Edible flowers have been used to flavor and garnish culinary creations for centuries. Some archeologists have found that the culinary use of flowers dates back to the Romans and Greeks, as well as the Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures. Edible flowers are still popular today, in North America, and are often used as decorations on wedding cakes, in salads, and in beverages.
In Colorado, you can find edible flowers at some farmers’ markets and high-end specialty stores such as Whole Foods, but you can also grow them yourself, which is what Greenhouse Crops Extension Specialist at Colorado State University, Dr. Steven Newman, suggests people try.
“In Colorado, edible flowers include violas, pansies, nasturtiums, squash blossoms, and garlic chives, among others, said Dr. Newman. “Using these tasty and attractive flowers in different foods adds a little fun to your meal.”
Dr. Newman does not recommend buying flowers from florists, garden centers, or nurseries as they do not necessarily use sanitary handling practices and are not grown for consumption. He suggests collecting flowers from plants that have been fertilized with well-composted manure, or growing from seeds without pesticides.
Many flowers are edible and the flowers of most culinary herbs are safe. However, proper identification is important because some flowers are poisonous and should not be eaten. For the best flavor, flowers should be used at their peak.
“Nasturtium is my favorite, because it has a delicate peppery flavor,” added Dr. Newman. “I also like garlic chives on the grill or to sautee in a pan with butter to put on top of potatoes.”
Health Benefits and Uses
Many edible flowers contain significant amounts of Vitamins A and C in addition to potassium, along with other essential nutrients. The vivid colors of flowers reveal the presence of phytonutrients, which reflect the composition of compounds they contain. Edible flowers are used in a wide variety of dishes. They can be used in both sweet and savory dishes, as a garnish, in salads, butters, beverages, sorbets, ice creams, and baked goods. They can also be preserved in syrups, liquors, jams, vinegars, and oils. Candied flowers can make beautiful decorations for desserts.
Nasturtiums, which are easy to grow in Colorado, are annuals that come in several colors and have a unique, peppery bite to them. Vegetable flowers like bright yellow squash blossoms are often found in traditional Italian food. For centuries, Indian food has been flavored with rose petals and marigolds.
“It’s best to pick flowers early in the day, just as soon as they open, because like fruit, they need to ripen but not spoil,” said Dr. Newman. “And avoid unopened blossoms as they may be bitter to taste.”
After being picked and washed, flowers can be trimmed and refrigerated inside plastic packaging lined with a damp paper towel for use within two days. Fresh flowers can also be preserved for later use. Choose flowers with larger petals, such as pansies, and paint the petals with an egg-white wash. Use a soft brush and dehydrated or pasteurized egg whites to avoid food-borne illness. These flowers are edible if the dehydrated egg powder has been pasteurized. After painting, dust the petal with fine granulated sugar and dry it. Store preserved flowers in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Avoid dark-colored petals; they turn even darker with this treatment.
Which Flowers are Edible?
It’s safe to assume that a flower is not edible, unless it’s one of those known to be safe. To avoid upset stomach or determine if you have an allergic reaction, it’s best to try a small quantity at first. Edible petals and entire flowers can be eaten but for a less bitter taste, it’s important to remove stems, pollen-bearing anthers, and pistils.
Flowers of edible plants are generally the best choice. You can use the blossoms of virtually all culinary herbs, such as rosemary, basil, sage, lavender, borage, chicory, chives, chamomile, parsley, dill, thyme, mint, anise hyssop, bee balm, mint, sweet woodruff, cilantro, and fennel. Do not use blossoms of eggplant, tomato, potato, or peppers.
Squash, pumpkin, watermelon, and cucumber blossoms (but not gourd blossoms) are used in a number of ways: in fritters, as a garnish, and as colorful accents for a salad. Trees and shrubs that have edible flowers include: apple, elderberry, lavender, lilac, linden, and rosemary.
“Flowers are part of our heritage as humans, and have always been used in celebrations,” said Dr. Newman. “Not only do we eat certain flowers, the Greek athletes would wear flower garlands and around the world, flowers are used to decorate tables, foods, and homes.”
When asked what he’d recommend for people considering growing their own edible flowers, Dr. Newman said, “Just do it. I recommend it. Just make sure that you know that your plants are not being exposed to pesticides.”
Dr. Newman also recommends the book, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. Readers can find out about a vast range of herbs, flowers, trees, fruits and fungi that humans have transformed into alcohols over time, along with more than 50 drink recipes and growing tips for gardeners. To find out more about which plants are safe and which are poisonous, visit: CSU Poisonous Plants Lists and Edible Flowers.