Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Edible Flowers

It is amazing how many edible flowers you see once you know what to look for. On my tiny Brooklyn patio, many of our flowers aren’t just pretty faces – they taste great, too. It cheers me to see the bright orange and red nasturtiums (my absolute favorite), the last pansies of the season in delicate shades of plum and yellow and white, pungent yellow mizuna flowers, purple basil blossoms and delicate, lacy chervil blooms. In my community garden, the colors and varieties of flowers are even more stunning: lilac-hued chive flowers, creamy white elder flowers borne on giant bushes, hot pink and white blossoms from radishes that got hidden in the bean vines and happy orange calendulas (and soon, the top of my list of edible flowers: squash blossoms). And when I roam around Brooklyn, I see roses and locust-tree flowers, day lilies and marigolds, dandelions and apple blossoms, violets and chamomile. So many flowers to behold. And eat.

A Brief History

Humans have probably been eating flowers since our earliest hunting and gathering days, but archeological proof of this is scanty. Actual evidence of flower eating in antiquity centers on a few specific flowers including roses, saffron crocuses, chrysanthemums and a handful of others. Saffron crocuses were probably first cultivated in Persia; there is documentation of the flower being cultivated in Ancient Greece and other Mediterranean areas for thousands of years. The spice, made from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, was highly prized for its use in food, as a dye and for medicinal purposes, and it continues to be the most expensive spice in the world, fetching $1,500 and up per pound in some modern markets.

Early rose cultivation also began thousands of years ago, probably in both Persia and China. Like saffron, roses have a long history as food – rose petals were eaten in antiquity as a garnish and as candy. Rosewater, the distilled essence of rose flowers, the process of which was invented as early as the 3rd and 4th century (CE) according to the Oxford Companion to Food, was used as a flavoring and medicinal element in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia and South Asia. It is still a common flavor component (especially in sweets) in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent. Chrysanthemum cultivation as food has a very long history as well – the plant was grown as early as the 15th century BCE in China for its flowers, leaves and roots, and the plant is still enjoyed today as tea and as a green vegetable.

Many other flowers have been eaten (or made into tea) for millennia. Nasturtiums are mentioned in Apicius, a cookbook from ancient Rome, as are fennel blossoms (there is even a quite modern-sounding recipe for fried frogs’ legs with a fennel flower garnish). Medieval Europeans and Native Americans made elder flowers into teas and cordials. Orange flower water, a distillation of orange blossoms, was used in Sicily in the 14th century as an air freshener, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that the aromatic liquid was used as a flavoring for food. Dandelions have been used as food and medicine since the 10th Century (CE).  Artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower are also flowers, each with their own interesting culinary history.

Many flowering veggies have flowers that are delicious – including arugula, radish, kale and some types of peas and beans. Other delectable edible flowers include:

  • Pansies, violets and Johnny-jump-ups
  • Marigolds and calendula (aka “pot marigold”)
  • Locust-tree blossoms
  • Banana flowers
  • Zucchini and other squash blossoms
  • Scented geraniums
  • Common day lilies (note: other types of lilies may be toxic)
  • Lilacs
  • Hibiscus
  • Herb flowers (think chives, lavender, rosemary, thyme, basil, dill, mint, sage, bee balm, borage)

Here’s a super long list of even more edible flowers that includes flavor descriptions of each.

Factual Nibbles

  • Nasturtium seeds were apparently used as a substitute for black pepper during WWII. Here is a hilarious account from a British locavore family of their attempts to sub nasturtium seeds for black pepper after they run out. (Teaser: apparently roasted nasturtium seeds smell like “old man’s trousers.” Yum!)
  • Saffron growing (and using it in dishes like chicken pot pie) has a long history in Pennsylvania Dutch communities. Special decorative saffron boxes were even created to hold the precious spice.
  • Tulip bulbs were eaten as a famine food during WWII, although they must be specially prepared to avoid indigestion. Tulip petals are also edible and make beautiful cups for dips. (Note: some people are highly allergic to tulips, so eat sparingly.)

Cultivation

Many edible flowers can be grown in your backyard or on your windowsill, and indeed, because edible flowers can be hard to find, growing your own can open up a world of flower eating possibilities. Try making an edible flower patch or window box: include some flowering herbs (like chives, thyme and lavender), plus pansies, marigolds, scented geraniums and calendula. Nasturtiums are also one of the easiest plants to grow in a container; their trailing nature makes them really beautiful (and tasty) mixed with other edible flowers – and as a bonus, all parts of the plant are edible. If all of those options are too pedestrian for you, you can apparently grow your own saffron. (Just be careful: other varieties of crocus are toxic.) Growing your own hibiscus looks pretty do-able, too. 

Seasonality

You can find edible flowers of some kind or another starting in early spring (like dandelions, violets and pansies) through summer and straight on into fall, although the bulk of the best and brightest flowers are available in late spring through summer: think nasturtiums, roses, squash blossoms, arugula flowers, marigolds and flowering herbs.

Environmental Impact

We’ve talked before about the flower industry and their reliance upon lots and lots of toxic chemicals, especially on flowers classified as “non edibles.” The bottom line: be very careful about where your edible flowers come from. Even flowers from someone’s yard or the side of the road might not be pesticide-free, so use caution there, too. If you can’t grow your own, choose flowers from an organic farm or vendor to ensure your little beauties are chemical-free.

Also: we can’t really mention flowers without talking about bees and the scary stuff about colony collapse disorder that we’ve reported on. Flowers basically exist in order to attract insect pollinators like honeybees – and without bees, a lot of the fruits and veggies we eat would cease to exist. (Colony collapse, a disorder in which entire hives can be decimated, has been linked to neonicotinoid insecticides.) 

Characteristics

So many edible flowers, so many different shapes, colors, sizes and flavors! Of course, it goes without saying that edible flowers are colorful – from dazzling orange nasturtiums to pale purple lilacs to bright red bee balm, you can eat just about every color in the rainbow. Flavors of edible flowers vary wildly, too, from the peppery bite of arugula flowers to the mild squashy-ness of zucchini blossoms.  

What to look for

Look for flowers that are colorful, perky and without brown spots or discoloration. For squash blossoms: some people insist that the male flowers are tastier (male flowers generally have skinnier, hairier stalks than the females – here is a nice description of both, with pictures), but I personally think this is a myth that probably arose from the fact that harvesting the female blossoms can dramatically affect your squash crop (the female blossoms actually develop into squash; males are just there to fertilize and will eventually wither).

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

You probably won’t eat enough flowers to have a huge nutritional benefit, but many (including hibiscus, roses and nasturtiums) are quite high in vitamin C. Flowers are frequently used in herbal medicine: you have probably had a cup of chamomile tea to unwind after a long day, but new evidence shows that the tea, usually made from the flowers of the German chamomile plant, may have immune-boosting properties and could help reduce menstrual cramps in women. Recent studies have linked hibiscus flowers to lowered cholesterol. In herbal medicine, elderflowers are thought to reduce inflammation, bring down fevers and help with respiratory conditions. Calendula flowers are commonly used for skin irritation and rashes.

What to Do with It

Before you eat any flower, be absolutely sure that you’ve made a positive identification, especially if you are foraging. Some flowers are truly toxic; like wild mushrooms, some that are poisonous may look similar to edible varieties. (Just a few examples: most edible pea species have edible flowers, but ornamental sweet peas are toxic. Wild chervil looks a whole lot like poison hemlock, which is super, super deadly.)  If you have bad allergies or hay fever, you may also want to steer clear of eating flowers. It is a good idea to start small and eat flowers sparingly until you know how your body will react. And as mentioned above – be absolutely sure that the flowers you eat were never, ever sprayed with pesticides.

With all of the warnings out of the way: there is so much you can do with flowers, both sweet and savory. Fry them up! Use them as beautiful garnishes! Make them into refreshing drinks, teas, jams and jellies! Bake them into cookies, cakes and tarts! What you do with edible flowers, of course, depends on the type of flower, their size and their flavor.

Cooking

I love flowers in salads. My favorite thing to do is toss whole nasturtium flowers into a green salad for a both peppery punch and a colorful accent. Marigold petals, herb flowers, chopped squash blossoms, rose petals and pansies also look beautiful and taste delicious added to greens. (I like to add whole flowers or flower petals after I’ve dressed a salad – they are so delicate that they tend to wilt under the weight of even the lightest salad dressing.) Flowers also add a lovely touch as a garnish for just about anything. Think outside the box for garnishes: try floating a flower in your favorite cocktail, or topping a platter of jasmine rice with marigold and rose petals.

Flowers in salads and as garnishes are pretty obvious – but what about using flowers as a filling for enchiladas, like these amazing-sounding hibiscus flower enchiladas? And it’s a culinary given that most things taste good fried – but flowers are exceptionally delicious. On the sweeter side, check out Jacques Pépin’s locust blossom fritters or these elderflower fritters. For you lucky folks in more tropical climates, it seems like banana flower fritters should be eaten every day. (This recipe has pictures on how to clean a banana flower in case you were wondering. And speaking of banana flowers, here is a banana flower salad that looks divine.) Common day lilies are also edible and are, apparently, delicious, though I confess that I have never tried them. All parts can be eaten – here is more information and some ideas on how to eat them (sautéed day lily buds!).

I live for the appearance of squash blossoms in my garden and at the farmer’s market so I can make simple fried squash blossoms (or sometimes I get a little fancier and make fried stuffed squash blossoms). Any type of squash flower can be eaten: zucchini, pattypan, crookneck, even winter squash blossoms. Squash blossoms are also classic as a filling for quesadillas. (I live in a Mexican neighborhood and the coffee shop down the street makes killer squash blossom quesadillas with homemade tortillas.)  Here are a couple more ways to eat squash blossoms, including in pasta and baked, if frying them doesn’t float your boat. 

Most edible flowers also look and taste great as toppers for cakes or baked into cookies, like these pansy cookies. This video teaches you how to candy your own pansies and make floral “confetti” for garnish. Edible flowers are also yummy made into ice creams or sorbets (lilac sorbet!), or steeped into tea. For about a million more ideas on eating flowers, check out Miche Bacher’s beautiful book Cooking with Flowers.

Storage

Most edible flowers are very, very perishable after harvest and should be eaten as soon as possible – the same day they are picked, if you can. If not, store them in a single layer in a paper towel-lined shallow container or plate, topped with another paper towel. If you can get your hands on a plastic clamshell (the kind of container pre-washed salad mixes come in), I’ve had success storing larger flowers like zucchini blossoms and nasturtiums in them on a paper towel, in a double layer, with another paper towel in between.

Pro Tips

  • If you are lucky enough to be able to harvest your own flowers, whatever the variety might be, here are a couple of tips:
  • Ideally, harvest flowers early in the morning. Especially in summer, the heat of the day can cause some flowers to droop and wilt. Late afternoon/early evening is a good time to harvest, too. 

For optimum beauty and flavor, choose blossoms that are at their peak. If the flower has already started to brown, take a pass on harvesting.

For all larger blossoms, especially squash blossoms, inspect the inside of the flower to make sure no bugs are lurking inside. (Though they might be a tasty/protein packed addition to your dish?)

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Although flowers are highly perishable, they can be made into jams, jellies, syrups, drinks and even pickles to preserve the harvest. Try your hand at pickled nasturtium pods, stunning rose petal jam or elderflower syrup (I just made it and used a combination of this recipe and this one. I omitted the lemon zest in my version because I thought the lemon oils would overpower the delicate elderflower flavor). Or make a flower jelly – here is a basic recipe that can be applied to many edible flowers.

Recipes

Hibiscus and Elderflower Punch

Hibiscus flowers are tart and floral and refreshing – perfect to make into a punch for a hot summer’s day. Look for dried hibiscus flowers at your local Latin or Caribbean market; some larger grocery stores carry them as well. Elderflower syrup is a sweet mix made from the flowers of the elder bush – it has a delicate, floral, apricot-y, subtly liquorice-y flavor. I am lucky enough to have access to the flowers at my community garden, so I made my own syrup this year, but commercial versions are pretty easy to find online (even Ikea sells it). Feel free to sub sugar, honey or simple syrup to taste. A shot (or two) of rum or a touch of elderflower liquor would give this punch a bit more punch.

Ingredients:
4 cups water
1 star anise pod (optional)
1 cups dried hibiscus flowers
12 cup elderflower syrup, or more to taste
Juice of 2 limes
An additional 3-4 cups of water or sparkling water

Method:

  1. Bring the 4 cups of water and star anise pod to a boil. Add the hibiscus flowers and stir. 
  2. Turn off heat and let steep for 30 minutes.
  3. Strain into a heatproof pitcher, discarding hibiscus flowers and star anise pod. Stir in elderflower syrup. Let mixture cool completely.
  4. Stir in lime juice. If serving immediately, sparkling water may be used, otherwise top with an additional 3-4 cups of water, or to taste. Or, if you prefer, you can keep the concentrate in the fridge and add additional water to individual glasses. (Try 12 concentrate to 12 water.)
  5. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 2 quarts.

Rose Petal Sugar

In her book, Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, the remarkable Najmieh Batmanglij describes the use of roses in Persian cooking and the making of rose flower water, a key ingredient in Persian cuisine and culture. Batmanglij also mentions rose petal sugar: “The fresh petals may also be mixed with stored sugar to make rose petal sugar, infused with the subtle taste and memorable aroma of the flower.” (Because she doesn’t provide a recipe, I had to make it up!) Like vanilla and cardamom sugar, both of which I always have on hand, rose petal sugar adds a delicate and understated flavor element to desserts and beverages. Sprinkle it over berries (especially strawberries), add to cakes and cookies or stir into tea for just a hint of floral flavor. As with all edible flowers, make extra certain that your rose petals were never sprayed with pesticides.

Ingredients:
Fragrant rose petals: 14 cup lightly packed
12 cup raw sugar

In a small jar with a tight fitting lid, layer the rose petals in alternating layers with the sugar. Cover and place in a dark, cool spot. Let sit for at least a week before using.

Makes about 12 cup.


 

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