By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
Flowers are the delight of gardeners. Their beautiful colors, shapes and fragrances are the inspiration for gardening efforts by countless hobby horticulturists. There is more to flowers, however, than meets the eye – or the nose. Your taste buds can also appreciate the many edible flowers that we can grow.
Cultures all over the world cook with flowers for the unique flavors and colors they provide to food. I like to cook – a surprising number of gardeners do – and Iíve gained quite a reputation with dinner guests for using edible flowers regularly in dishes I prepare, especially salads.
Using edible flowers in cooking has not been common in America. But before you think the idea is too radical, remember that most of us enjoy eating broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes, all of which are flower buds. Like growing and using fresh herbs, I think that using edible flowers will become increasingly popular. Indeed, many restaurants make use of edible flowers these days.
Not all flowers are edible. Indeed, some flowers, like the plants that produce them, are poisonous. Because most people are not familiar with edible flowers, we need a good, reliable reference on the subject listing those flowers that are safe to eat. There are a number of books on edible flowers, but I have found "Edible Flowers from Garden to Palate" by Cathy Wilkinson Barash an excellent source of information. This combination cookbook and gardening guide includes 280 recipes using edible flowers from herbs, vegetables and ornamental plants. The author also provides general gardening advice and detailed background and cultural information for each of the 67 flowers included.
The most popular and well-known edible flowers are covered in a section called "The Big Ten" that includes calendula, chives, day lily, mint, nasturtium, pansy, rose, sage, marigold and squash blossoms. The author is very precise in designating which flowers are edible, including careful descriptions, photographs and the scientific or Latin names of the plants covered.
A number of plants grown for their edible flowers are cool-season plants that thrive in Louisiana from now until May, making this an ideal time to plant them. Many will bloom through the winter with their peak season next spring. Roses bloom heavily until early to mid-December.
Some plants producing edible flowers that can be planted now include arugula (Eruca vesicaria sativa), borage (Borago officinalis), broccoli (Brassica oleracea), calendula (Calendula officinalis), chicory (Cichorium intybus), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), chrysanthemum (Dendranthema grandiflorum), coriander (Coriander sativum), dianthus (Dianthus deltoides), carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus), day lily (Hemerocallis sp.), English daisy (Bellis perennis), Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), pansy (Viola x wittrockiana), mustard (Brassica sp.), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), radish (Raphanus sativus), rose (Rosa sp.), society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), tulip (Tulipa) and violet (Viola odorata).
To get the maximum quality, you should pick flowers during the coolest part of the day, preferably early morning. Select flowers before they reach their prime – choose those that are young and not completely open. The flowers should appear very fresh and bright.
Harvest flowers on the day you intend to use them. After harvesting, place long-stemmed flowers in a container of warm water and put them in a cool place until they are used. Pick short-stemmed flowers within three to four hours of use. To store, place short-stemmed blossoms between layers of damp paper towels or put them in plastic bag in your refrigerator. Just before using the flowers, gently wash them in cool water.
Removing the stamens and pistils from the flowers prior to eating is optional. Barash recommends eating only the petals of some flowers, including calendula, chrysanthemum, lavender, rose, tulip and yucca.
When using edible flowers, Barash gives these guiding rules:
• If you do not positively know that a flower is edible, DONíT EAT IT.
• Use only edible flowers for garnishes.
• Do not eat flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides.
• Because the possibility of pesticide use on them, do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers.