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Flowers you can eat

Flowers can be used to enhance food flavors

By Susan Marquesen
Penn State Master Gardener &
Master Food Preserver ©2013


Roses. Lavender. Daylilies. Bee balm. Their colorful flowers grace our gardens.  Besides being a feast for our eyes, all of their flowers can be used to enhance the flavor of baked goods, meat dishes, salads, beverages, jams, and jellies. Edible flowers are as versatile in the kitchen as they are in the garden.

You may already have edible flowers in your garden. Woody or herbaceous, many plants have edible flowers that can be incorporated into the landscape.  Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are classic ornamental plants whose flowers were used by Native Americans as a food source. The buds can be pickled and used like capers. The flowers have a sour taste and are rich in vitamin C.

Where space is limited, lemon or orange trees can be grown in containers and overwintered indoors. Orange blossoms steeped in distilled water have been used in Moroccan cooking for centuries.  Shrubs (lilac, rose, elderberry), perennials (bee balm, daylilies, bachelor buttons), herbs (lavender, anise hyssop, chamomile, chives), annual vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, radish, arugula, squash blossoms), bulbs (onions, tulips), annuals (nasturtiums, pot marigold), and even weeds (wild violets and dandelions) have flowers that are edible.
 

pink rose

If you’d like to experiment with adding flowers to your cooking repertoire you must follow several guidelines:

  • First and foremost, know what flowers are edible versus those unpalatable or poisonous. It is a pre-requisite to correctly identify the plants you plan to ingest and know their botanical names-  not to mention you’ll dazzle your non-gardening friends.  For instance, daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are edible but belladonna lily (Amaryllis belladonna), gloriosa lily (Gloriosa spp.), and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) are poisonous.  The flowers from common garden peas (Pisum sativum) are edible, but flowers from sweet peas (Lathyrus spp.) are not. Simply knowing that a plant is a lily or a pea will not suffice if you intend to eat the flowers!
      

  • Know and trust the source of the flower.  Flowers must be organically grown.  It is best to eat what you have grown yourself or have purchased from a trusted source.  It is possible to find some flowers in the market – dried culinary lavender can be found in specialty spice stores.  Do not eat flowers from garden centers or florists.  They may have been sprayed with pesticides.  Do not eat flowers harvested from the side of the road or a neighbor’s front path – dogs may have “watered” them.
      

  • Introduce this new food category into your diet judiciously.  Like any food, flowers can be allergens.  Individuals with asthma, allergies, or hay fever should avoid flowers from the daisy family.
      

  • Within a genus, cultivars may have different flavors and some may be more appealing than others.  The deep red varieties of bee balm, such as Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’, have large delicate petals with a spicy but sweet flavor.


Freshly harvested edible flowers can be used in a myriad of sweet or savory recipes.  Start by adding a mixture of petals (nasturtiums, borage, violets) into a salad of mixed greens.  Top a hot vegetable dish with chive or onion blossoms. 

The following books are excellent sources for expanding your palate using edible flowers:  

  • The Edible Flower Garden by Rosalind Creasy

  • Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate by Cathy Wilkinson Barash

  • Eat Your Roses:…Pansies, Lavender, and 49 Other Delicious Edible Flowers by Denise Schreiber (a Pittsburgher!)

 

The best time to harvest edible flowers is, as with herbs, in the morning after the dew has dried but before the blooms are wilted by the heat of the day.  Remove the stamen and pistil.  It is the flower petal that you want to eat.  Gently rinse the petals in cool water and drain.  A few flowers require extra effort.  Roses and tulips have a lovely flavor, but the white base tends to be bitter, so it must be removed.  Pinch or cut it off.

While many recipes call for fresh flowers, petals can also be preserved for later use.  There are many methods of preserving. It is critical to know which methods are safe and to implement them correctly.  Drying is a safe, simple method, although some flowers lose their delicate flavor when dried.  Store dried flowers in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place for up to one year. 

“Candy” rose petals and violets to embellish your favorite dessert.  Even the most skilled baker would be hard-pressed to improve on a glistening, natural flower. Candying is accomplished by painting frothed, pasteurized egg whites onto the entire flower or petal. Next, superfine sugar is gently dusted on the flowers. Air-drying, on a rack, is the final step. Sugared petals can be stored in single layers in an airtight container for up to one year.

Many flowers freeze well: violets in ice cubes are an elegant addition to lemonade.  You can safely infuse the flavor of edible flowers in water, sugar, sugar syrups, and butter (refrigerate and use within a few days).  Do not infuse edible flowers in oil or honey as this method poses a risk of botulism.  If you want to preserve flowers in jams or jellies use a reputable source for instructions and recipes.  Reliable, research-based sources include:

  • Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving by the USDA

  • Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving

  • Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

  • Publications released from a university cooperative extension, such as So Easy to Preserve from the Cooperative Extension of the University of Georgia or  “Let’s Preserve”, a series of brochures issued by Penn State University. The Penn State brochures can be obtained at: extension.psu.edu/food/preservation/safe-methods/lets-preserve

The 13th annual Edible Flowers Food Fest was held on July 18, 2003 at the Buffalo Inn in South Park.  It was co-sponsored by Allegheny County Parks and the Penn State Master Gardeners of Allegheny County, and all proceeds benefited Allegheny County Parks.

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