FLOWERS YOU CAN EAT

Published in The Nimbin Good Times, August 2005. 

Nimbin Plant Selection Guide


David McMinn

There are many beautiful, edible flowers, which can impart delicious subtle flavours in cooking and look stunning as a colourful garnish. The only limitation is one's imagination. Flowers have been used for flavour, colour and garnish in the cuisines of all the great ancient civilisations. The Romans, Chinese, Indians, Egyptians and Persians appreciated flowers in their culinary dishes. In modern times, flowers are hardy ever eaten, apart from cauliflowers, broccoli and artichokes. Any 'fresh' vegetables now sold in supermarkets need to be able to store well during long distance haulage. Alas, most flowers are fragile and unsuitable for this purpose. Even so, you can still grow your own beautiful flowers to enhance your garden, with the added bonus of providing edible fresh flowers for the kitchen.

When using flowers as food, there are several key points to remember: 
*    Use the flowers as soon as possible after harvesting, because they can deteriorate quickly. 
*    Use only the petals of most flowers, discarding the stamen, sepal and the base of the flower. This is very important for people allergic to pollen.
*    Never eat flowers from florists or nurseries, as they probably have been sprayed with chemicals.
*    Only eat flowers from sites known to be spray free. 
*    Never serve inedible/poisonous flowers on a platter. They may look pretty, but people will always assume that they are part of the meal with possible dire consequences.
*    The taste of the flowers varies enormously according to growing conditions, age and variety.
*    Taste sample many varieties of a given species to find the most palatable.

*    If you suffer from allergies, eat flowers carefully, because complications may arise.
*    Do not eat too many flowers, as they can cause digestive upsets. Usually, a garnish is better than a main course.  

CAUTION: Make sure that you identify the flower species correctly. An error can result in serious illness or even death. One friend saw some blue-flowered plants in a neighbour's garden and thought - Comfrey. The leaves were steamed and served with a nice dressing to her husband. There was only one problem - it was actually Forget Me Knot, which, if poisonous, could have killed him. These two species look completely different and such an error should never have been made. MANY FLOWERS ARE POISONOUS, such as Azalea, Hydrangea, Morning Glory, Lantana, Oleander, Pittosporum, Sweet Pea, Wisteria and many others. Take care in the garden as eating the wrong plant can cause death or severe allergic reactions.

Culinary Delights

There are many flower recipes on the internet for those interested. A few suggestions are presented as follows:
*    Salads: A garnish of flowers adds colour, texture and flavour to salads. You can crisp the flowers beforehand by soaking them in iced water. Petals may also be used on soups and on steamed vegetables. 
*    Pickled Flowers: Multiple layer petals or flower buds in a glass or ceramic container, covering each layer with sugar. Add boiling apple cider or white wine vinegar and a sprinkle of mace. Seal and leave for at least four days before eating. 
*    Flower Sugar. Thoroughly pound flower petals and sugar with a mortar and pestle. Seal and leave it aside for 7 days then store in an airtight container.
*    Deep Fried Flowers. Cover the bud or petals with batter and then drop it in a deep frying pan containing peanut or corn oil. Fry until golden. Drain and sprinkle with sugar or melted butter. Not the healthiest option.
*    Petal Pancakes. Mix as many flower petals as the batter can reasonably hold. Then cook as for pancakes. 

Beautiful Delicious Flowers

Calendula (Calendula officinalis & cultivars). Also called Marigold. Calendulas have a wonderful edible flower with golden yellow petals. Flavours are variable so you will have to find varieties that most appeal to your palate. Sprinkle petals on soups, salads, scrambled eggs and anything else that takes your fancy.

Artichoke (Cynara scolymus & cultivars) is one of the few plants with an edible flower head that is sold commercially as a vegetable. It is related to the thistle and would make an interesting addition to the flower garden.

Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum species & cultivars) flowers come in a wide variety of colours - red, white, yellow and orange. The taste depends on the variety, but it ranges from ' faint peppery to mild cauliflower'. Only use the petals, as the flower base is bitter. It is best to blanch the petals, before scattering them on a salad. Young Chrysanthemum leaves and stems, known as Shingiku in Japan, are widely used in oriental cooking. Chrysanthemum petals will become bitter if overcooked.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Course, upright plants to 2m with a large attractive flower head. The young buds can be eaten as a vegetable after they have been lightly steamed. They apparently taste like artichokes. The yellow petals on the flowers can be used in salads and have a bittersweet flavour. The remaining flower head can be left in the garden to provide seed for the birds and for growing your sunflower sprouts.

Daylily (Hemerocallis species & cultivars). These perennial plants have a tuberous root system and fleshy roots. They form attractive clumps with arching sword shaped leaves. The lily-like flowers are produced in clusters on stems that stand well above the leafy foliage. The flavour tastes like a sweet lettuce. Use only the petals and remove the bitter white base of the flower. It is suitable a salad garnish or in stuffed flower recipes. Do not confuse with lilies, which may contain poisonous alkaloids. 

Hibiscus (Hibiscus species and cultivars). These flowers have been described as having a 'cranberry-like flavour with citrus overtones'. They certainly are very colourful, coming in a range of brilliant hues. The petals should be used sparingly in salads. The Native Rosella (Hibiscus heterophyllus), found in the Nimbin area, may be utilised for its flowers, while the young leaves can be steamed as a spinach. The tart calyx may be cooked to produce sauces and jams. It should be harvested after the petals fall and the sepals form around the seed pod. (This seed pod is removed before use.)

Scented Geranium (Pelargonium species & cultivars). Geranium flowers usually come in reds, pinks and pastels. The plant also occurs in a large range of flavours - lime, thyme, mint, rose nutmeg, apple and many others. Usually the flower flavour corresponds to the variety. For example, lemon - scented geraniums produce lemon - scented flowers. Choose the flavour of the Geranium to compliment the food you are preparing. Sprinkle the flowers over salads or deserts. Caution: The Citronelle variety may be inedible.

Rose (Rosa cultivars). Flavours depend very much on the variety, as some just taste better than others. Harvest the darkest, most fragrant roses, as they have the most flavour. Only the petals are used in punches, sorbets, syrups, jellies and many other recipes. It is probably much easier to buy rosewater for cooking, rather than making your own. Rose hips (the fruit) may also be collected and eaten, as they have a very high Vitamin C content.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus & cultivars) flowers come in a colour range of brilliant sunset hues. The blossoms have a sweet, peppery flavour and can be stuffed whole with a savoury mousse. The peppery leaves enhance a salad and can be used in place of watercress recipes. Pickled seed pods are an alternative to capers.

Violet (Viola ordorata & cultivars) have a perfumed flavour and a beautiful deep violet colour. You can eat the tender young Violet flowers in salads. The flowers are also great to embellish desserts or to make crystallised flowers or violet sorbet. The heart shaped leaves can be cooked like spinach
. Related flowers, Viola, Heartsease and Pansy, can also be eaten, coming in a range of colour - purples, yellows, apricot and pastel hues.  

These are just a few of the many flowers that can be eaten, adding a whole new dimension to your enjoyment of food.

Disclaimer: The author has thoroughly researched this article. Even so, people eating the flowers recommended in this listing do so entirely at their own risk. Neither the author or NGT can be held responsible for any adverse reaction to the flowers.