The joy of edible flowers
Growing flowers for their edible properties is hugely satisfying. Wherever you grow – be it window box or allotment, vegetable patch or balcony – your blooms can add spice, colour and taste to your plate. And since they are organic, you know you are not ingesting the chemicals used in commercial flower growing.
Before we delve into the gastronomy, check that your flower is edible. Scroll down for a list of some well-known, and not so well-known, tasty blooms.
Why do organic growers include flowers in their veg patch?
- Mixed planting encourages a greater diverse ecosystem. Brightly-coloured and scented blooms will attract beneficial insects such as bees and other pollinators.
- Flowering plants can cover bare soil, suppressing weeds and providing shade for ground beetles and spiders, both excellent predators of pests.
- Some flowers are good companion plants. Their blooms can attract predators (such as ladybirds who eat aphids) reduce pests (the scent of African Marigolds, Tagetes, will deter whitefly in the greenhouse) and some, such as clover, will enrich the soil with nitrates.
The following herbs, flowers and vegetables all have edible blooms:
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Although basil is usually grown for its leaves, its white, pale pink or lavender flowers share the same peppery flavour – but less pungent. Sprinkle the flowers over salad or pasta and add to soups, risottos and pesto. Basil is an annual. It requires a rich well-drained soil in a warm, sheltered sunny position.
Bee balm or Bergamot (Monarda didyma)
The bees love the nectar of this hardy perennial. The red flowers are a mixture of interesting flavours, ranging from citrusy and sweet to hot and minty. Can be used to make tea, as an ingredient for cakes or combined with salad. It prefers a moist rich soil, and if grown in pots be sure to water well. Can be grown from seed or root division.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
The bright blue star-shaped flowers taste mildly of cucumber. The flowers are a pretty addition to a salad, as a garnish on iced soup, crystallised for cake decorations, or simply floated on summer beverages. Pimms anyone? The plant is easily grown, but can be invasive. It is from the comfrey family, so the leaves are an excellent source of compost. See Comfrey.
Calendula or Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula have been used medicinally for centuries to heal wounds, burns and rashes. The flowers are also said to support the immune system and lift the spirits. Certainly the bright yellow and orange petals will cheer any dish. Known as the poor man's saffron, it adds a bright yellow colour to rice and scrambled eggs. Sprinkle the petals as a garnish on just about any dish, including salads, rice or curry, paella or tagine. The whole flowers can be dried and added to winter soups and stews to bring a ray of summer sun. Or freeze them into icecubes and add as a bright garnish summer drinks. Marigolds are exceptionally easy to grow. They self seed readily, or you can sow directly in the ground in mid-spring; germination takes 10 to 14 days. They will thrive in just about any soil, and will flower more profusely in full sun. See French Marigold below.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
An elegant alternative to parsley, the chervil flowers have a delicate aniseed flavour. Sprinkle on salads or vegetables just before serving so as not to lose the flavour. You can also bake with it for delicately flavoured cakes and shortbread. Grown from seed as an annual, likes rich soil and sun.
Chives (Allium schoeonoprasum)
The blue/purple flowers from this perennial herb give a gentle oniony flavour. Young developing seed-heads are slightly stronger in taste. Garnish for salads, add to sauces, and stir into cottage cheese and other creamy dips. Frequent picking will encourage flowering to continue until the first frost. Best grown in rich, well drained soil in full sun, but must be well watered. Propagate by splitting clumps in mid spring.
Common daisy (Bellis perennis)
Daisy buds and petals give an interesting, slightly sour flavour to salads. The buds can also be pickled in vinegar and used as a substitute for capers. Be sure to only pick from an organic lawn, one that hasn’t been treated with chemicals.
Courgette, squash, marrow and pumpkin (Cucurbita spp)
These large yellow flowers have a mild vegetative flavour. Both male and female flowers can be used in cooking. (How do you tell the difference? The female flowers have a distinct swelling behind the flower – this becomes the courgette.) Stuff the flower with mozzarella, coat in batter and then deep fry. Or simply steam or bake the female flower with baby courgette still attached. Courgettes grow vigorously, best in full sun. Start seeds indoors in spring, then plant out when the soil is warm.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
This common weed has a yellow flower that tastes of honey if picked young. It turns bitter when mature. The flowers can be made into tea, wine and beer, and the petals used as a salad, porridge or rice dish garnish.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp)
Picked as an open flower, daylily petals have a crisp and juicy flavour, especially the nectar filled base. The darker coloured flowers tend to leave an unpleasant aftertaste while the lighter ones are sweeter with a flavour akin to asparagus or green beans. Use the buds to dip into cream cheese or hummous, and the petals to decorate a salad. They can also be stored in the freezer. Daylilies are an easy to grow herbaceous perennial. They are robust enough for sun or shade and will grow through short grass. (Other members of the lily family are NOT edible.)
French marigold (Tagetes spp)
Tastes like spicy tarragon. Remove the white part from the end of the petal where it was attached to the flower, as it can be very bitter. Flavour vinegar and sauces – especially those for fish and chicken dishes – and scatter over salads, grilled meats and pizzas. Can also be used dried. Like its cousin, the Calendula, this annual is easy to grow in full sun.
Lavender (Lavendula spp)
These pretty pale purple flowers are best used in sweet concoctions such as jams, jellies, ice cream, scones and biscuits. However, their strong taste can be a little overwhelming – go gently! Can also be crystallised, added to salads or used to make a soothing tea. Flowers are best picked when they first open, before seeds begin to form. An evergreen perennial shrub which needs a neutral to alkaline soil in an open sunny position. Plants become woody with age, but green growth can be pruned back immediately after flowering in order to maintain shape and vigour.
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
The white or purple flowers have a delicate floral flavour. Add to yogurt, cream cheese or scones - or use the individual little flowers as an attractive garnish. The flowers are also very tasty deep fried. This familiar shrub is very hardy and easy to grow in full sun.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
This perennial grows in full sun, near water. Its creamy white flowers have a subtle almond flavour, and can be made into cordial or wine, and added to stewed fruit and jams
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
A deliciously spicy-peppery tasting flower. The colourful blooms, leaves and seed pods of this annual plant are edible. Young leaves have a taste similar to cress; the fat green seed pods can be pickled and used as an alternative to capers; the petals make a striking addition to salads, pasta dishes and vinaigrettes. Sow seeds in situ in spring, although nasturtiums often self seed. Prefers full sun and a light, well-drained soil. Grows well in containers but should not be fed if flowers are required.
Pansy (*Viola x wittrockiana, Viola tricolor *)
Pansy flowers, which come in a huge range of colours, have a mild fresh flavour, or a slightly grassy taste, depending on the pansy variety and how much of the flower is eaten. The petals are very mild in taste but the whole flower tastes much stronger. Use pansies to garnish cocktails, desserts, soups and fruit salads.
Pinks (Dianthus spp)
Flowers taste similar to spicy cloves, not unlike their fragrance. They should be picked when first open and the bitter white base removed. They can be added to salads, stewed plums and fruit pies, candied, pickled in vinegar and made into a syrup. Pinks, a hardy perennial are best grown in a sunny, sheltered, well-drained position in a poor soil. Easily propagated from seed and stem cuttings.
Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)
These orange or yellow flowers, come in a range of flavours: spicy, bitter, tangy or peppery. Petals can be sprinkled on soups, pasta, salads and rice. Powdered petals, also known as poor man’s saffron, can be added to give a golden hint to herb butter, spreads, soups, rice dishes and scrambled egg. Pick flowers just as they open in summer for fresh use and for drying. Grows in a wide range of soil, but prefers a sunny position. Direct sow seeds in spring, after the last frost. Deadheading encourages a continuous harvest of flowers.
Rose (Rosa spp)
The best flavoured rose petals come from rugosa roses, which have large single flowers. They are followed a close second by old roses, such as damask and gallica. Hybrid teas can be bitter, and leave an aftertaste, so sample a petal before taking it into the kitchen. Ensure when harvesting petals that the sour whitish base is removed. Rose petals can be used to make jam, vinaigrettes, sauces and in meat dishes. Roses grow best in a rich, well-drained soil in full sun.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Like basil, the flowers of this perennial herb have a milder taste than the leaf. They can be used in pesto, pasta, salads, soups and with fish dishes. Sage grows best in full sun and prefers a light soil. Can be grown from seed or cuttings in the spring.
Sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, kale and turnip (Brassica Spp)
If you don’t get around to picking all your brassica crops the result will be bright yellow flowers. The small yellow flowers have a mild spiciness comparable to the brassica flavour. They are delicious in salads or stir fried with greens and garlic.
Sweet violet (Viola odorata)
These are the only edible flower available in winter and early spring. They have a fresh taste often used to flavour and colour confectionery. The flowers make a tasty, interesting garnish for fruit salads and desserts. Sweet violets thrive in a moderately heavy rich soil in a semi-shaded spot.