Whether we like them or not, we’re all familiar with at least a couple of herbs, and whilst we may not be entirely sure which ones work best with our favourite foods, there will always be a recipe book to help us out (and a blog post outlining the benefits of them – did you see it?). But what about non-herbaceous plants? There are a number of flowers – quite possibly already growing in your garden – that can be served up in a variety of ways, so we’ve taken a look at what you may have, how they should be harvested and what you can do with them…
Wherever possible, pick the flowers early in the morning, before they get too much sun; alternatively, you can keep them in your fridge in a plastic container once they’ve been washed and dried, but do use them as soon as you can to ensure freshness. Dipping them in a bowl of water and shaking gently should remove any unwanted hitchhikers, but do check before storing and again before eating.
Although some flowers like Pansies can be eaten whole, generally speaking, petals are the best part of the plant, but if you are in any doubt as to whether a flower is safe to eat, avoid it completely or do some more research – there are many books dedicated to the subject. If you suffer with allergies – particularly those that are pollen related – you might also want to give this subject a wide berth.
There are a couple of other points to consider: you shouldn’t pick faded, dusty, old or discoloured flowers or any that are near a road or an area that animals use; you should never consume flowers from your garden if you have treated the plants with pesticides, but if you use a more organic approach, be sure you're not about to eat a bug's leftovers; once again, if there’s any doubt, leave well alone.
So, if your garden is safe for consumption, which flowers should you choose? Well, that very much depends on what you want to eat! Many varieties work well in salads, others in desserts, and some in hot dishes, so we've created a rough guide to the tastes of some of our favourite garden flowers:
Antirrhinum: Technically, they are edible, but they have a very unpalatable, bitter flavour; it’s your choice… Maybe reserve them for decorative purposes.
Calendula: The petals are peppery so work well in hot and cold dishes and can even be used as an alternative to saffron.
Carnations: Another peppery flower, tasting somewhat like cloves, making them suitable for both savoury and sweet dishes.
Chrysanthemums: Whilst all Chrysanthemum flowers can be eaten, they can differ considerably in taste with some hot and peppery, some much milder and some sweet. Trying them before using would be advisable.
Cornflowers: Cornflowers are another flower with a clove-like flavour, but they also crystallize well so can be used to decorate cakes and desserts.
Dianthus: Dianthus – or pinks – petals can be steeped in wine or sugared for use in cake decoration. These petals are surprisingly sweet as long as they are cut away from the bitter white base of the flowers.
French Marigolds: Fresh, zingy and citrus-like, the petals of French (not African) Marigolds are edible, and are another great, colourful addition to summer salads. The petals can also be used in cooked dishes and are also sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s saffron’.
Gladioli: Gladioli in their colourful hues can be stuffed to create delicious dishes. The individual flower petals can also be eaten alone, and have a mild lettuce-like taste.
Hollyhocks: The blowsy blooms of the Hollyhock are some of the most versatile edible flowers, with a mild and slightly sweet taste. They can also be used as garnishes, in salad dressings or in a variety of other dishes. Hollyhocks are part of the mallow family, and a number of other members of this family also have edible leaves and flowers.
Honeysuckle: Honeysuckle blossoms bring a fragrant sweetness to jams, jellies, cakes and other sweet treats. As the name suggests, they do have a somewhat honey-like taste to them.
Hostas: Hostas are an incredibly useful edible ornamental. You can eat the flowers and, in fact, the whole plant. Try the stolons in a stir fry in spring, or leaves along with the flowers in a range of raw or cooked recipes.
Nasturtiums: Nasturtiums have a delicious, peppery taste, similar to rocket or watercress, and their colourful blooms look great in a summer salad. Both the flowers and the leaves can be used and have a similar taste. You can also use the seeds, pickled, as a caper substitute.
Pansies: With a mild lettuce-like taste, Pansies are popular option for salads. As they come in a range of hues, they look great on the plate, but the whole flower can be used, which makes harvesting super easy.
Roses: Roses are often used in Middle Eastern dishes in the form of rose water which adds an intense, fragrant flavour to a dish, but the petals can simply be used as garnishes or additions to a range of recipes.
Sunflowers: You may be familiar with the fact you can eat Sunflower seeds, but you may not be aware that you can also eat the petals, and the unopened flower buds can be steamed in the same way as an artichoke.
Tulips: Large, smooth Tulip petals make wonderful little platters for sweet canapés and unusual little scoops for ice cream, but they can also be used for other desserts. They have a sweet lettuce flavour but with a slight peppery aftertaste so can also be added to spring salads.
Violas: Like pansies, Violas and Violets have a mild and slightly sweet flavour. Again, the whole flower can be used in salads or sandwiches, but candied Violets also make excellent cake decorations.
If you’re undecided and can't quite commit to the inclusion of your favourite flowers in your favourite dish, they'll look stunning as garnishes and decorations instead.
Please note this post is merely a guide. Only consume flowers that you are absolutely certain have been identified correctly; if you are in any doubt, you should avoid eating anything without the proper research or speaking to an expert.