Text and photos by Penny Woodward

Delicious edible flowers

A beautiful and delicious flower salad

With gardens full of flowers for spring, why not consider eating some of them! Flowers have been used to decorate and scent the home for thousands of years. And for almost as long, flowers have also been used to flavour and decorate food. In Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures, flowers and their essences are found in everyday food. Pastry and ice cream flavoured with ‘eau de rose’; tea redolent of jasmine; day lillies, peonies, rose and orange blossoms all used in a range of dishes; chrysanthemums in soup or fried in batter; tiger lily and saffron crocus stamens for added colour and flavour. And in Mediterranean countries squash flower fritters are a summer delicacy.

Blue borage flowers

Borage flower taste like a cross between cucumber and oysters

Bright yellow day lily

Crunchy day lily flower

Flowers are fragile and their taste often fleeting, so they have never been the staple of anyone’s diet, but they should be a regular addition to our meals if only for the delight of seeing the many ways they can be combined with other foods. Happily, because of cross-pollination from other cultures, we now more commonly see flowers served with a meal and even the salad mixes sold in supermarkets sometimes contain flowers. Flowers for cooking are not difficult to grow and even flat dwellers can contemplate growing a few in pots or hanging baskets. The ones I use most often are borage, daylily, marigold, nasturtium, pineapple sage, violets and roses, others that can also be eaten are listed in the box below, and some that should never be eaten in the other box. As a general rule, if you are in any doubt, then don’t eat it.

Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual herb that grows best from seeds planted in spring. It will grow in most soils but plants can be quite big (1m by 1m) so make sure they have plenty of room. The small flowers are vibrant blue and star-like with an initial taste of cucumber and an after taste of oysters. These little gems are mainly added to salads and sandwich fillings but also look and taste good in dips and cool summer drinks.

Day lilies (Hemerocallis species) are tough perennial bulbous plants with flowers that range in colour through all shades of yellows, reds and purples. Their name comes from the fact that each flower opens and lasts for only one day. All parts of the plant are edible, but the flowers are especially delightful. Pick only buds or newly opened flowers as texture and quality deteriorates rapidly once the flower is open. The petals have a delicious fragrant, earthy flavour and are unexpectedly crunchy to eat. I love them in salads, but they can also be steamed or stir-fried with other vegetables, or dipped in a light batter and fried tempura style.

Bright orange marigolds

Slightly salty marigold petals

Red, yellow and orange nasturtiums

Nasurtium flowers are sweet but hot.

Marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are annuals that grow easily from seed sown in spring or summer into any reasonable soil. Once established they will self sow around the garden. Again the whole plant is edible with the leaves being added to salads and the flowers having medicinal uses as well as being edible with a sweet slightly salty flavour. Pull the petals from the flower head before using and then sprinkle into salads, add to sandwich fillings or stir through rice to add flavour and colour.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are vigorous trailing annuals that die in very cold and very hot weather, but re-grow again from seed once the weather suits them again. The whole plant can be eaten and has a sharp, peppery flavour. The flowers, which come in vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, are still peppery but not as strong as the leaves, and have sweet, nectary overtones. When you pick the flowers, always give them a good shake to dislodge any earwigs hiding in the spur or you might end up with more protein in the salad than you expected!

Most sages have edible flowers but those of pineapple sage are particularly delectable. They are more sweet than savory, and this combined with the jewel-like red colour means they look and taste good in both salads and desserts. Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) grows as a large perennial bush that needs a reasonable amount of water during dry weather and is frost tender but is otherwise easy to grow. Cut back hard when flowering finishes. The cultivar ‘Honey Melon’ has deeper red flowers. Ants love the nectar in the flowers so pick these flowers and put them aside for a while to allow the ants to escape before adding to a dish, otherwise your dinner party might be memorable for the trail of ants escaping across the table.

Scented roses (Rosa species) have been eaten and their scents distilled for thousands of years. Their sweet, perfumy flavour means that they are best suited to sweet dishes like fruit desserts, jams and jellies. Those flowers with the strongest perfume also have the strongest flavour. When adding them to any dish, pull off the small white piece at the base as this has a bitter flavour.

Violets are tough perennial plants that do well in any soil, especially under deciduous trees where they get summer shade and winter sun. Like roses, the sweet flavour of the flower lends itself to sweet dishes, although they can also be added to salads, sprinkled over an omelette or stirred though rice just before serving. Violet flowers hold their scent well when dried and can be added to a jar of castor sugar. This sugar is then used to make cakes and biscuits that will have a subtle violet scent.

Deep red roses

Sweetly scented rose petals

Red sage flowers

Honey Melon pineapple sage

Flowers are used fresh or dried although they are at their best when fresh. To use fresh, pick them either in the cool of the morning, and keep in a container in the refrigerator; or at the last possible moment, because they wilt and shrivel rapidly in hot weather. If you want to dry the flowers then choose a dry day and pick them just after the dew has dried. Select those that have just opened. Spread the flowers out over sheets of paper, pulling the petals from larger flower heads, leaving plenty of room between each bloom to allow for good air circulation. Use a shady position away from direct light and strong breezes.  At least once a day, shake or stir the flowers around, until they are completely dry and brittle to the touch. Remove all stems, leaves and green bits. Label, date and store in jars away from direct light.

Flowers are used in a variety of ways in most types of cooking, but a general rule to follow is not to cook them for too long as they will lose both colour and flavour. Fresh flowers also make wonderful, colourful garnishes. Instead of that predictable piece of dill or parsley, try decorating a plate of savouries with bright orange nasturtium flowers, fish with blue borage flowers or a beef dish with beautiful red pineapple sage. It is easy to make colourful salads by adding a handful of fresh flowers. Generally any edible flower can be added to any salad because the mild flavour will not greatly alter the overall taste. One exception is nasturtium flowers. Their hot, peppery taste combines really well with cool salad vegetables like cucumber and lettuce.

Flowers are also used to make tea and to flavour vinegars, wine, champagne, punch and jam. And if frozen in ice-blocks they are a decorative addition to any drink. All through the year there are edible flowers that can be picked and added to your favourite dishes to bring joy and delight to your family and friends.

Some other edible flowers are bergamot, carnations, chicory, chives, dandelion, elder, hawthorn, heartsease, hyssop, jasmine, English lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mullein, mustard, oregano, rosemary, sunflower petals, zucchini.

Do not eat these flowers

azalea, columbines, crocus, daffodil, delphinium, foxglove, frangipani, laburnum, larkspurs, lily-of-the-valley, oleander, poinsettia, rhododendron and wisteria.
If you are not sure, then don’t eat.


Edible flowers

Pinapple sage, day lily, violet, marigold, borage