I love salads. Wash and tear some crisp, homegrown lettuce. Add a few sprouts, some mizuna leaves (mizuna grows exceptionally well in my garden) and other greens. Slice up some green onions, cucumbers and tomatoes, throw in a few flowers, and whisk together a light vinaigrette to pour over the top. Toss it all together, and yum!
Wait, you say. Flowers? You put flowers in your salads?
Many flowers are not only a feast for the eyes, but for the palate as well. I grow them in my garden specifically for salads and other recipes. And I love the reactions I get when I put the finished dish in front of a dinner guest.
If you stop and think about it, you’ll realize that we already eat a lot of flowers. Broccoli and cauliflower are two examples that immediately come to mind. Artichokes are really the flower buds of a species of thistle. The open flowers are a beautiful periwinkle blue.
Growing flowers for consumption is the same as growing them for bouquets, with one major difference. Remember, you are going to be eating them Avoid poisonous sprays. (If you have to spray, use something safe for vegetable gardens. Personally, I prefer to sacrifice the crop rather than ingest most of those chemicals.)
This is also why I don’t eat flowers purchased from a florist. There is no way to tell if they’ve been sprayed, or with what. In fact, they often have a preservative applied to extend their vase life. Similarly, flowers gathered from roadsides may have been sprayed with herbicides or other chemicals.
Don’t eat flowers grown with fresh manure. There is a slight chance that they’ve been contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Rather, compost the manure for several months. Then it’s safe to use in a food garden.
Just like with vegetables, flowers are at their best when fresh. Pick them at their peak and enjoy them right away. Most species taste best at this point. Apparently, you can also preserve them by painting the petals with reconstituted dried egg whites (to avoid any disease issues), dipping them in super-fine sugar, and then drying them. I haven’t tried this, but would love to hear from anyone who has.
While I put most of my flowers into salads, that is just the beginning. Blossoms are used in teas, baking, candies, syrups, jellies, wine-making, and as garnishes. Be creative!
Of course, we need to make sure the flowers we choose to cook with aren’t poisonous. If you aren’t sure, err on the safe side. Colorado State University Extension has a fact sheet with tables listing both poisonous and safe-to-eat flowers. Another useful website is at What’s Cooking America.
Some of my favorite flowers for munching include:
Borage. An old-fashioned herb, borage has a flavor reminiscent of cucumbers. The leaves are a bit prickly, so I prefer to toss my lettuce with the pretty sky-blue flowers. Borage is a cool-weather annual. Seed around mid-May directly into the garden. Flowers appear by early August. Leaving a few flowers to mature will ensure next year’s seedlings.
Calendulas. Their other name, Pot Marigolds, tells us that not only do they resemble the more-familiar orange marigolds, but they have been used in the kitchen for hundreds of years. The flowers are large, so I remove the petals and scatter them on top of a salad, where they lend their subtle but peppery flavor.
Daylilies. If you’ve eaten mu shu pork, you’ve probably eaten daylilies. The dried buds are frequently used in Chinese recipes. Since the flowers only last one day in the garden, I don’t mind picking a few for the kitchen. You can also purchase bags of dried blossoms in many Asian grocery stores.
Nasturtiums. Another old-fashioned flower, both the leaves and flowers have a distinctly hot flavor similar to watercress. Layering a leaf in a sandwich will really wake up your taste buds, and the flowers can be added to a robust salad. Nasturtiums do best in sandy soil, and are treated as annuals in our cold climate.
Violas and Johnny Jump-ups.
These miniature blossoms function more as eye candy; their flavor is unremarkable. In a salad, you won’t notice them at all. You can use them fresh or dip them in sugar syrup for a frosted look. They grow easily in Colorado gardens, often surviving the winter. They will self-sow prolifically if allowed to go to seed.
As you thumb through the new crop of seed catalogs or scan your local garden center’s display, I hope you’ll order some flower seeds for your kitchen garden.