Toronto Star Column – August 28th, 2010
Go Out on a Limb – Eat Flowers!
Chances are you would turn your nose up at the idea of eating flowers fresh from the garden. In the silos of our mind there is a place for the colourful petals found in the yard and it is not on our dinner plate. Much better to leave them on the plants that grew them in the first place where they can work their magic with the “birds and the bees”. (Yuck – another image we will put aside for the moment – insect sex going on in the garden ALSO has no place on the dinner table.)
But I remind you that there are plenty of flowers on your fork already. The broccoli and cauliflower that we consume are both flowers and stems that nutrition authorities hold up as anti-bad-stuff golden boys. Looking for disease prevention, increased energy, sharper mind and longer life? Eat your broccoli, we are told. ‘Gassy’ vegetables generally are considered good-health champions.
I might add that you consume a volume of seeds too, in the form of peas, beans, peanuts (all nuts!), wheat, barley (all grains!) and beer (grain and hops) to name just a few.
So eating some of the flowers that grow in your garden and containers is not such a stretch after all.
Common Flowers worth Reaching For.
Calendula. (Calendula officinalis)
I grow a row of ‘pot marigolds’ (so named because they grow well in pots, just for the record) in my vegetable garden. These annuals produce a generous quantity of pale yellow to deep orange flowers atop erect 50 cm stems. Grown from seed they bloom in my garden from mid summer to frost. Calendulas have a slightly bitter flavour and are valued most for their colour, which varies between vibrant yellows and oranges and always is a stand-out. Use the petals in soups, salads, butter, rice, stews, or in tea.
To make a great tasting tea use 2 tablespoons of chopped calendula flowers or 1 tablespoon of dried flowers for 4 cups of water, steep for 5 to 10 minutes, strain and serve.
Dry individual flower petals of calendula on paper and store in a moisture-tight container.
Bee balm. (Monarda didyma)
Bee balm flowers have a citrus, minty flavour (they are members of the mint family, so no surprise). Use in salads, as garnishes, or to make tea. Follow same procedure as with calendula.
Bee balm is a perennial native plant that has been hybridized into a wide range of colours including white, pink, red, and purple flowers. They add colour to most any dish, are easy to grow in the sun, spread aggressively from year to year, are mostly insect and disease free, bloom for 6 weeks (longer if you remove the spent flowers) and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. And now you know that you can eat it, you realize that it is the perfect plant.
Daylilies. (Hemerocallis species)
Daylilies are great perennials that are easy to grow in the sun, vary in height from 25 to 90 cm, bloom from early summer to early fall (depending on variety or cultivar) are disease and insect resistant and tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions. They are not related to Oriental lilies, therefore are not susceptible to the dreaded lily beetle.
Flowers of the daylily have a sweet flavour, especially the yellows and oranges. Use in salads or as garnishes. Float in a punch bowl or stuff with soft cheeses for an appetizer and see if you get any comments from your dinner guests.
Dried daylily flowers are important ingredients in Chinese sweet and sour soup.
Nasturtium. (Tropaeolum majus)
The entire plant is edible, so go nuts with this one. But try to avoid the aphids, which love nasturtium. They have a unique peppery, zesty taste that can substitute for mustard in sandwiches. Add to salads for flavour and colour. They make an attractive garnish on a plate or add colour when petals are added to butter. Seeds are often preserved in vinegar.
Roses. (Rosa species)
Chances are I do not have to introduce you the rose family. Bringing rose flowers to the table will require some field research on your part as the flavour varies a great deal from variety and species. Generally the flowers of the older types such as rugosa roses are the most flavourful. They have a perfumed taste which is not to everyone’s liking (myself included) but you can avoid the often bitter taste of the rose petal by removing the whitish portion of the petals before serving. Add to salad and make jelly.
Rules of Engagement.
Before you head out to the garden to forage for flower petals in your garden or into other people’s gardens, keep a few things in mind:
– The first rule of using edible flowers in the kitchen is to make sure that they are indeed edible.
– Make sure that you know if the plant has had pesticides applied and if so, what, when and is it safe for human consumption? If it was insecticidal soap, no problem. Most anything else, forget it.
– Avoid plants that have diseases: black spot or powdery mildew and the like could cause you harm but more than likely they will just taste bad.
– When harvesting seeds (as in nasturtiums) remember the rule about pesticides and when buying seeds for human consumption the same rule applies. Assume that the seeds you buy off a seed rack have been treated chemically, unless stated otherwise.
– If you are harvesting flowers from a public garden or a private garden, be sure that you have permission to do so (I can’t believe that I need to say this but alas, I do).
– Be mindful of people with allergies.
– Do not harvest flowers from the roadside or consume flowers purchased as ‘cut flowers’ – you can be almost certain that they have been sprayed with something that is not good for you.
For Best Flavour
– Harvest in the morning after the dew has evaporated.
– Put long-stemmed flowers in water and keep in a cool place.
– Use short-stemmed flowers within a few hours of picking or store in plastic bag between layers of damp paper toweling.
– Remove the stamens and pistols from most flowers (violas and violets excepted).
My short list of edible flowers includes chives (which taste of all things like chives!), chamomile, borage, violets (Viola odorata) and Johnny jump-ups (Viola tricolour).
There is still a lot of time in the gardening season to go out on a limb by adding some fresh flowers to your diet.