Food gardening is enjoying a tremendous resurgence of late, much in part to perceived produce shortages and the fact that this pandemic has given many of us plenty of time to spend at home or in the community garden plot. While some have already discovered the culinary joys of edible flowers, these have only been available for sale in past at farmer’s markets or specialty green grocers like those at Granville Island, which are currently difficult to access. So I thought I’d provide you with a guide so that you can grow your own edible flowers right at home, starting with the four cardinal rules;
1. Always positively identify the plant before eating, relying on the botanical epithet not the common name, as the latter can apply to different plants. If you are not sure, don’t eat it.
2. Purchase organically-grown starter plants if possible or grow your own from seed (easy to do with annuals) but for non-organic hardy plants, grow them out for at least two years before eating the blooms.
3. Sample these new foods cautiously, as you have no idea whether or not you or someone in your family may be allergic to them.
4. Gently shake harvested flowers (to dislodge any insects), wash (controversial as some believe it diminishes the flavour) and with some exceptions, just eat the flower petals.
Well that covers the fine print, so let’s move onto the edible flowers;
Borage (Borago officinalis) Although never a particularly beautiful plant, the gentian blue flowers of Borage are stunning and have a mild cucumber flavour that works well in mixed drinks or as an edible garnish on goat cheese. Self-seeding Annual.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) The glossy petals of Hollyhock provide us with a dazzling array of colour options including red, black, peach, purple and orange, all of which look great when sprinkled over a salad. Use petals only and expect little in the way of flavour. Hardy Perennial.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) Most of us try to harvest our basil leaves before flowering but all is not wasted if it begins as the blooms make a beautiful garnish over linguine with cream sauces or on salads and they still have wonderful flavour. The stronger tasting hybrid, ‘African Blue’ can also be used for Thai dishes. Annual.
Violet (Viola odorata) Perhaps one of my favourite edible flowers as the blooms taste as good as they smell. The species provides us with purple blossoms, while ‘Miracle Classy Pink’ has a confectionary flavour to it; both can be candied and used as edible cake decorations. Hardy Perennial.
Chives (Allium shoenoprasum & Allium tuberosum) – Both species of chives have edible blooms which are pale purple and white, respectively. They retain a mild flavour and are excellent sprinkled over salads or used as a last minute ingredient in stir-fry. Hardy Perennial.
Hosta (Hosta spp.) All Hosta flowers are edible but there are a few species or cultivars with exceptional flavour that turns any ordinary salad into a culinary delight. The species H. plantaginea as well as ‘First Frost’, ‘Rainforest Sunrise’ and ‘Royal Standard’ are good choices because they smell as good as they taste. Hardy Perennial.
French Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) This old-fashioned shrub is another plant with excellent tasting blooms, although they should be used sparingly due to their strong flavour. The flowers can also be candied for cake decorations or made into syrup for adding to teas or cold drinks. Hardy Shrub.
Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) The flower petals of this common summer flower can be used fresh in salads or dried (which concentrates the flavour) and added to soups. Dried Pot Marigold is often used as a saffron substitute and to colour butter, soft cheeses and cake icing. Annual.
Tall Phlox (Phlox paniculata) While there are many species of phlox, this is a rather common one and the blooms have a distinct peppery flavour that pops in a salad or as a last minute pizza topping. The other benefit here is that there’s a flower colour to suit just about any garden. Hardy Perennial.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) A great architectural perennial to pair with ornamental grasses and a wonderful source of edible flowers; the purple blossoms have a distinct peppery-sage flavour that lend themselves to summer salads or freezing in ice cubes for Bloody Marys.
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) A Canadian native which bears tiny rosy-purple (other colours are available) pea-like blooms on the stem just before the leaves emerge. These have a nutty sweet pea flavour and can be used fresh in salads or baked in muffins, fritters or even pancakes. Hardy Tree.
Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) Daylily petals are rather fleshy but have a pleasant green pea flavour that works well in salads. Perhaps the best way to appreciate them is to sauté (with garlic and butter) or batter and deep fry the unopened flower buds for a real tasty treat. Hardy Perennial.
Roses (Rosa spp.) While all rose flowers are edible, I prefer Rosa rugosa as the petals taste as good as they smell. You will want to cut off the bitter base of each petal but they make a fantastic jelly that is superb with soft goat’s cheese. Hardy Shrubs.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla & Chamaemelum nobile) There are two types of chamomile, annual German (Matricaria) and the perennial Roman (Chamaemelum) and the flowers of both can be used for a calming tea. Many consider German slightly superior and even though it is an annual, it readily self-seeds. Annual and Hardy Perennial.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) Although they have a slightly bitter nutty artichoke flavour, flower petals add a splash of colour to soups or salads. The unopened flower buds can also be deep fried or sautéed and served as a side dish. Annual.
Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) Not only are these large trees important pollinator attractants but the clusters of fragrant white flowers have a very tasty green pea and honey flavour. ‘Frisia’ is the more common gold-leaved cultivar that you are likely to find at your local garden centre. Hardy Tree.
Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) Not only is this a great pollinator plant and source of herbal tea (leaves) but the fiery red flowers are quite attractive. Expect a citrus-mint flavour that works well in fruit salads or as a garnish in iced summer cocktails. Tender Annual.
Violas & Pansies (Viola cornuta & V. x wittrockiana) You won’t find much flavour here (slight herbal taste with a hint of sweetness) but the colour range is second to none; so these are superb choices for fruit salads or decorating cupcakes. The blooms from both these species can be enjoyed whole. Perennial & Short-Lived Perennial.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) You have your choice of blue or pink flowers (‘Rosea’ or ‘Majorca Pink’) but these tiny blooms pack a punch of flavour. Use them to garnish pesto pastas, salads or even garlic bread. Evergreen Shrub.
Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) While all marigolds have edible flowers, they don’t taste the same and some of them can be downright pungent. The tiny yellow and orange blooms of Signet Marigold are your best choice here as they have a lemon-sorrel flavour that works well when used sparingly as a salad garnish. Self-Seeding Annual.
Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda & W. sinensis) While both Japanese and Chinese Wisteria have edible flowers, they should be eaten in moderation. The distinct sweet pea flavour works well in salads, to garnish cakes or in fresh vegetarian wraps. Deciduous Vine.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) While we often get frustrated at how easily our cilantro bolts in the summer heat, maybe you just need to turn that into a positive. The blooms are equally flavourful and can be used in much the same way as the leaves. Annual.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) While most of us are aware of elderberry jelly or wine made from the berries, few of us consider the culinary potential of the flowers. These delicately scented blooms are a key ingredient in elderberry cordial, a refreshing summer drink when added to some sparkling water or prosecco. Deciduous Shrub.
Culinary Sage (Salvia officinalis) The showy blue flowers of culinary sage look as good as they taste, and since they have a strong flavour I would use them sparingly. A little on fresh fish or used in ice cubes for savory drinks seems to hit the spot. Evergreen Perennial.
Fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.) While all fuchsia flowers are edible, they are rather bitter but make for spectacular garnishes. Even ordinary cakes seem to come alive with a few of these beauties adorning the icing. Tender Annual & Perennial.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia & L. x intermedia) Both English and Lavandin have edible flowers, but these need to be used sparingly as they can easily overpower any dish. Use them in cookies, breads, to flavour Vanilla ice cream or in an aioli with some barbequed lamb. Evergreen Shrub.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) The pale purple to white blooms of English thyme are plentiful and pack a nice citrus-thyme flavour. Just cut a few blooming sprigs and crumble the flowers (and maybe a few leaves) over cream fettucine or even some soft cheeses. Evergreen Perennial.
Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) The petals (cut away the bitter base) have a sweet to mild clove-like flavour, depending on the variety. Use these to garnish cakes or iced beverages, as well as fruit salads but use in moderation. Short-Lived Perennial.
Zucchini (Cucurbita pepo) What to do with all that zucchini is a perpetual problem for most gardeners; my solution is to just eat the blossoms. Stuff them with goat cheese generously spiced with chopped basil and green onion then twist the ends close, batter and deep fry. Annual Vegetable.
English Daisy (Bellis perennis) There are both ornamental and weed forms of this perennial, with the latter often showing up in our lawns as tiny white daisies. Since most lawn herbicides and sprays are banned by municipalities you should be able to enjoy a sprinkle of the slightly bitter petals on fresh green salads. Herbaceous Perennial.
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) A favourite of hummingbirds (particularly the red ones) and a staple for the background of the perennial border; the blooms are also edible, lending an earl-grey flavour to tea or used as a stunning salad garnish. Herbaceous Perennial.
Apple (Malus domestica) Apple blossoms have a delicate green apple flavour with a hint of sweetness and should be eaten in moderation (due to natural toxins). That said, they make an excellent addition to any fruit salad. Fruit Tree.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) This durable groundcover is not only shade tolerant but produces white, sweetly scented flowers which are edible. These are a key ingredient in German May Wine which can be likened to herbal-flavoured sangria. Herbaceous Perennial.