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Edible Flowers: Beyond a pop of color, flowers bring big flavor

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When it comes to edible flowers, we often think of pretty pansies decorating our plates in fancy restaurants. Sure they’re safe to eat but we don’t often munch on them; instead we push them aside to get to the main course. But edible flowers come in all varieties and tastes. After all, we wouldn’t think of putting them in a base, but both broccoli and Brussels sprouts are edible flowers that we never—or hardly ever—hesitate to eat.

Denise Schreiber, author of Eat Your Roses…Pansies, Lavender and 49 other Delicious Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press $17.95), first discovered edible flowers when touring English gardens.

“Our last stop was Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire,” she recalls. “As all good public gardens in England they had a place for a ‘spot of tea’ at the garden. While my friends munched on scones, I found a cup of rose petal ice cream and found heaven on earth.”

Looking for the recipe upon returning home, Schreiber found several for rose petal ice cream and bunches more for other flower based foods.

According to Schreiber, edible flowers have long been part of our diet since Roman times. But as we became more “modern” flowers as food seems to have disappeared from many but not all cuisines.

“You often see squash blossoms used in Mexican cuisine—usually stuffed and fried,” says Maureen Phillips, head of the Porter County Master Gardeners Association’s committee for Publicity and Marketing.

“Squash blossoms are actually used quite a lot in Italian cooking,” says Schreiber, where they’re stuffed and baked or sautéed.”

Phillips says that daylilies are also tasty if you can get them before the deer do and rose hips are a good source of vitamins.

Suzanna Tudor, a member of the Porter County Master Gardener, remembers as a child watching her aunt decorate a birthday cake with the bright orange, yellow and red petals of old-fashioned nasturtiums and thinking it was amazing.

“She told me, stems and leaves were tossed into the salad and the leaves’ peppery flavor takes an ordinary salad to the next level,” says Tudor. “Some describe it as a cross between mustard and sweetness. And if you don’t have tomatoes, nasturtiums’ red blossoms provide the needed color. Seed pods I’ve learned can be used in place of capers. Besides decorating desserts and tossing with salad, you can add them to omelets, fruit, appetizers, or most anything you prepare. This versatile plant not only adds beauty to flower gardens, but zing and bling to your meals.”

Schreiber says herbal flowers are great just to toss into a salad.

“But people forget about using them,” she says noting that her book contains the uses for flowers as well as recipes. “One that people really don’t know about is Eastern Redbud flowers. It is a native tree across most of the United States with its pink/magenta flower blossoms that come out in the spring all over the branches and trunks of the trees. They are a member of the pea family and taste like fresh peas. You eat them fresh as a garnish on scrambled eggs or in a salad.”

Certain vegetable flowers such as radish and pea flowers as well as broccoli and cauliflower flowers are edible.

“Many times you miss harvesting a plant or two but you can still eat the flower,” says Schreiber offering a caution as well. “Tomato, pepper, eggplant and potato flowers are all poisonous even though their fruit is a mainstay of our diets. They are members of the nightshade family.”

Sidebar: Beginner Guide to Edible Flowers

According to the National Garden Association, any flower that isn’t poisonous or causes a negative reaction is considered edible. But that doesn’t mean it tastes good.

Schreiber recommends beginners first determine whether they like sweet, savory, spicy or peppery flavors pointing out that roses, dianthus and pansies are sweet; lavender can go sweet or savory, bee balm is sweet but spicy and Nasturtiums are definitely peppery.

“People should also check to see if a flower is actually edible,” she continues. “Just because it is on the internet doesn’t mean it is true. I once found African violets listed as edible and they are definitely not! My lists are based on university websites and publications, not amateur websites. If someone isn’t sure about what a flower looks like then they shouldn’t eat it until they know for sure. Just because it’s on a plate doesn’t mean it is edible. Many people don’t know the difference between a daylily and an Asiatic lily. Daylilies are edible and Asiatic lilies are poisonous! I have a list of edible and inedible flowers in the books to give them a heads up on the flowers.”

Before turning your garden into a smorgasbord, consider the following:

Choose flowers at their peak, avoiding those that are not fully open or are starting to wilt.

Positively identify a flower before eating it. Some flowers have look-alikes that aren’t edible.

Don’t eat flowers if you have asthma, allergies or hay fever.

Only eat flowers grown organically so they have no pesticide residue.

Collect flowers for eating in the cooler parts of the day — preferably early morning after the dew has evaporated — or late afternoon.