Flowers have traditionally been used in many types of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cooking. Try nasturtiums as a fresh garnish or in a salad, squash flowers stuffed and fried in light batter or borage flowers frozen in ice cubes and added to beverages. Edible flowers can also be candied, made into jellies and jams, used to make teas or wines, minced and added to butters, or used to make vinegars.
Do not eat any flower unless you are certain it is edible and free of pesticides. You should also not eat flowers from florists, nurseries, garden centers or those found growing on the side of the road. These often contain pesticides or other chemicals that make them unfit for consumption. Introduce flowers into your diet slowly and in moderation because e ven edible flowers can cause indigestion or allergic reactions if eaten in large quantities. Start out using flowers as a garnish, or sprinkling a few petals over a salad. You can also use the flowers from many common herbs, like basil or fennel. Herb flowers and leaves have a similar taste, but the flowers usually have a stronger flavor.
Flowers should be picked in cool of the morning when their water content is highest. Shake the flowers a bit to dislodge any insects that might be hiding in the petal folds, and then remove the pollen-bearing parts of each flower (the pistils and stamen). Pollen can distract from the flavor and for some people eating pollen can trigger allergies or even asthma. If you have asthma or allergies it is best not to eat flowers at all. The sepals or calyx also should be removed from flowers so that you are only eating the petals, with the exception of pansies, violas, Johnny-Jump-Ups and violets. The white base of the petal should be removed from flowers such as dianthus, marigolds and roses as it may impart a bitter taste. Once your flowers have been shaken off and you have removed any inedible parts, wash them under a fine spray of water or in a strainer placed in a large bowl of water. Drain the flowers and allow them to dry on absorbent paper. Your flowers will retain their color and scent best if they dry quickly and are not exposed to direct sunlight.
There are many ways to incorporate flowers into recipes. You can make an herbal tea with bee balm, or steep lavender flowers in honey to infuse it with a subtle floral flavor. Flower syrups make a good base for sorbets or puddings. Mix one cup of water with three cups sugar and 1/2 to one cup of flower petals and boil for 10 minutes, or until thickened. Strain the syrup and refrigerate in a clean glass jar for up to two weeks. Candied violets or rose petals make a lovely cake decoration. If you would like to candy your flowers, paint each flower individually with beaten egg white using a paintbrush, sprinkle with fine sugar and place on a wire rack or wax paper to dry.
Keep in mind that not every flower is edible. Many flowers, such as azaleas, crocus or lily-of-the-valley, are highly toxic. Identify the flower exactly and eat only edible flowers, and the edible parts of those flowers. If you are pregnant, nursing, or have any medical condition you should talk to your doctor before you incorporate edible flowers into your diet.
Some Edible Flowers
Apple Blossoms (Malus species) Eat in moderation; may contain cyanide precursors.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) Sweet, anise-like, licorice flavor
Bee Balm (Monarda species) Citrus, mint flavor. Often used to make a tea.
Borage (Borago officinalis) Light cucumber flavor. Has a diuretic effect; use sparingly.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Spicy, tangy, peppery, flavor.
Chamomile* (Chamaemelum nobile) Faint apple flavor, good as a tea.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) Very young buds have a honey-like flavor.
Dianthus (Dianthus caryophyllus) Spicy, peppery, clove-like flavor.
Dill (Anthum graveolens) The tiny yellow blooms are a good seasoning.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) Mild citrus/cranberry flavor.
Lavender (Lavendula species) Intense sweet, perfumed flavor. Use sparingly.
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) Lemony, floral, pungent.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) Celery-like flavor.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Buds are often pickled and used like capers.
Pansy (Viola X wittrockiana) Very mild sweet to tart flavor.
Scented Garaniums (Pelargonium ) Flavor is usually similar to the leaves’ scent.
Squash (Curcubita pepo ) Are wonderful stir-fried or stuffed.
Violet (Viola odorata) Sweet, perfumed flavor.
* Many ragweed sufferers are also allergic to chamomile.
Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.