Edible Flowers

Blooming delicious: A look at edible flowers

A colourful gardening topic that has passionate gardeners buzzing these days is the tasty realm of edible flowers. Sit down at any trendy restaurant or turn on the latest television cooking show and you will find them there in all their glory. They might be given the task of adorning a simple-looking salad or perhaps turning a classic white icing cake into a vision of beauty. Even still, they transform ordinary elements such as crepes and rice paper into the extraordinary. Edible flowers can do all of this without much fuss.

Although the delicate use of flowers to embellish is relatively new, the general use of flowers in traditional cuisine is not. Rosewater and orange blossom water in the Middle-East and Northern Africa, Saffron in Persia and India and zucchini flowers in Italy have been popular in their respective areas for thousands of years.  

There is no need to dine out to enjoy the enhanced look, flavours and fragrances that come with eating edible flowers – they can be planted and enjoyed at home. A word of caution before we begin- treat edible flowers as you would mushrooms you have found in the wood - with joy and excitement but also with a certain sense of caution. The only way to guarantee that they are edible and have not been touched by pesticides is to grow them yourself from seed. Research before making your choice and, most importantly, do so based on the plant’s scientific name (for example, you will soon discover that not all lavenders are good to eat but, on the positive side, the ones that are edible make delicious ice creams and baked desserts). A general rule of thumb is that a plant with an edible fruit will have an edible flower.

Most people are unknowingly eating edible flowers on a regular basis; broccoli heads, cauliflower heads, capers and globe artichokes are all, in fact, flowers. Finish a meal off with a nice cup of jasmine tea and, once again, you’ve enjoyed a flower. For the sake of adventure, let’s leave the everyday edible flowers behind and look more closely at some exciting choices that may not yet be part of your gardening or culinary repertoire.

BORAGE (borage officinalis)

It is best grown from seed in spring or early summer in a nice sunny spot in soil that drains well. Plant them at a depth of about three times the seed’s diameter in soil at temperatures ranging from 10°C to 25°C. It is easy to grow and will most probably self-seed enthusiastically and spread so be forewarned and manage accordingly. With its beautiful blue flowers, it will add a splash of colour to your garden. The flower has a lovely mild cucumber taste and is fantastic when frozen into ice cubes to give summer cocktails a little flavour lift. Of course, their stunning colour make them popular in salads and as cake decorations too. The young leaves of the plant work well in dishes where cucumber would normally be used such as salads and yogurt sauces. A word to the wise tough – keep your consumption at a reasonable level and treat them as condiments not main ingredients, this goes for most edible flowers. 

NASTURTIUM (Tropaeolum majus)

Native to South America, Nasturtium plants can now be found everywhere and no wonder given their cascading waves of beautiful orange and/or yellow flowers along with their eye catching roundish-shaped green leaves. The flowers and leaves are mildly peppery-tasting making them a delicious ingredient for pestos, salads and flavoured butter or cream cheese. The flowers make ordinary rice paper rolls look decadent when placed between the rice paper and the filling. 
Speaking of stuffed dishes, large nasturtium leaves make the perfect material for wrapping making it a nice alternative to the usual vine leaves. The whole blossom may be used but to avoid possible bitterness, it is best to snip off the base and keep only the petals. They can be planted in pots, hanging baskets and directly in the ground.  

Edible Flowers

VIOLA (Viola tricolor)

Wild pansy, heartsease, heart's ease, heart's delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, love-in-idleness; so many names for such a little flower. Historical references to this flower are numerous with even some Shakespearian verses featuring the viola tricolour and its powerful “love potion” effect.  Magical qualities aside, this flower features front and center on many beautiful modern dishes adding some impressive colour.

The slightly sweet flavour of the lovely little viola flowers with their vibrant purple, lilac and yellow colours make them the perfect choice for sweet dishes. A simple white iced cake can be taken to the next culinary level if covered in a splash of little heartsease. Freezing them into ice cubes or dropping them directly into cocktails also make a grand impression. Since their taste is not overly strong, they also work well as a garnish for salads, rice dishes and other savoury dishes that need some pizzazz.

The viola tricolor will mainly flower in spring and summer and are hardy therefore ideal for anyone that prefers plants with low maintenance qualities. Pots or beds; sun or partial sun; they will be happy in either. For even greater flowering results make sure to deadhead regularly. 

Harvesting and Storage

As a general rule, pick your flowers in the morning after the dew since they are usually fully opened at this time. Some flowers like violas and zucchinis can be eaten as is without fuss but some may need the stamens and pistil removed to avoid bitterness. Taste is subjective though so trial a few combinations: with the stem, without the stem, only the petals,… to see which one suits your palate.
The best way to store flowers is not to do so. Apart from ice cubes, most recipes are best executed by adding the flowers fresh from the garden just before serving to keep them as colourful and vibrant as possible. Think cook-pick-add-serve! If you have a bumper crop and wish to store them for a short period, place them on a damp cloth or paper towel in a sealed container in the fridge or pop them in a vase on the counter.

A last word of advice is to make sure that your edible flowers do more than just look pretty. They need to compliment your dish and ideally enhance its flavour. There is a good selection of cookbooks and websites full of recipes featuring edible flowers that will guide you through your ingredient choices. Possibilities are endless.