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I remember eating flowers as a small child. I recall the pure, sweet flavor of a rose petal and the clovelike spiciness of a dianthus flower plucked from the garden. My father, who had shown me how to suck the sweet nectar from wild honeysuckle blossoms, was nonetheless upset when he caught me eating garden flowers. He didn’t realize that many flowers are edible and, in fact, have been esteemed as food throughout the world for millennia.
Far more flowers show up on dinner plates now than they did ten years ago, when I first started working with edible flowers. Edible flowers are found in restaurants from coast to coast, featured in magazines, and included in cookbooks, but most people still regard them only as garnishes. Rarely are flowers appreciated for their unusual, varied flavors.
If you think that herb flowers are a pretty but superfluous part of the plant, think again. Most are a subtle seasoning in their own right, with a flavor similar to but milder than that of the leaf.
Given that more than 70 kinds of plants (and their cultivars) produce flowers that are safe to eat, the culinary possibilities are almost limitless. In developing flower recipes, I’ve come to place flowers into flavor groups such as herbal, sweet and floral. My list of edible flowers is according to flavor, and some, such as bitter, that may not appeal to everyone. Familiarize yourself with flowers in each of these groups, then learn how to use them as food.
When I began to cook with flowers, I used one kind at a time. Before long, I was mixing complementary flavors in recipes much as I would herb leaves. Now I sprinkle flower blends like confetti on mashed potatoes and grilled fish, mix them into butter or softened cream cheese, and scatter them over ice cream and other desserts. I use sweet flowers in desserts, savory flowers with meats, and both for salads and cheese dips and spreads. Sometimes I even coordinate flower colors, such as pinkish mauve chives with rose-of-Sharon, sage and thyme.
Toward the end of the gardening season, I mix flowers of similar flavors into cream cheese or butter, form the mixture into balls, wrap them in plastic wrap, and freeze them. In the depths of winter, when the colors and flavors of flowers are sure to cheer me, I can use flower balls to add flavor and color to dips, vegetables and breads.
Flowers with a simple, sweet flavor as well as those with a perfumed or floral taste are unbeatable for flavoring beverages, fruit salads and cake batter. Pineapple sage flowers have a hint of spice; dandelion flowers are sweet when they first open but become bitter as they mature. Honeysuckle’s sweet flavor is as magical to me today as it was when I first tasted it more than forty years ago. I make a luscious sorbet with the flowers, strawberries and water—no additional sugar is needed.
‘Sensation’, a showstopping lilac cultivar with deep purple flowers edged in white, is extremely flavorful and fragrant, but some varieties have a grassy flavor (those I don’t bother with). My favorite of all edible flowers are the succulent, fuchsialike blossoms of pineapple guava, a tropical tree that I grow in a tub and move outdoors is summer; they taste like ripe papaya. Flowers with a sweet, perfumy flavor, including lavender and sweet violet, can be overpowering, so use them sparingly.
Sweet flowers can be an interesting addition to fruit salsas and fish dishes. Try flavoring vodka with the citrusy flavors of lemon or orange blossoms or tuberous begonias; the orange, yellow or red begonia flowers color the vodka as well.
Use only the individual florets of elderberry flowers; the flower stems are toxic. Coumarin in sweet woodruff’s mild white flowers, a staple ingredient of May wine, can slow blood clotting; people with a clotting disorder or those taking a blood thinner should not eat the flowers.
All of the mints, whether peppermint, spearmint or the less familiar apple mint, ginger mint and others, have flowers with a flavor like that of the leaves. Mint flowers add a cool sparkle to yogurt sauces and vanilla ice cream.
Johnny jump-ups and pansies also have a mild minty flavor. Their delightful faces are particularly attractive placed on cheese. I once saw a grilled veal chop sauced with a thin layer of parsnip puree and covered with Johnny jump-ups; with only the bone showing, it looked like a flowery lollipop. The mint flavor of the flowers complemented the grilled chop perfectly.
Red bee balm’s mint flavor has a strong, spicy overtone; other colors I’ve tried taste like mothballs. The licorice-anise flavors of anise hyssop and fennel flowers cleanse the palate and freshen the breath, and the flowers are fun to nibble on in the garden. Anise hyssop, with spikes of tiny violet florets from midsummer to frost, is one of my all-time favorites. Fennel’s yellow umbels pair well with cauliflower and lima beans and add a different flavor to apple pie.
The red, orange or yellow blooms of nasturtiums are everywhere these days, from restaurant salad plates to supermarket mesclun mixes. People tasting them for the first time often are surprised by their peppery flavor. Some of the newer cultivars have a sweet taste first, followed by a good peppery kick.
Arugula and mustard leaves are found in many salad mixes. If you grow these greens, you know that the leaves become too bitter to eat when the plants bloom. Instead of digging out the plants, enjoy the tang of the pale yellow, four-petaled flowers. You can also pick the flowers of broccoli and radishes that are past their prime. With distinctive flavors much like the vegetables themselves, they are especially well suited for salads.
The flowers of the edible alliums and their relatives are composed of clusters of florets. Because the flavor may be very strong, you’ll want to break the flowers into individual florets when cooking or garnishing with them rather than use the entire flower head.
I couldn’t bear to be without chive flowers. Harvesting them from the time they begin to bloom in spring keeps them coming, although less profusely, all summer. Rub an entire mauve pom-pom in a wooden salad bowl to give a good oniony flavor to your salad and use florets to flavor marinades.
In late summer, garlic chives can contribute their white umbels of flowers to stir-fried dishes. The delicate lilac flowers of society garlic have the mildest flavor of this group. Sautéed nodding onion heads are a good addition to soups and stocks in midsummer.
Edible herb flowers include the yellow umbels of dill, which give a dill flavor to pickling solutions and pair well with shellfish, and thymes, whose flowers may taste of lemon, caraway or garden thyme, depending on the variety. The tiny flowers of sweet marjoram are more delicately flavored than those of its cousin Greek oregano; both are favorites for flavoring vinegar. Basil’s delicate flowers uplift an otherwise ordinary pesto. Cilantro flowers have a mild flavor reminiscent of the leaves.
These herb flowers consort well with vegetables, whether sprinkled atop cooked ones or mixed with oil and vinegar in a salad dressing. Chopped and mixed with sweet butter, they make a perky topping to baked or boiled potatoes. A little hyssop goes a long way; it tastes a little like quinine, but it is excellent in a robust salad dressing. Parsley is one of the few culinary herbs with nonedible flowers.
It’s no surprise that bean blossoms taste like beans. Their colors, ranging from white through pink to vivid red, add a dimension to any dish. What is surprising is that tulips taste like beans—or peas, depending on the variety. ‘Court Lady’, an ivory tulip with a stroke of green down the center of the petals, tastes distinctly like ‘Sugar Snap’ peas. In fact, the base of the petal even gives a wonderful crunch when you bite into it.
The small pink flowers of the redbud tree, another member of the pea family, also have a good beanlike flavor and crunch that are especially good in pasta with asparagus, which is in season at the same time.
Cathy Barash is a garden photographer, writer, and editor for Meredith Books in Des Moines, Iowa.
Barash, Cathy Wilkinson. Edible Flowers: Desserts & Drinks. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1997.
———. Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1993.
Belsinger, Susan. Flowers in the Kitchen: A Bouquet of Tasty Recipes. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1991.
Morse, Kitty. Edible Flowers, A Kitchen Companion. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1995.
Smith, Leona W., Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery. Gretna, Louisana: Pelican, Inc., 1985.