flowers is not new, the ancients in both the new and old worlds used flowers in cooking and in medicine. The traditional Herbes de Provence often included rosemary and lavender flowers. This mixture was not packaged until the 1970s, but the cooks in the Mediterranean region mixed their own concoctions of their native herbs. They mixed it with olive oil to use as a rub for various meat dishes and they also used it dry in salads, sauces, and soups.

Of course, broccoli, cauliflower, and capers are flower buds, so you've probably been eating flower parts, but maybe you didn't think about these vegetables as edible flowers.

What's Edible and What is Not?

A good rule of thumb is, "If you don't know whether a flower is edible, don't use it." Even flowers from some of your vegetable plants might be toxic--flowers of the tomato family such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers are one example. Also, some non-toxic flowers might not taste that good, so work with flowers that you know and ones that will complement your dishes. See the resources for extensive lists of edible flowers and how to use them.

Treat your edible flowers as a crop. Don't use poisons (pesticides and herbicides) in your garden and landscape areas, if you wish to eat the flowers. If you're growing roses this means you can't use rose dust or systemic poisons to keep the bugs away. Don't eat flowers grown for the floral trade-these flowers are not treated as an edible crop. 

The Petals are the Most Used Flower Parts

Flower petals are often used as garnish such as candied or sugared rose petals on cakes because they are so pretty, but many flowers add their own taste to dishes that might need to be spiced up a little, such as using peppery nasturtiums in a salad. I've planted some easy-to-grow nasturtiums amongst the parsley for the past couple of years and have used the whole brightly colored flowers in salads.

Long ago and far away, I made some rose petal jelly and it won a blue ribbon at the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair. I used both pink and white petals from the numerous and fragrant beach roses growing wild at the beaches. Not having a recipe, I used the one for mint jelly that came with the pectin bottle-omitting the green food coloring. The jelly tastes like the roses smell--a lovely, light flavor that is best on plain toast or an English muffin. The jelly made from the white roses tasted the same, but without the amazing pink color it was simply not as inviting. You can use the petals from any un-poisoned roses for jelly, like I did, or for a beautiful, sweet addition to a salad. The best roses to use are the old fashioned ones like climbers or beach roses and not the hybrid teas. Unscented roses won't have much taste, though.

Hibiscus petals used as garnish on this salad. Photo by Stibolt

<< Hibiscus petals used as garnish on this salad.

I have some hibiscus (Hibiscus Rosa-sinensis) shrubs with lovely blooms and I decided to try some as in one of our salads. I picked the flowers early in the day and put them in a bowl of water. When it was time to make the salad I cut the petals from the rest of the flower. (The large reproductive parts of the flowers are often bitter and pollen can cause an allergic reaction in people who suffer from hay fever.) I chopped the petals into large pieces and used them on top of the salad. The salad was quite beautiful, but the hibiscus petals did not add much flavor.

Over the years I've used various flowers from the mint family such as basil, monarda, rosemary, and some of the mints. Members of this family are often found in our herb gardens anyway and are grown as an edible crop. Mints are usually easy to spot because of their square stems and opposite leaves. An advantage for the southern gardeners is that our rosemary, which belongs to the mint family, will bloom in the winter when other edible flowers may be hard to find. Its beautiful blue flowers offer a tasty addition to winter salads. The flowers usually have a milder version of the taste of the vegetation.

Wild-haired meadow garlic flowers are great additions to salads and stir fries.  Photo by Stibolt

Wild-haired meadow garlic flowers are great additions to salads and stir fries.  The flower heads consist of both six-petaled flowers and garlic bulblets with one curly leaf already sprouted. >> 

The onion family includes the onions (Allium cepa), chives (A. schoenoprasum), and garlic (Allium sativum). All of their flowers are edible and add not only an oniony or garlicky flavor, but often a lovely lavender color as well. I have transplanted some meadow garlic (A. canadense) that I found growing wild around here in my herb garden and enjoy their light taste and their wonderful wild-haired flower heads chopped in salads or stir-fried dishes.

Squash (Cucurbita spp)and daylily (Hemerocallis spp) blossoms are traditionally used in tempura. (Don't use flowers from other lilies such as tiger lilies, Asiatic lilies because they may be poisonous.) With tempura, dip and twist the blossoms or buds into a light batter and then fry them in oil until the batter is lightly browned. I also found a couple of recipes for stuffed squash flowers where you remove the reproductive parts in the center and stuff the blossoms with cheddar cheese or a cheese and herb mixture, dip in a batter twisting them to enclose the cheese, and then fry them.

Male and female zucchini flowers.  Photo by Stibolt.

<< On the left, a male zucchini flower is borne on a long stalk. The female flower sits on top of a little squash.  

Growing squash is easy, but if you wish to have both blossoms and squash to eat, use mostly male flowers. The female flowers have the start of a squash under them, while male flowers are borne on a narrow stalk. Sometimes a squash plant may provide so many fruits, that your neighbors might hide to avoid your gifts of more zucchinis. Harvesting some of the flowers will alleviate this overabundance. 

Life is Short. Add Flowers to Your Menu

So do your research, treat your flowers as a crop, and include beautiful edible flowers in your menu. You don't need to wait for company; you can grace your plates with edible blossoms year-round with a little planning.

Resources:

· North Carolina Extension service has an extensive chart with edible flowers and their uses: www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8513.html.
· A Florida Extension Service article, "Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue-And Guess What, They Taste Good Too": http://news.ufl.edu/2001/02/09/edible/.
· This blog has a recipe using chive blossoms in a tabbouleh and provides links to more flower-using recipes: http://cc-calendula.blogspot.com/2007/05/cooking-with-flowers.html.
· This article has a good list of edible flowers: www.epicurean.com/articles/edible-flowers.html.


Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.

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