Garden Variety: Edible flowers add flavors, textures, colors to meals
Pansies, daylilies and other flowers are better known for their cherry blossoms than their delicate flavors, but they are edible and add interesting flavors, textures and colors to meals. Edible flowers are rare in the grocery store, but many species are easy to grow in landscapes and food gardens in Kansas. Consider adding a few flowers to the garden this spring to garnish salads and drinks, mix into stir-fries, and create unique baked items.
When eating and cooking with flowers, always be sure of the plant identification and how it is best used. For example, flowers from violets (Viola sp.) are popular choices for salads, drinks, candies and baked goods. There is a native species that may grow wild in the landscape, and there are cultivated species including Johnny jump-ups and pansies. African violets, despite the similarity in name, are not violets and should not be consumed.
Violets are among the most popular edible flowers because of their array of colors.
Nasturtiums and calendulas are probably the next most popular edible flowers. Nasturtium blossoms have a peppery flavor and bright colors that are a pretty and flavorful addition to salads and sandwiches. Calendula flowers are yellow to orange and may be used in salads, soups, stews, or to color and season rice. The petals may also be used fresh or dried to make tea.
The flowers of herb plants such as chives, oregano, basil, lavender and others may be used similarly to the leaves or in salads. They tend to have flavors similar to the leaves but are usually a little stronger. Lavender flowers have a floral quality to them that makes them best used in drinks and baked goods.
Daylily buds (pre-bloom) are best stir-fried. Once the blossoms open, they can be harvested for use in salads and soups and as garnishes. Remove the stamens and pistils from the centers of the flowers before eating. A daylily flower only blooms one day, so be sure to harvest before or just after it opens for best quality.
Redbud and lilac flowers are getting attention for edibility right now because redbuds are currently in bloom and lilacs will be blooming soon. Both may be used on salads or pickled in vinegar. They are also pretty when mixed with yogurt or ice cream or used as garnishes on cakes and iced cookies. Redbud flowers are reported to have a lot of variability in flavor. Lilac may have a floral taste.
Squash blossoms are a special treat in the summer. Squash plants produce male and female flowers, making this a good use of male flowers that otherwise simply fade after producing pollen for fruit production. Remove the stamens from the centers when harvesting. They can be eaten in salads, but the specialty is to batter and fry these flowers. They are also popular in quesadillas and stuffed and baked. Female flowers are just as tasty if the blossoms are preferred over fruit production.
Other flowers to consider adding to the table are roses, bee balms (Monarda), impatiens, marigolds, Agastache, hibiscus, red and white clover, peas, yucca and dandelions.
Avoid picking and consuming flowers from roadsides, public land, etc. Besides legality, they may have been sprayed with pesticides not labeled for use on food crops.
For lilies and other flowers with large obvious stamens and pistils in the center, remove those parts before consuming.
Pick flowers early in the morning if possible and when they are at peak quality. Use them shortly after harvest, or place in water or the refrigerator to retain quality after picking.
Check closely for insects. They like to eat flowers, too, and may hide very efficiently between petals. Rinsing can help remove insects.
— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.