Put a Flower On It
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
My first experience eating flowers was when my sixth grade class spent a week at an environmental learning camp in Northern Minnesota. The camp organized a day when we all pretended to be Voyageurs—the French Canadians who traveled the lakes and rivers of the Great North Woods in birch bark canoes to transport furs bound for European markets. We canoed across lakes, portaged (not-so) heavy loads, orienteered in the woods with compasses and sang French Canadian songs. For the grand finale, we picked dandelions, dipped them in batter and fried them as fritters on a cast iron griddle over a campfire. It absolutely blew my mind that those reviled and ubiquitous yellow “weeds,” the bane of suburban lawns everywhere, were not only edible but could make such a delicious and historical snack!
Fast forward 30-odd years and I’m still enthralled by eating flowers. As it turns out, we are surrounded by edible flowers, not only growing wild in the fields and forests, but also in our flower, herb and vegetable gardens! Now I wild-craft (harvest from the wild) and grow dozens of types of edible flowers, mostly as beautiful edible garnishes and salad flowers for my catering business, but also everyday meals at home. When serving edible flowers at events, we often get the question, “Are those flowers edible?” which always makes me chuckle. Why in the world would we put non-edible flowers in a salad, especially when there are so many edible flowers available? They’re everywhere and we should be eating them all, all the time. They’re beautiful, delicious and usually quite nutritious.
In addition to the plain ol’ dandelion, here are most of the edible flowers that we can find and grow here in Wisconsin.
Wild apple and plum blossom petals, wild bergamot, black locust blossoms, chickweed, chicory, clover, columbine, comfrey, dandelion, day lily, elderberry blossoms, garlic mustard, honeysuckle (but the berries are poisonous), lilac, wild mint, wild rose, wild violet, wood sorrel.
Apple and plum blossom petals, bachelor button, begonia, bee balm, borage, calendula, chrysanthemum, dianthus, fuchsia, gladiolus, hibiscus, hollyhock, honeysuckle (climbing), hyacinth bean, impatiens, nasturtium, magnolia blossoms (typically pickled), marigold (Gem series, especially), peony, rose, scarlet runner beans, snapdragon, sunflower, tulip petals, violas (pansies/ violets).
Culinary/Medicinal Herb Flowers
Angelica, anise hyssop, basil, chamomile, chervil, chives/garlic chives, cilantro, dill, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage—all of these have tasty edible flowers in addition to their more commonly used leaves.
Arugula, broccoli (you’ll see it called “raab”), cucumber, fennel, kale, garden pea, radish, summer/winter squash, watermelon—all of these produce tasty flowers as they start to “bolt,” or go to seed. I was always taught as a vegetable gardener that unless you’re saving seeds you should pull a plant out once it starts to flower because it gets too bitter and is then worthless. But all of these plants have tasty and beautiful flowers you can take advantage of after your main harvest (in the case of brassicas), or as a technique for thinning fruit (like for cucumbers, squash and watermelon, which all produce many more flowers than can mature into fruit).
Edible flowers are totally wonderful, but eating certain flowers can be dangerous. Some things to be cautious about:
Make sure you know what you’re eating. Some flowers are edible and some are downright poisonous. Teach children to always ask a parent before eating a flower.
Just because some part of a plant is edible doesn’t mean the flowers are. For example, flowers from nightshade family (tomato, pepper, eggplant, etc.) are toxic even though their fruits are delicious.
Some people are allergic to some kinds of edible flowers. Before diving into eating flowers regularly, try a little bit of each kind of flower to see if you have a reaction, especially if you’re allergic to pollen. With larger flowers, eat only the petals and pick off pistils and stamens, as they can aggravate allergies.
Make sure your flowers haven’t been sprayed with chemical fertilizers or pesticides and aren’t in an area frequented by pets or stray animals.
Harvest flowers right as they start to open and before they start to wilt or discolor, or get too tough or bitter. Use them right away or store in plastic with a damp paper towel in the fridge for no longer than a couple days (some won’t keep that long).
If you’re wild-crafting flowers:
- Always make sure you can accurately identify what’s edible, or go wild-crafting with an expert.
- Make sure plants are not where they could have been contaminated with chemicals or runoff from roads or storm sewers.
- Be conservative in your harvest—never pick more than a third of the flowers in an area so that the plant community can reproduce.
Drink Your Flowers
Flowers as a beautiful and tasty garnish might be their easiest and most obvious culinary use, but it’s certainly not their only one.
Flowers have a long history of use around the globe as medicine (especially in Chinese medicine and as flower essence tinctures) or scented/flavored waters (such as rose or orange blossom water). Besides fresh use as a garnish, using flowers as tea is the next most common and easy way to use them. Chamomile and hibiscus are obvious, but I’ll often grab a handful of random mixed edible flowers around the summer garden to stuff into my teapot. Bee balm, anise hyssop, lemon balm, basil or mint flowers all make particularly refreshing caffeine-free floral teas, by themselves or in combination, hot or iced.
Flowers also make great booze! Dandelion flowers can actually make a lovely wine. Edible blooms have long been used as “medicinal” cordials, liqueurs and tonics. The French have always had a thing for making booze from flowers—Chartreuse, the famous herbal liqueur that’s been made in the same monastery for 400 years, is made in part with carnation, hyssop and arnica flowers. Crème de violet and elderflower liqueur are two other common French flower liqueurs. Angelica flowers and rose petals are common botanicals used to flavor gin. Gentian flowers are one of the main bittering agents in many classic Italian amaros and other European bitter digestive liqueurs.
Some American flower liqueurs to try include organic jasmine, chrysanthemum and orange blossom liqueurs from Chicago’s Koval Distillery and a lovely Crème de Fleur made out of many different flowers from Tattersall Distilling of Minneapolis. My favorite is Grand Poppy Amaro from Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles, a bitter/ sweet aperitif concoction that uses native California herbs like California poppy blossoms as a modern, New World evolution of traditional European bitter liqueurs.
Getting back to the culinary world, in addition to their fresh use as simple garnish and salad flowers, certain flowers can be cooked and eaten. Some make great side dishes, like sautéed broccoli raab or stir-fried day lily buds and flowering basil tops. Others can even be main-dish-worthy, like cheese-stuffed squash blossoms. Try adding chive blossoms, oregano flowers or squash blossoms to frittatas and pizzas.
Flower petals can be used in baked goods, too. Try adding them to cookies, breads, biscuits, scones, muffins or even fresh pasta dough. Some flowers are wonderful in desserts, like lavender-infused ice cream, flower syrups and honeyed dandelion fritters.
I still love flowers most as garnish, though—front and center, fresh and colorful, and beautiful to behold. They say you eat with your eyes first, so why not make every dish prettier (and tastier and healthier to boot) with edible flowers?