What you need to know about edible flowers
Edible flowers have been one of the surprise successes of the last few years.
Many of us are suspicious of the idea of eating flowers, but they do look so pretty on Instagram.
So the search term ‘edible flowers’ rocketed during lockdown, with people mainly wanting to know where they could buy them.
However, it is difficult to buy edible flowers. And it’s not a good idea to put flowers from a bouquet or a supermarket into your cakes and salads.
So I’ve asked Tanya Anderson of the Lovely Greens blog and YouTube channel to answer some of the most commonly asked questions on edible flowers. If you prefer to watch a video rather than read a post, the video on edible flowers is here.
Tanya writes about growing beautiful plants and using them for practical purposes – not just edible flowers, but plants in soaps, household cleaners and skin care. Her book, A Woman’s Garden – Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things features eight gardens, each dedicated to a different practical use for garden plants. This includes a garden growing plants for skin care, a medicinal herbs garden, a culinary herbs garden, an edible flower garden, a garden for natural plant dyes, a garden based around craft and more.
What are the best edible flowers to grow?
‘It comes down to personal flavour and taste,’ says Tanya.
Good, easy edible flowers include violas, pansies, scented geraniums, roses (for their petals), cornflowers and dianthus (pinks and wallflowers).
‘And don’t forget the flowers from vegetables and herbs either,’ adds Tanya. That includes courgette flowers, chive flowers and wild garlic flowers, all of which can be added to salads. Courgette flowers are good when stuffed.
Some edible flowers are so easy to grow that they count as weeds – dandelions, for example. And I have borage and marigolds, which self seed around my garden vigorously.
Which flowers are best for cocktails or gin? And how should we use them?
Tanya says that bartenders will often add an edible flower for decoration, although a lot of people just fish them out and don’t eat them. But she suggests thinking about how you pair gin with flowers, considering their flavour. ‘So you could pair gin with elderflower cordial and add elderflowers. You can use rose, lilac or lavender syrups with gin, adding those flowers.
How to make edible flower ice cubes
Fill an ice cube tray with a very small amount of water, says Tanya. Then freeze it. Freeze the flowers separately.
Then, when the lower layer of each ice cube has frozen solid, add the frozen flowers and cover with water. Freeze immediately
‘Making edible flower ice cubes is a great way of preserving the flowers for later on in the year. As we know, flowers are so seasonal – some are only around for a few weeks a year. Use the edible flower ice cubes within the year, although they will last longer.
Which are the best edible flowers for cakes?
Tanya says that people often only think about the colour scheme of the cake or the occasion. They forget to factor in the flavour of edible flowers when they’re choosing them for decoration. ‘For example, the flower of a gone-to-seed rocket could add quite a peppery flavour, as does nasturtium. And wild garlic or brassica flowers could also add a strange flavour to the cake.
So there are lots of choices and no ‘best edible flower for cakes’. Just taste the flower as well as looking at the colour.
There are recommendations for flowers for adding to sweet food, such as cakes in A Woman’s Garden. They include dianthus (wallflowers and pinks), lavender, rose petals, pelargoniums and violas/pansies. Cornflowers also have a mild flavour, so can be added to a range of food and drink.
Do I have to wash flowers for eating and if so, how?
Cut flowers are very delicate and cannot be washed, says Tanya. ‘Cut them early in the morning on the day you’re going to use them, then keep them in a cool, dark place for a few hours.’
‘And flowers keep on opening after they’ve been picked, so pick flowers that are not quite open,’ she advises. ‘As soon as you place them on the cake, they’ll keep on opening.’
Which edible flowers can you use in salads?
You can choose flowers which don’t have a strong flavour and use them just to add decoration. These include primroses and cornflowers.
Or you can use flowers with quite a punch, such as wild garlic, nasturtiums or chive flowers, to add flavour as well as colour.
She also suggests using flowers that are blooming in your vegetable garden, such as pea and runner bean flowers (not sweet peas, they’re toxic).
Are there any edible flowers that have health benefits?
Tanya equates edible flowers to fruit and veg. ‘They’re just another type of food stuff. They have the same vitamins, minerals etc as your fruit and veg.’
However, if you’re talking about medicinal health benefits, ‘the amount of flowers you’d have on the average cake or in a salad – there just isn’t enough to have a medicinal benefit.’So if you’re pregnant or are taking other medications, you don’t have to worry about any side effects.’
How can we tell which flowers are edible and which are toxic?
This is something we have to pay attention to, says Tanya. ‘Just as we have to learn which part of a vegetable is edible and which part is toxic – for example, with rhubarb. (Rhubarb stalks are edible, but the leaves are poisonous.)
‘Start with the easy, commonly used flowers,’ advises Tanya.
And should edible flowers be organic?
Do we have to worry about toxic sprays on edible flowers?
Don’t use flowers that you’ve been given in a bouquet as edible flowers, or flowers that you’ve bought in a supermarket or flower shop. They have probably been treated with chemicals. ‘A lot of bouquet flowers have been treated with a spray that slows down the rate at which they open.’
This also applies to buying plants at a garden centre. If you want to grow flowers for eating and garnishes, then Tanya suggests you either sow them from seed yourself, buy them as organic plants or snip off all the flowers and buds when you buy it. Then don’t use any flowers until it’s been growing for a few weeks or months in your garden.
You should know what chemicals you’re using in your garden, so don’t eat flowers or vegetables that have been sprayed with anything harmful. And if you have a field nearby and are worried about drift from spraying, then don’t eat the flowers you grow. Tanya also reminds you to keep any flowers you intend to eat out of range of a dog lifting his leg, for example, or cat faeces.
More about A Woman’s Garden
A Woman’s Garden – Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things (pub by Cool Springs Press) features eight gardeners in different countries, each growing their garden with a purpose. Tanya describes them as ‘artisans, homemakers, businesswomen and scientists. They are real women with real gardens and what they have in common is a fascination for the way plants can enrich our health and our homes.’
There are also projects, such as how to make a citrus and rosemary kitchen spray or a natural wood furniture polish. Gardening advice includes how to grow low maintenance edibles and how to make a strawberry planter out of pallets.
Above all, Tanya wants to inspire other women to consider all the wider possibilities of plants and to help pass on skills and knowledge that may be in danger of being lost.
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