Eating the Flowers
Broccoli, cauliflower, and artichokes may be the most frequent and nutritious flowers we eat, but there’s pleasure in many others. From early spring through fall, our gardens unfold a wide array of blossoms to delight tastebuds as well as eyes and noses.
Though nasturtiums, roses, and pansies may come readily to mind as edible garnishes to decorate salads and desserts, the possibilities are much greater. A brief online search produced a list of no fewer than 50 edible flowers—from allium to zucchini—that are commonly found in Virginia gardens. Their uses are as varied as their shapes, sizes, scents, colors, and flavors.
A cautionary note: It’s best to eat flowers you’ve grown yourself, or that you know haven’t been treated with pesticides or otherwise contaminated. And, if you have plant or pollen allergies, avoid eating flowers or try just a bit to start.
Which are the best-tasting?
“Edible” being not necessarily tasty, the following is a list of those having the most pleasing flavors:
Allium Chives, garlic, leeks—all have tasty blossoms with flavors ranging from delicate leek to robust garlic. All parts are edible.
Angelica and Anise hyssop flowers have an anise flavor.
Arugula flowers have the same peppery flavor as the leaves.
Basil blossoms taste like a milder version of the leaves.
Bee balm’s red flowers are minty.
Borage has beautiful blue flowers that taste like cucumber.
Calendula/marigold flowers are spicy-bitter and colorful in dishes.
Chervil and Clover flowers have a delicate anise flavor.
Dandelion’s young blossoms have a honey-like flavor.
Dianthus/carnation flowers have a spicy, clove-like taste
Dill flowers taste like the leaves.
Fennel’s pretty yellow flowers have the same subtle anise flavor as the herb itself.
Hibiscus has a vibrant cranberry flavor and makes a tart tea.
Johnny Jump-up blossoms have a subtle mint flavor that complements many foods.
Lemon verbena’s blossoms are lemony.
Mint flowers are minty!
Nasturtium has it all—size, color, sweetness, and a peppery finish.
Oregano blooms taste like a subtle version of the leaf.
Radish flowers have a peppery bite.
Rosemary and Sage flowers taste like a milder version of the leaves.
Tulip flowers taste like sweet lettuce or baby peas.
Herb flowers make a fine garnish for anything seasoned with their leaves.
Some of the most highly scented flowers—such as Carnation, Citrus, Jasmine, Lavender, Lilac, Rose etc.—lend more fragrance than flavor and should be used sparingly. (I once baked a batch of lavender-laced cookies that tasted like a fine English soap.) Some—like Pansy and Violet—have little taste but make beautiful garnishes.
How to Prepare Flowers for Eating
Freshness is key. Pick flowers in the morning when their essential oils are most intense. Soak them briefly in cool water to remove dirt. Remove the pistils and stamens, which can have a strong, unpleasant taste. The petals are the good part. Gently dry them, wrap them in moist paper towels and refrigerate them in an airtight container until you are ready to use them. Most will keep for several days.
Larger blossoms can be the center and substance of a dish. These include all Squash family members, Daylilies, even Gladiolus. Many recipes call for coating the blossoms with batter and pan-frying them, as my husband’s mother Eva, a fine Italian cook, often did to excellent effect. Zucchini blossoms will be the first to appear in the spring, but the season is long, including winter squashes and pumpkins.
If you want to spare the fruit, choose only male blossoms. There are more of them anyway, and they typically appear all over the plant on longer stems than the female blossoms. The female blossoms, usually found nearer the center of the plant, will have a soft swelling at the base of the flower that will grow into the squash. Plan to use these blossoms the same day you pick them as they are very perishable. Gather them in the morning as they open towards the sun; later in the day, they close and may trap insects.
Before using, open the blossoms and inspect for insects. Trim out the anthers or style and pull off and discard the green calyx at the base. Give them a gentle swish in cool water and shake dry.
Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms
—Adapted from Giada de Laurentiis’s recipe.
Serves 4 as a snack, first course, or side dish
1 cup all-purpose flour (or half flour, half cornstarch for a crispier finish)
1 cup water (or sparkling water for a lighter batter)
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for finish seasoning
1/3 cup (2 ounces) goat cheese (or garlic-herb goat cheese)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) cream cheese
2 teaspoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves
1 green onion, finely chopped
Freshly ground pepper
8 zucchini blossoms
Vegetable oil for frying
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, water, and salt until smooth. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the cheeses, cream, basil, and onion. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon 1½ to 2 teaspoons of filling into each blossom. (It’s all right to slit the blossom partway down the side to make it easier to fill.) Close the blossom and gently twist the petals to seal.
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour enough oil to fill about a third of the way. Heat over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer inserted in the oil reaches 350 degrees. (A cube of bread will brown in about 1 minute.) Frying half the blossoms at a time will avoid lowering the temperature of the oil too much.
Dip the stuffed blossoms in the batter and allow excess to drop off. Fry for 1 to 2 minutes, turning occasionally until golden. Drain the blossoms on paper
towels. Sprinkle with salt. Enjoy as is, or serve with marinara sauce.
Featured Image: Borage flower, courtesy of Pixabay
Squash blossom image by Monika Baechler from Pixabay