Pretty Enough to Eat
By Stephanie Hafferty
Growing edible flowers adds a vibrant new dimension to your garden and mealtimes. The variety of beautiful colors, textures, and flavors, served with home grown fruit and vegetables brings the entire garden to your plate.
Edible flowers have been grown worldwide for centuries, for ceremonial, nutritional, and medicinal uses. They make the most of your growing area, creating a sustainable garden rich in biodiversity: a flower garden you can eat! This is particularly useful if you are growing in smaller spaces – such as urban gardens, balconies, rooftops, windowsills – where it is advantageous for every plant to have multiple uses. A good solution for those with smaller (or no) gardens, these versatile plants can be grown in pots, as ground cover, or climbing up trellises or poles to make the most of vertical spaces.
Beneficial for wildlife, attracting bees and other pollinators, many also offer natural pest control by deterring – marigolds to repel black fly for example – or attracting predators, such as ladybugs or hover flies. Others are helpful as companion plants when grown together – grow basil and lemon gem marigolds with tomatoes. I love to grow edible flowers because they delight all of the senses: the rich variety of colors, beauty, fragrance, as well as the culinary adventure of flavors. They are food for the body and the soul.
Another benefit of growing your own flowers is that you know exactly what the plant is and can be confident it has been grown without chemicals. Always check that the variety you are growing is edible – not all marigolds are, for example. If you want to use plants already established in a garden or forage, do make sure you have accurately identified them before eating. Many toxic plants can resemble edible ones, so careful identification is very important.
Some edible flowers are grown specifically for their blooms, others are picked from established perennials – daylilies, roses, angelica, and flowering herbs are often grown for their leaves – basil, chives, rosemary. You can even make use of the flowers of vegetables – peas, broad beans, zucchini, and of “bolting” vegetables such as brassicas. Forage for edible wildflowers – honeysuckle, elderflower, wild violet, dandelion, in many rural and urban locations. Remember to wash wildflowers especially well before eating and try to avoid picking too close to heavy traffic or dirt roads.
The potential health benefits of edible flowers have been recognized in many cultures globally for centuries. They make you feel good just looking at them: the colors are uplifting, there is a sheer pleasure from the joy of eating the beautiful colors and shapes. Many are rich in valuable vitamins and minerals and can be a source of beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants. Often herb flowers have the same properties as the leaves, usually tasting quite similar, too.
The many potential culinary uses of edible flowers include decorating food – fresh or crystallised with sugar, teas, tinctures, syrups, pickles, wines and other alcoholic drinks, jams and jellies, vinegars, stuffed and deep fried, and flavored sugar. Many edible flowers in the permaculture garden have other uses, too: to make herbal remedies, salves, beauty potions, ecological remedies for garden pests, in potpourri, and for natural dyes.
How to Grow Edible Flowers
Edible flowers can be sown direct, but I find it beneficial to start them off in seed trays and modules, planting out as small plants. I grow most of my edible flowers along with the annual vegetables, most of these are also started off in modules, so having small plants makes it easier to design the garden and plant out. Also, you should have plenty of extra little plants to fill in any gaps (very useful if some die) and to share with friends. Importantly, planting the healthiest plants makes them less prone to destruction by pests such as slugs.
Sow larger seeds, e.g. borage, sunflower, and nasturtium, into individual modules where they can grow into healthy little plants. Most smaller seeds are sown in rows in a seed tray and then pricked out into individual modules, except for those that are grown in clumps, such as chives, which are multi-sown into modules.
Most annual edible flowers grow well along with the vegetables. I usually grow them at the end and edges of the beds, where they are easy to pick regularly and wont crowd the vegetables. Consider the eventual height and spread of the plant – nasturtiums in particular spread with great enthusiasm, so if space is at a premium, choose a climbing variety to grow up a trellis made from poles. Make wise use of your space – plant tall sunflowers towards the back of the space, borage in the middle, viola and marigolds at the front, for example.
It is best to pick flowers in the morning, when the petals are dry, before the sun gets too strong, or later in the day when temperatures cool. Sometimes this is not possible, particularly during a wet summer, when you just have to seize any opportunity to pick the flowers. Regular picking encourages a longer growing season for the flowers. Always pick carefully, ensuring that you do not damage the plant and check for insects, especially bees, before picking so that you do not accidentally squash the unsuspecting creature. It is alarming for both person and bee if the flowers are accidentally picked!
Choose open flowers at their peak when their volatile oils are at their height, rejecting wilting or damaged flowers. Pick with care for the plant, petals are easily crushed. If there are aphids, these can usually be shaken or blown off. For daily use in the kitchen, edible flowers can be picked when you want to eat them, so that they are fresh on your plate. They keep well in the fridge for a few days, as well.
To pick for storing, use a basket or something with reasonably high sides so that the petals don’t blow away, and when it is as dry if possible because the flowers are easier to pick, wet petals tear easily and stick to your fingers, and store better.
Some edible flowers can be eaten whole, violas for example, whereas others you just eat the petals, so always research before eating. It is usually wise to remove the green parts for most flowers, which are eaten whole when consumed for often they are scratchy or bitter.
Drying Edible Flowers
Edible flowers that dry well include roses, lavender, calendula, violas, cornflowers, and marigolds. As I only preserve flowers that I have grown myself, I usually give them a good shake to dislodge any hiding insects, but it is recommended that you rinse the flowers under cold water and dry thoroughly before preserving. Some flowers are dried whole, others only the petals are dried.
Bamboo vegetable steamers make excellent small stacking drying containers. I also use large circular Thai bamboo dishes. The blue plastic mushroom crates, discarded by greengrocers, make good drying racks as the holes let plenty of air circulate and they stack well. Line with kitchen paper or muslin, spread the flowers or petals carefully, then leave to dry somewhere dark and airy. I use the cupboard which also houses our boiler as it is dark and well ventilated.
You can also pop in silica gel packets to help keep the air dry. The flowers take a week or so to dry but check them regularly. They will feel dry, light and rustle when ready.
Alternatively use a dehydrator on the lowest setting, this method usually takes several hours, or tie the flowers whole in bunches and hang somewhere airy– hanging them inside a paper bag works well as this not only protects from dust, but also catches any petals which may drop off.
Once thoroughly dry, store in labelled glass jars in a cool, dry cupboard until needed. They keep well for at least a year. Rehydrate with a little water or add directly to drinks, jams, cake batter and other recipes.
Suggestions of Flowering Plants to Grow:
Nasturtium (Nasturtium) – peppery taste, like watercress
Borage (Borage officinalis) – cucumber taste
Viola/Heartsease (Viola/Viola tricolor) – lettuce taste
Basil (Ocimum) – strong flavor, very much like the leaves
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) – slight apple taste
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – tangy, citrus taste
Sunflower petals (Helianthus) – slightly nutty
Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) – spicy and sweet, like cloves
Zucchini flowers (Curcubita) – sweet, nutty taste
Arugula (Eruca sativa) – spicy, like its leaves
Perennial Alliums e.g. “Society Garlic” – tastes of garlic/onions
Rose (Rosa) – sweet and fragrant, the more sented the rose, the better the flavor
Daylily (Hemerocallis) – light, sweet taste
Primrose (Primula) – light, delicate flavor
Lavender (Lavendula) – strong, fragrant lavender taste
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – spicy and savory
Sage (Salvia officinalis) – strong and savory
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – light and spicy
Mint (Mentha) – strong minty taste
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) – intense and sweet
Dandelion (Taraxacum) – quite bitter
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) – fragrant, heady and floral
Wild Garlic (Ransoms) (Allium ursinum) – strong, garlic taste
Wild primroses (Primula vulgaris) – light, delicate and sweet
Dog Rose (Rosa canina) – light and sweet
Cowslip (Primula veris) – light and delicate
Hawthorn blossom (Crateagus) – has a faint cherry flavor
Honeysuckle (Lonicera) – very sweet and fragrant
Jack by the Hedge (Alliaria petiolata) – spicy and garlicky
Other Preserving Suggestions & Recipes
~either Sweet or Savory
1 packet organic butter
Either: 12 nasturtium flowers / 10 chive flower heads / a small palmful of rosemary flowers / or 1 cup of fresh rose petals (you can work this out by eye, depending on which petals you are using)
Soften the butter and gently mix in the petals. Shape as you choose, you can be as fanciful as you like here, perhaps add some whole flowers to the top. Refrigerate for about 2 hours before serving. Also freezes well.
Stuffed Tempura Flowers
Zucchini, squash, and daylily flowers can be stuffed, dipped in batter and deep fried.
1 cup flowers/petals
4 cups vodka (brandy and gin work well, too)
Put the flowers in a large, lidded glass container and add the spirit. Leave for 2 to 3 days, shaking gently every day. Strain and bottle. Make some flower ice cubes at the same time to use in flower cocktails.
Flower Ice Cubes
Fill the ice cube tray ½ way with water. Add the flowers and position carefully. Freeze for several hours, then top off with more water. Freeze until solid. This method stops the flowers floating to the top when freezing.
1 gallon dandelion heads (remove the stalks, they are bitter)
1 gallon water
3.5lb (56 oz) sugar
1 lemon and 1 orange, thinly peeled and juiced, keeping peel to use as well.
A large pan, fermentation bucket, and a glass fermenting bottle, or demijohn.
Pour the cold water into the large pan, add the dandelions and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the sugar into the fermentation bucket along with the citrus peels. Strain the dandelion liquid into the bucket and stir well. When lukewarm, add the citrus juice and wine yeast (following the instructions on your yeast, some have to be previously activated). Cover and leave in a warm place. After two days, strain and pour into the demijohn and leave to ferment. When fermentation has finished, syphon into bottles. Best aged for at least a year before drinking.
1 cup rose petals – the most
perfumed ones you can find
in your garden
(Other flowers make great
vinegar, as well. Have fun and experiment)
4 cups vinegar
(I use organic white wine
or cider vinegar)
Put the flowers in a large glass jar and pour in the vinegar. Leave on a sunny windowsill for about 1 week to infuse. Strain and bottle. Store at room temperature – it will last for about 6 months.
Other uses for rose vinegar:
• Makes a lovely skin wash and toner
• Use as a mouthwash and gargle
• Add to bath water
This makes a delicious, healthy drink diluted with water, and for a fragrant base for a salad dressing, mix together: 20 rose petals (optional), 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup rose vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.
Here’s the article as a pdf, as seen in Issue 01.
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