With Edible flowers still growing in popularity for 2018 it pays to stay safe and know exactly what you are eating. Flowers have been used for culinary purposes since 140 BC but the risk of eating the wrong thing scares many people into not using them at all. If you are in any doubt, then do not eat - accurate identification is a must. Also anyone susceptible to allergy, especially pollen, should not eat flowers!
Sarah Raven now has a dedicated section on her website for edible flower seeds so this is a really good way of eliminating the guesswork for any novice. Many of them are the most common and well known ones, from Borage to Calendula and Violas. The Fact that they are very widely used for culinary purposes should not put you off though as they look absolutely stunning in salads, drinks, oils and butters. They add the most wonderful colour, flavour and texture to both sweet and savoury dishes and my favourite way of using them is in pancakes; they never fail to wow guests for a Saturday brunch.
Home grown flowers are best as you know exactly what they have been watered with and that they have not been sprayed with any chemicals. (If you have bought your plants from a garden centre then they will need all flowers to be cut off and then to be grown on for at least three months to reduce the risk of pesticide residues.) There are no pesticides which have been specifically approved for use on edible flowers for use in the home garden so the best way to control insects and disease are to run a truly organic garden. One which uses a good balance of predators for a healthy ecosystem. Val Bourne is the ultimate natural gardener and describes her methods in great detail in her book “The Living Jigsaw”. If you do suffer a lingering infestation of pests or diseases then plants will need to be cut back to encourage new growth.
Flowers should be protected from animals is much as possible. I have tried telling the neighbours cat not to use my garden as a litter tray but as they have to date not taken any notice of my repeated squeals and banging on the window I do have to resort with protection in the form of twiggy branches. For the same reason it is also a good idea to avoid using flowers gathered from the roadside – not to mention the dust and pollution which may have settled on them.
There is nothing better than wandering through the garden before breakfast eyeing up the delights which can be feasted upon throughout the day. Planning which flower colours will go with the special lunchtime salad with friends or with the cocktails for a BBQ. As it happens it is best to pick the flowers on a dry morning before the sun gets too hot, this way the colours and flavours will be more intense. Flowers can be left in the fridge for a few days and can also be dried or frozen (though these are best used cooked as they will not have the same form as fresh flowers)
Generally speaking only actual petals are eaten, so remove them from the body of the stem. The bitter “heel” at the base of stems should also be removed. This is with the exception of umbel flowers such as Fennel & Dill which can be used whole. Bees and other insects can be removed by dipping flowers into a bowl of salt water.
Some of my favourite edible flowers are those of vegetables and herbs which I am already growing for culinary purposes and so using the flowers is just the next step. The uses of their flowers mimic the same uses as for the leaves; Basil flowers with Tomatoes, Dill flowers with fish dishes, Chive flowers in salads etc. Borage and mint I grow solely to use in ice cubes and drinks and courgette flowers are just an added bonus. Garden peas can also be picked at the flower stage and as young shoots to be added to salads. We eat all of our peas raw in our house……. none have ever made it as far as the kitchen. They are shelled and popped in the mouth at source!
Great for use in cakes and biscuits I love Lavender and Rose which also both make the most amazing flavoured sugar which we use on fresh strawberries in the summertime. Nasturtium I use throughout my veg plot to attract bugs and deter them from eating away at my veggies but find that I have so many that I can easily use the non infested stems in salads and pasta dishes. Here the whole flowers can be used in addition to leaves, buds or just the petals for a milder flavour. Violets are perhaps the most commonly recognised edible flowers, and with their striking beauty I grow masses of these to be used in salads, summer drinks, cakes & pancakes.
More edible flowers which you can grow yourself include:
Alpine pinks (Dianthus) – Clove-like flavour – Cakes, flavoured sugar, oils and vinegars
Bergamot (Monardia didyma) – Strong Spicy Scent – Savoury dishes and teas Daisy (Bellis perennis) – Not a strong flavour - Garnish for cakes and salads Day lily (Hemerocallis) – Peppery flavour - Stir frys, salads and soups
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) – Sweet & fragrant - Wine and cordials
Hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis) – Citrus- Flavoured tea (enhanced by rosemary) Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) – Use crystallized petals as a garnish Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) – Flavoured sugar, cakes and biscuits Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) – Peppery flavour - Salads and pasta dishes Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) – Peppery flavour - Soups, stews and puddings. Petals can be dried or pickled in vinegar or added to oil or butter Primrose (Primula vulgaris) – Use crystallized petals as a garnish or frozen in ice cubes
Rose (Rosa) – Sweet & Fragrant - The more fragrant the better! Petals can be crystallized, used to flavour drinks & Sugar.
Scented geraniums (Pelagonium) –Crystallized or frozen in ice cubes for summer cordials Sweet violet (Viola odorata) – Delicate flavour - Sweet or savoury dishes. Use candy violets and pansies as a garnish on cakes and soufflés