|Orange blossom waffles with rose petal ice cream. Photo: Kerstin Rodgers.|
Using flowers in cooking and preparation of food is something of a lost art. Historically flowers were used extensively to make jellies, candies, desserts, vinegars, syrups and even wine. - think of mentions of cowslip wine in Beatrix Potter and Victorian pastoral novels.
We are happy to use the roots, stems and leaves of a wide range of plants but it's still a novelty to find edible blooms on your plate. Yet flowers can add a wow factor to many different types of food. Their visual impact more than makes up for what is often a subtle, elusive flavour. Using edible flowers can lift an ordinary dish and make it look spectacular for very little outlay.
If you do want to experiment with using flowers in your food you must source them carefully. Flowers which have been sprayed with preservatives or insecticides are no good for eating, which does tend to rule out your local florist. You can now buy little tubs of edible violas from some Waitrose outlets, but the best option in many ways is to grow them yourself. Many edible flowers are very easy to grow and as other parts of the plant can often be used in the kitchen as well, there will be nothing wasted.
If you have ever been foraging for mushrooms you will know the 'rules' for choosing and identifying edible fungi. Similar guidelines work well for finding flowers that are fit to eat as well:
- Don’t try to eat any flower unless you’re 100% certain what it is. Not all flowers are edible and some are toxic. Many are neither poisonous nor palatable: they just don’t taste very nice or can be indigestibly fibrous.
- Don’t assume that if the leaves, or roots, are edible then the flowers will be too. For example, tomato fruits and potato tubers may be good to eat, but the flowers are poisonous. At least with tomatoes and potatoes there is a big clue in that they are both members of the deadly nightshade family Solanum which can lay some claim to be the botanical equivalent of the Borgias.
- Don’t assume that just because close relatives are edible, then the rest of the family will be too. In the umbellifer family, it's fine to eat all parts of fennel or dill plants - stalks, leaves, flowers and seeds. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and carrot (Daucus carota) flowers, members of the same family are also considered edible, but you need to be very cautious because these plants bear more than a passing resemblance to fool's parsley (Aethusa cynapium) and hemlock (Conium maculatum), which are not only inedible, but extremely poisonous. It was hemlock that was used to finish off the Greek philosopher Socrates.
- Know the provenance of any flowers you plan to eat. Once you've positively identified your flower, you also need to take into consideration where it has grown and how it's been treated. In practice, if you pick flowers from your garden or allotment, you will know exactly how they have been raised. But beware of the following:
- - Don’t use flowers picked by the roadside - they may well be contaminated with exhaust fumes or animal droppings.
- - Don't use flowers bought from florists unless they can guarantee that they have been organically raised. They may well be sprayed with preservative or pesticide.
- Be cautious about eating flowers if you suffer from hay fever. Flowers inevitably contain pollen, which is of course an irritant at best, or an allergen, for hay fever sufferers. If you think this might apply to you, approach edible flowers like a food tester: a little at a time.
The best time to pick flowers for eating is late morning - after the dew has dried off and before the sun gets a chance to start drying flowers out. Choose flowers that are just approaching full bloom. Anything in full flower is in reality past its best in terms of flavour.
Cut flowers cleanly. Don’t cut too close to the flowerhead. You want to be able to hold the flower by the stem so that you handle the petals as little as possible.
If you're not preparing the flowers for a dish immediately, put in a vase of water as for cut flowers and store in the fridge if possible.
Pick over the blooms very carefully for insects - earwigs, ladybirds, aphids, and even bees. Turn the flower upside-down and shake gently. Handle the flowers as little as possible - if you think the petals need washing, do so with as light a touch as you can manage.
For any flower larger than, say, a viola, you will want to remove the stamens - the stalks, often in the middle of the flower which bear the pollen - and the calyx and sepals - the usually green parts at the back of the flower. For smaller flowers, don’t do this: it's too finicky and you are more likely to bruise your petals.
|A cloud of duck-egg blue rosemary flowers in early spring.|
Fruit and vegetable flowers
We eat some vegetable flowers without really thinking about it, The globe artichoke is the flower of the Cynara scolymus plant in bud form and really just a giant thistle. The curds of broccoli and cauliflower are flower buds: if you grow broccoli and you don't pick the florets in time, you'll end up with a thicket of small yellow flowers - which are also edible. Indeed brassica flowers generally can be used to decorative effect in many dishes.
|Courgette flower with the courgette growing just behind it.|
Edible ornamental flowers
From the versatile rose, whose petals can be used in jellies, syrups, crystallised to decorate cakes and desserts and whose essence can be distilled to make rosewater, to day lilies (Hemerocallis spp), whose buds are used in Chinese cooking, to tiny viola petals, many ornamental flowers can used to enhance the flavour of dishes and their visual appeal.
We have a list of edible plants here on the Secret Garden Club website: it's not exhaustive and you should always check you are 100% certain of your flower identification before attempting to eat any plants, but we hope it gives you a good idea of the wide range and diversity of flowers which are both delicious to eat and stunning to look at.
|Nasturtium flowers make a colourful, spicy addition to salads.|