Literally under our noses is the delicious and delightful tradition of incorporating edible flowers into our meals. Our ancestors knew the pleasures of cooking with and enjoying edible flowers. Flowers were added to salads and soups. Other traditional preparations include dandelion wine, elderberry cordials, rose petal jam, and medicinal syrups of thyme, lavender, or mint. Edible flowers have long been appreciated for their beauty as well as their medicinal and nutritional properties.
Adding a sprinkle of edible flowers to your meals brings a bit of colorful magic to the table. Most of us have enjoyed flowers as food or drink. If you have ever had the delicious jamaica (hibiscus) agua fresca, a stuffed squash blossom, a cup of chamomile or lavender tea, or peppery nasturtium flowers in a salad, you’ve tried an edible flower. Growing a few different edible flowers in your garden or a container is completely attainable for most people. From a colorful pansy to a wild, weed-like dandelion, incorporating edible flowers into your meals and garden is simple and fun.
Always know the conditions under which edible flowers were grown. Flowers sold for arrangements at the grocery store or florist should never be eaten. Do not harvest unless you are certain the plants were never sprayed. It’s also essential that you are sure of the species. Anyone can have a reaction to a plant or flower, so it’s always best to taste a small amount first. In sum, use common sense. If in doubt, don’t eat it. If you feel like you are having a reaction to an edible flower, discontinue use.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
The flower petals have a mildly spicy, peppery, pungent flavor. Also known as “poor man’s Saffron” as it adds a warm orange color to savory dishes. Lovely tossed into salads. Does well in full sun and reseeds for abundant blooms the next year. Harvest flowers regularly to increase blooms. May be dried and stored in a glass jar for use throughout the year.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
These striking blue violet star-like flowers taste similar to a mild cucumber. Freeze whole flowers in ice cubes for a special look in cocktails or punches. Grows easily in the garden and reseeds itself.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Thought of as a weed, but has a storied tradition as a food or medicine. All parts of the plant are edible, from flowers to root. Check out recipes for dandelion wine or flower fritters and use the greens in salads; the dried roots are used medicinally and as a coffee substitute. Best to grow your own from seed as the much-maligned dandelion is heavily sprayed with pesticides.
Nasturtium (Nasturtium officinale)
The flowers are mildly peppery. Leaves, stems, and even the green seed pods are edible and have a stronger, zingier flavor, making them great for salads. The flowers are a wonderful garnish—use whole or shred the petals, and serve as soon as possible after picking. Adorn salads or press flowers into cheeses, butters, or desserts. The trailing vines grow heartily but die back quickly at summer’s end.
Roses (Rosaceae spp.)
If you grow your own roses organically, using the petals in a variety of ways is sublime. A favorite preparation of herbalists is to pour honey over fresh organic rose petals and allow to steep until a syrup is created, 7-10 days. Strain and use the rose syrup as you would honey or to flavor teas, cocktails, and desserts.
Violets (Viola odorata) or Pansies (Viola tricolor)
Huge variety of colors, mildly flavored, delightful subtle scent. These are perfect for coating in sugar and using for decorations, or scatter the petals in salads or as a colorful garnish on desserts, cheese boards, etc. Easy to grow, but prefers shady, cool areas, which is sometimes challenging to find in Southern California.
This is a fun recipe project to make with children (or the young at heart) and is the perfect edible decoration for a special cake, dessert, or meal. The day you plan to use the flower-fetti, gather fresh blossoms—a colorful combination of calendula, pansies or violets, nasturtiums, and borage is nice. Gently pull the petals off and fill a small bowl. If some of the flower petals are very large, snip them into smaller pieces with kitchen shears.
Mix gently and sprinkle on top of a frosted cake or cupcakes, or garnish salads, appetizers, or anything you like. This is an unexpected visual delight and looks as lovely as it tastes.
These common flowers have been used in a variety of cultures.
Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spectabilis and Bougainvillea glabra)
Beautiful and abundant bougainvillea originated in eastern South America and is native to Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. It’s famously used in Mexico and South America as a tea during cold and flu season and is especially helpful in calming a cough. After the tea is made, lime juice and honey are added. If you want to try this tea, I recommend purchasing dried flowers from a known retailer. Bougainvillea has been extensively hybridized and only certain species should be consumed.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.)
Beloved in China, daylilies (Hemerocallis citrina) have been eaten there for centuries and are best eaten cooked. Daylilies have been cultivated extensively as an ornamental plant. If you choose to grow your own for cooking, look for a plant in the Hemerocallis species family. A common preparation of daylilies is to harvest the unopened buds and gently sauté them in olive oil with a bit of onion or garlic.
Yucca Flowers (Yucca aloifolia)
The entire plant was traditionally used across the Southwest. The young flowers can be incorporated into salads and eaten fresh. The flavor is cool, mildly aromatic, and crispy. Check for small bugs before eating the flower petals. Harvesting the flowers is challenging—beware the spiky leaves at the root of the plant.
I hope some of these suggestions inspire you to try edible flowers. A pleasant way to start is to choose a flower that appeals to you and grow a few either in your garden and or in a pot. Experiment with incorporating the flowers into your meals. This ancient practice brings color, flavor, and nutrition to meals.
Are You a Flower Eater originally published in the spring 2023 issue.