University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring/Summer News Article

GOURMET GARDEN FLOWERS

 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
           
There are quite a few perennials that are edible, as well as beautiful.  They’ll add color and different flavors to all manner of cooking, from soups to sweets, are nutritious, and can elevate your cooking to “haute cuisine.”

While flowers of many perennials are edible, some are not.  A few of the perennials you should avoid eating their flowers include most spring bulb flowers (except tulip petals), columbine, clematis, delphinium, bleeding heart, lily of the valley, spurges, foxgloves, and poppies.   If you read or hear that a certain flower is edible, make sure you have the right flower, as ones that look similar may not be edible, and may even be toxic.

If you haven’t eaten a flower before, sample it first as some may cause allergies or reactions in some people.  In the rare event you develop hives, a rash, or have problems breathing, contact a physician. Some flowers may taste good to one person, and not to another, or flowers may have different flavors depending on where they are grown.

Other tips for safety include never eating any plants treated with harmful pesticides. If you buy flowers, unless they are from an organic farm or you know the grower and their practices, it is best not to eat them as they may have been sprayed.  Don’t harvest “wildflowers” from along roadsides, as these may have vehicle emissions on them.

Don’t use too many flowers in cooking to avoid possible gastric issues.  Too many daylily flowers, for instance, may act as a diuretic or laxative.  But daylilies are edible (make sure not to confuse with the true lilies), with a slightly sweet taste some say resembles a cross of zucchini and asparagus.  I seem to think the yellow ones taste sweeter.  Cut off the bitter flower base before using.

If you like to fry, try daylily fritters.  Or you can sear buds or flowers, instead, in a pan with some hot oil.  Coat first in a batter made with whole wheat flour, a small amount of corn starch, and if desired sugar and salt.  After fried and cooled, serve with cinnamon, honey, or your favorite topping.

Bee balm is another common garden perennial with edible flowers.  It is one of our few native American herbs, being related to mint, although it is most often used ornamentally.  The red, white, pink, or purple flowers can add color to salad greens and fruit salads.  Use them as an herb where you might use oregano, as their tastes are similar only with hints of citrus and mint.  Or use them in desserts, in homemade vanilla ice cream or on top for decoration, or in pound cake.  Steep a couple tablespoons of chopped petals in 4 cups boiling water for a tea, or you can use the leaves for a tea similar to Earl Gray.  In fact another common name for this plant is Oswego Tea, from its use in the Northeast in former times.

Scented geranium, while not an annual flower, is tender in cold climates so must be overwintered indoors.  The rule with these is, if the leaves don’t smell appetizing, don’t eat their flowers.  ‘Citronella’, the cultivar touted as a bug repellent, is an example of one to avoid.  Rose geranium flowers can be used when making apple jelly, or angel food cake.  Use flowers in, or to decorate, homemade ice cream.  Citrus kinds are good to freshen drinks, or to freeze in ice cubes.

Roses are one of the more popular edible flowers.  As these shrubs are often sprayed for pests, make sure if eating the flowers that this hasn’t been done.  Flavors vary with plant and location, but generally are sweet with nuances of fruit, mint, or spice.  Darker cultivars tend to have stronger flavors.  Use miniature rose flowers to decorate ice cream and desserts.  Use petals from larger flowers on desserts or mixed into salads.  Petals are often floated in punch, or use in syrups, jellies, butters and spreads.

Most in the north know the lilac shrub, but most may not realize the flowers are edible as well as showy.  Petals have a slightly bitter lemony taste, but will vary among selections.  Use them fresh in salads, or mixed with yogurt, or crystallize them as candy.

Elderberry is an easy to grow fruiting shrub, whose creamy blossoms have a sweet taste.  As they are delicate, check them for pests but don’t wash.  The large flat flower heads are wonderful fried.  Dip in water, and then in flour you’ve seasoned (as with cinnamon, honey, and sugar) and containing a beaten egg, before quickly frying in hot oil.  Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

Edible flowers are best picked fresh.  Wash gently but well to remove any dirt and unwanted forms of life.  Remove the flower parts in the center—the stamens and pistil.  Then use fresh, in cooking, or for teas and syrups.  Fresh, flower petals are often mixed in salads, floated in soups, or used as a garnish on plates.  In cooking, flower petals are great in stir fry, cooked as a vegetable for some, others used to flavor meats and sauces.  Flowers can be used to flavor honey, oils and vinegars, or butter.

For tea, simply simmer the washed flower petals for about 5 minutes in water, then strain.  For a flower-infused syrup that can be used to sweeten beverages, pour over pound cake or ice cream or pancakes, boil petals with water and sugar for about 10 minutes or until thickened.  Use about one cup of water, 3 cups of sugar, and one cup of flower petals.  Strain, then store in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks. 

For elegant butters, soften a pound of butter and mix in up to a cup of chopped petals (fresh or dried).  Then let stand at room temperature a few hours for flavors to mingle, before using or storing a couple weeks in the refrigerator, or freezing up to a few months.

For a fancy dessert, turn flowers into candy and eat them or use to decorate cakes and pastries.  Pansy and viola, lavender, daisy, cornflower, borage, and even rose flowers are some often candied.  Victorians used many this way, including lilacs, nasturtiums, carnations, cherry and apple blossoms.  Hibiscus flowers can be steeped for tea, then candied. 

To candy, frost, or crystallize flowers, gently wash them and let dry a short time on paper towels, or pat dry.  Whip egg whites into a froth, then use an artist’s brush to gently coat the petals.  Dipping them in the whites will cause them to take on too much and not dry properly.  Some dilute the whites with water.  Finish by sprinkling with finely granulated sugar. Let dry in a warm place for 2 to 4 days. Candied flowers often store in the cool for several weeks—a reason the Victorian’s fancied them.

There are many other edible garden flowers which you can research online, or with some uses in the book Edible Flowers, Desserts and Drinks, by Cathy Wilkinson Barash. 
 

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