Real Food Encyclopedia | Edible Flowers
Humans have probably been eating flowers since our earliest hunting and gathering days, but archeological proof of this is scanty. Actual evidence of flower eating in antiquity centers on a few specific flowers including roses, saffron crocuses, chrysanthemums and a handful of others.
Many other flowers have been eaten (or made into tea) for millennia. Nasturtiums and elder flowers for example. Orange flower water, a distillation of orange blossoms, was used as an air freshener and flavoring for food. Dandelions have been used as food and medicine since the 10th Century CE. Artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower are also flowers, each with their own interesting culinary history.
- Pansies, violets and Johnny-jump-ups
- Marigolds and calendula (aka “pot marigold”)
- Locust-tree blossoms
- Banana flowers
- Zucchini and other squash blossoms
- Scented geraniums
- Common day lilies (note: other types of lilies may be toxic)
- Herb flowers (think chives, lavender, rosemary, thyme, basil, dill, mint, sage, bee balm, borage)
Here’s a super long list of even more edible flowers that includes flavor descriptions of each.
Fun Facts about Edible Flowers:
- Nasturtium seeds were apparently used as a substitute for black pepper during WWII.
- Saffron, made from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, continues to be the most expensive spice in the world, fetching $1,500 and up per pound in some modern markets.
- Tulip bulbs were eaten as a famine food during WWII, although they must be specially prepared to avoid indigestion. Tulip petals are also edible and make beautiful cups for dips. (Note: some people are highly allergic to tulips, so eat sparingly.)
What to Look for When Buying Edible Flowers
Look for flowers that are colorful, perky and without brown spots or discoloration.
If you are lucky enough to be able to harvest your own flowers, whatever the variety might be, here are a couple of tips:
- Ideally, harvest flowers early in the morning. Especially in summer, the heat of the day can cause some flowers to droop and wilt. Late afternoon/early evening is a good time to harvest, too.
- For optimum beauty and flavor, choose blossoms that are at their peak. If the flower has already started to brown, take a pass on harvesting.
- For all larger blossoms, especially squash blossoms, inspect the inside of the flower to make sure no bugs are lurking inside.
Sustainability of Edible Flowers
We can’t really mention flowers without talking about bees and colony collapse disorder, a disorder in which entire hives can be decimated. Flowers basically exist in order to attract insect pollinators like honeybees — and without bees, a lot of the fruits and veggies we eat would cease to exist. If flowers are treated with bee-harming insecticides, that’s basically like poisoning the well.
Pesticides and Edible Flowers
The flower industry relies upon lots and lots of toxic chemicals, especially on flowers classified as “non-edibles.” Be very careful about where your edible flowers come from. Even flowers from someone’s yard or the side of the road might not be pesticide-free, so use caution there, too. If you can’t grow your own, choose flowers from an organic farm or vendor to ensure your little beauties are chemical-free.
Edible Flowers Seasonality and Geography
You can find edible flowers of some kind or another starting in early spring (like dandelions, violets and pansies) through summer and straight on into fall, although the bulk of the best and brightest flowers are available in late spring through summer: think nasturtiums, roses, squash blossoms, arugula flowers, marigolds and flowering herbs.
Edible Flowers and Cultivation
Many edible flowers can be grown in your backyard or on your windowsill, and indeed, because edible flowers can be hard to find, growing your own can open up a world of flower eating possibilities. Try making an edible flower patch or window box: include some flowering herbs (like chives, thyme and lavender), plus pansies, marigolds, scented geraniums and calendula. Nasturtiums are also one of the easiest plants to grow in a container. Their trailing nature makes them really beautiful (and tasty) mixed with other edible flowers — and as a bonus, all parts of the plant are edible. If all of those options are too pedestrian for you, you can apparently grow your own saffron. (Just be careful: other varieties of crocus are toxic.) Growing your own hibiscus looks pretty do-able, too.
Eating Edible Flowers
Storing Fresh Edible Flowers
Most edible flowers are very, very perishable after harvest and should be eaten as soon as possible — the same day they are picked, if you can. If not, store them in a single layer in a paper towel-lined shallow container or plate, topped with another paper towel. If you can get your hands on a plastic clamshell (the kind of container pre-washed salad mixes come in), you may find success storing larger flowers like zucchini blossoms and nasturtiums in them on a paper towel, in a double layer, with another paper towel in between.
Cooking with Edible Flowers
Before you eat any flower, be absolutely sure that you’ve made a positive identification, especially if you are foraging. Some flowers are truly toxic. Like wild mushrooms, some that are poisonous may look similar to edible varieties. For instance, most edible pea species have edible flowers, but ornamental sweet peas are toxic. Wild chervil looks a whole lot like poison hemlock, which is super, super deadly. If you have bad allergies or hay fever, you may also want to steer clear of eating flowers. It is a good idea to start small and eat flowers sparingly until you know how your body will react. And as mentioned above — be absolutely sure that the flowers you eat were never, ever sprayed with pesticides.
With all of the warnings out of the way: there is so much you can do with flowers, both sweet and savory. Fry them up! Use them as beautiful garnishes! Make them into refreshing drinks, teas, jams and jellies! Bake them into cookies, cakes and tarts! What you do with edible flowers, of course, depends on the type of flower, their size and their flavor.
Flowers are excellent in salads. Toss whole nasturtium flowers into a green salad for a both peppery punch and a colorful accent. Marigold petals, herb flowers, chopped squash blossoms, rose petals and pansies also look beautiful and taste delicious added to greens. Add flowers after dressing a salad — they are so delicate that they tend to wilt under the weight of even the lightest salad dressing. Flowers also add a lovely touch as a garnish for just about anything. Think outside the box for garnishes: try floating a flower in your favorite cocktail, or topping a platter of jasmine rice with marigold and rose petals.
Here are some other great ideas for using flowers:
- Squash blossoms: Any type of squash flower can be eaten: zucchini, pattypan, crookneck, even winter squash blossoms. Squash blossoms are also classic as a filling for quesadillas. Try simple fried squash blossoms or get a little fancier and make fried stuffed squash blossoms. Here are a couple more ways to eat squash blossoms, including in pasta and baked, if frying them doesn’t float your boat.
- Other fried flowers: Fried flowers are exceptionally delicious. On the sweeter side, check out Jacques Pépin’s locust blossom fritters or these elderflower fritters. For you lucky folks in more tropical climates, it seems like banana flower fritters should be eaten every day.
- Day lilies: Common day lilies are also edible and are, apparently, delicious. All parts can be eaten.
- Savory fillings: Try using flowers as fillings in your favorite savory dishes. Try them as a filling for enchiladas, like these amazing-sounding hibiscus flower enchiladas.
- Deserts: Most edible flowers also look and taste great as toppers for cakes or baked into cookies, like these pansy cookies. This video teaches you how to candy your own pansies and make floral “confetti” for garnish. Edible flowers are also yummy made into ice creams or sorbets, or steeped into tea.
For about a million more ideas on eating flowers, check out Miche Bacher’s beautiful book “Cooking with Flowers.”
Preserving Edible Flowers
Although flowers are highly perishable, they can be made into jams, jellies, syrups, drinks and even pickles to preserve the harvest. Try your hand at pickled nasturtium pods, stunning rose petal jam or elderflower syrup. Or make a flower jelly — here is a basic recipe that can be applied to many edible flowers.
Edible Flowers Nutrition
You probably won’t eat enough flowers to have a huge nutritional benefit, but many (including hibiscus, roses and nasturtiums) are quite high in Vitamin C. Flowers are frequently used in herbal medicine.