For centuries edible flowers have been an integral part of human nutrition and have been described in detail in ancient literature. In Central Europe for example, fried batter-coated black elder (Sambucus nigra) flowers were common, as well as dandelion flowers boiled with sugar. Furthermore, flowers were used as decorations in food prepared for the nobility, especially for feasts and banquets. Nowadays, sales of fresh, top-quality flowers for human consumption are increasing worldwide. These products, packed in bunches, boxes, etc. are sold either directly in farm shops or through various specialized outlets.
Edible flowers improve the appearance, taste and aesthetic value of food, aspects that consumers appreciate, justifying the increasing trend of fresh top-quality flowers’ sales worldwide. Beyond their culinary properties, edible flowers are receiving renewed medical interest. Some of these flowers contain phenolics and flavonoids that have been correlated with anti-inflammatory activity and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.1, 2, 3 Many contain valuable nutrients and exhibit functional qualities such as antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.4 Edible flowers can be used as an essential ingredient in recipes, provide seasoning to a dish, or simply be used as a garnish.
The contents of edible flowers (proteins, fats, saccharides, vitamins) are not very different from those in other culinary plants, e.g., in leaf vegetables. The main criteria for evaluation of edible flower quality are their sensory characteristics, i.e., appeal, size, shape, color, and (above all) taste and aroma. Their colors are predetermined by many chemical compounds, but the contents of carotenoids and flavonoids are the most important. A high antioxidant capacity of flowers is mostly correlated just with the level of flavonoids.
The renewed interest in the use of flowers in cooking and to improve the appearance and nutritive value of meals has prompted the interest of researchers to investigate chemical properties of numerous flowers. Research shows that many common flowers are rich in a great variety of natural antioxidants including flavonoids, anthocyanins, and many other phenolic compounds.5 Recently, the flavonoid profile of 10 common edible flowers from China was evaluated and it was shown that rutin and quercetin were the main compounds found.6
Anthocyanins too have been categorized as the largest group of water-soluble pigments present in flowers.7 Humans consume a considerable amount of anthocyanins from plant-based food sources in daily life. These natural pigments are of great interest in the food industry, due to their attractive colors and beneficial health effects, including anti-inflammatory, antiartherogenic, anticancer, antidiabetic, and antioxidant activities.8
• Never eat any plant if you aren’t 100 percent sure of what it is! Be sure you have identified the flower correctly and eat only the edible flowers and/or the edible parts of those flowers or plant. Best to eat flowers that you have grown yourself and know that they are safe for consumption.
• Be sure the plant hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries, or garden centers. In many cases these flowers have been treated with pesticides not labeled for food crops.
• Never harvest flowers growing by the roadside, they may be contaminated by exhaust fumes and any spraying done by government agencies.
• Generally, eat only the petals and remove the pistils and stamens before eating or cooking.
The following are descriptions of 20 of the most popular and medicinally valuable edible flowers:
Anise Hyssop, Blue Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
English daisy (Bellis perennis)
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis and Nigra)
Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensisis)
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Honeysuckle flower (Lonicera japonica)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Rose (Rosa Spp.)
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)
Anise Hyssop, Blue Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Anise Hyssop, a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), is native to prairies, dry upland forested areas, plains and fields in the upper Midwest and Great Plains into Canada from Ontario west to British Columbia.
The aromatic leaves and flowers have a licorice-like (anise) scent, and can be used in herbal teas, to flavor jellies or eaten fresh in small quantities, such as in a salad with other greens. Flower color varies from white to pale blue and lavender through blue purple, with the color more intense at the tip.
The plant was used medicinally by Native Americans to treat coughs, fevers, wounds, and diarrhea. The Cheyenne made a tea for a “dispirited heart” from the flowers. The Iroquois made a wash against poison ivy out of it. Other historic uses were as a protective charm, a poultice for burns, and as incense. The flower essence is said to “bring back sweetness after one has indulged in unwarranted guilt, to encourage honest communication, and to allay anxiety before exams or performances”.9
This perennial's profusion of blossoms throughout a long growing season makes it an ideal edible flower. Use the flowers to garnish and sweeten tea, flavor sugar, bread, or honey. Separate the tiny flowers from the main stem to dot over the top of a fruit salad or garnish a summer cucumber soup. The flowers are also a perfect addition as a garnish to desserts and truly beautiful and tasty for tea parties.
The best time to harvest foliage to dry is when the flowers are just past full bloom, as the oil content in the leaves is the highest at that time, but they can be used at any time. Dried flower spikes retain their lovely lavender color and mild fragrance.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil, also a member of the Lamiaceae family, is native to tropical regions from central Africa to Southeast Asia. It is now grown worldwide for its flavorful culinary properties. Depending on the species and cultivar, the leaves may taste somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, often sweet smell. The leaves are not the only part of basil used in culinary applications, the flower buds have a more subtle flavor and they are also edible. The various basils have such different scents because the herb has several different essential oils in different proportions for various cultivars.
Basil varieties to look for include:
African blue basil (perennial in warm climates, shown at top)
Allowed to flower, the plants will go to seed and stop producing those fresh lovely leaves. Luckily, there’s an easy solution. Plant several extra basil plants. Once you have harvested the first batch of leaves, allow a few plants to go into flowering mode.
Basil leaves and flowers are an attractive and tasty addition as a garnish to salads and soups. However, basil produces less aromatic and flavorful oils after it begins to flower, which causes it to develop a slightly bitter flavor. Flowering also makes the stems become woody, rendering them inedible. An option is to pinch off the flower buds as soon as they emerge and use them as decoration atop foods. Removing the flowers also allows another harvest of leaves before the flavor begins to decline.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Borage, or commonly known as star flower, originated from Syria but is now naturalized in many parts of Europe. It is a member of the Boraginaceae family along with comfrey and forget-me-nots. The flowers are star-like in shape and can be blue, lavender or purple in color. It is a favorite plant of honeybees, bumble bees and small, native bees.
It has served many purposes from the time of ancient Rome to the present. Pliny the Elder believed it to be an antidepressant, and it has long been thought to give courage and comfort to the heart. Traditionally, borage was used to relieve anxiety and stress and for lifting the spirits. It is also used to reduce high fevers taken hot because of its diaphoretic or sweat-inducing properties, making it a good remedy for colds, flu and infected lungs.10
The leaves and flowers are rich in potassium and calcium making it a good tonic and blood purifier. This herb is also one of the highest known plant sources of gamma-linolenic acid (an omega 6 fatty acid, also known as GLA), and the seed oil is often marketed as a GLA supplement. It is also a source of B vitamins, beta-carotene, fiber, choline, and trace minerals. In alternative medicine it is used for stimulating breast milk production and as an adrenal gland tonic, and as such, can be used to relieve stress.11
Borage ice cubes are the perfect way to chill lemonade.
Borage flowers have a mild, cucumber-like flavor and can be used to spice up salads, drinks, and savory dishes. The leaves too can be mixed into salad greens. The flowers are particularly fabulous with chicken and fish dishes. Overall, this herb and its flower can be used in soups, salads, borage-lemonade, strawberry-borage cocktails, preserves, borage jelly, various sauces, cooked as a stand-alone vegetable, or used in desserts in the form of fresh or candied flowers, to name a few.
Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Chamomile, also known as Roman chamomile, is a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy family. Before chamomile became a culinary staple and a famous tea, it was used mainly for medicinal reasons. The healing properties of chamomile were so prized in ancient Egypt that the plant was dedicated to the sun and worshipped. It is said that the god Ra used it as a symbol of his almighty power, while the Egyptian people offered it to the gods because of its healing properties in hopes it would cure acute fevers known at that time as “Ague”. You can also find evidence of chamomile’s medicinal uses in the Lacnunga, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript dating back to at least the first millennium. In it, the flower is referred to as the one of the “nine sacred herbs”.
In ancient Rome, Roman Chamomile was used to help soldiers take courage during times of war. It was also used during the Middle Ages in beer making due to its bitter taste, though it was later replaced by hops. The European cultivation of the plant started in England in the 16th century. The plant was listed first in the pharmacopoeia of Würtenberg as a carminative, painkiller, diuretic and digestive aid.12
Roman chamomile is used today as a top essential oil due to its healing properties as well as in many food dishes and drinks. As a medicinal herb, chamomile can be used for teas to aid digestion and act as a gentle sleep inducer. It is a powerful sedative and is commonly used for its calming and relaxing properties. It helps to soothe the body and mind while relaxing a person from within.
As an oil it can also be very beneficial for treating minor burns such as sunburn, as the oil contains skin-regenerating flavonoids, and anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. It also has potent anti-inflammatory properties which make it a significant muscle and pain relaxer and healer. Used as a bath oil, chamomile oil may also help with teething in children and post pregnancy healing.13
Roman chamomile leaves and flowers are both edible but differ in taste. Chamomile flowers have a slight apple taste. Both can be tossed into a salad or a mug to make fresh chamomile herbal tea. Roman chamomile oil has many medicinal uses and may be used as flavoring in desserts, breads and pastries.
Chrysanthemums are flowering plants of the genus Chrysanthemum in the family Asteraceae. They are native to Asia and northeastern Europe. Most species originate from East Asia and the center of diversity is in China. There are countless horticultural varieties and cultivars. Basically, all chrysanthemum flowers are edible, but the flavor varies widely from plant to plant, from sweet to tangy to bitter or peppery.
Chrysanthemum flower petals are often an ingredient in tea. The species Chrysanthemum coronarium is best for edible greens. Chrysanthemum greens have a slightly tangy taste and can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves are steamed or boiled and used as greens in Chinese cuisine. Young leaves and stems are used in oriental stir-fries. When you cook Chrysanthemum greens, cook them very lightly. If overcooked they will become bitter. However, it is a delicious green, full of nutrition and particularly rich in potassium and antioxidants.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) chrysanthemum flower petals (“Ju-hua”) are used in prescriptions for colds with “wind, and heat”, headache, inflamed eyes, swelling and pain in the throat, vertigo, tinnitus, sores such as boils, and tightness of the chest with anxiety.14, 15 In TCM, Chrysanthemum is often combined with Japanese honeysuckle in the treatment of high blood pressure.16
Asian chrysanthemum tea is typically made from the yellow or white flowers of Chrysanthemum morifolium or Chrysanthemum indicum. For salads and stir-fries, chrysanthemum flowers can be blanched, then the petals removed and added to your favorite dish. This is easiest with large petaled varieties of mums. Use only the petals, since the flower base is usually very bitter. In Korea, a rice wine flavored with chrysanthemum flowers is called gukhwaju.17
Caution: Pyrethrum, a plant-based insecticide, is made from the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium or Chrysanthemum coccineum. Although it takes a high concentration of flowers to make pyrethrum, it is best to avoid planting these types of mums in an edible garden.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion derives its name from the French term “dent de lion” meaning “tooth of the lion”. Though the dandelion has been carried from place to place since before written history, it can at least be said that the plant is native to Europe and Asia. The earliest recordings can be found in Roman times and use has been noted by the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Britain and the Normans of France. In the 10th and 11th centuries there is mention of dandelions used for medicinal purposes in the works of Arabian physicians.18
Dandelion has been traditionally used for biliary disorders, gastrointestinal complaints such as a feeling of distension and flatulence, digestive complaints, and to stimulate diuresis.19 Dandelion is one of the most transformational, adaptive and vital plants. Almost overnight a field of dandelions can suddenly turn yellow, and then just as quickly the flowers can change to white and disappear. Psychoemotionally when consumed, it is thought to impart its unique transformational nature to help change and adapt one’s realm of ideas, beliefs and opinions. Hence, it empowers the mind with the capability of embracing new concepts and thoughts, and further stimulates a transformation of that information into action. It keeps the mental process from becoming stagnant through facilitating necessary belief changes relative to experience adjustments.
Dandelion contains a wide array of phytochemicals whose biological activities are actively being explored in various areas of human health. Evidence suggests that dandelion and its constituents have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities that result in diverse biological effects.20
The entire plant, including the leaves, stems, flowers, and roots, is edible, nutritious and medicinal. Many people relish the bitter flavor of dandelion greens in salads and soups, though few realize the flowers are also edible. The flowers are sweet and crunchy and can be eaten raw. Perhaps the best-known use for dandelion flowers is in dandelion wine, reputed to taste like sherry. The compilers of “Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs” advise adding ginger, sliced lemon and orange rind to enhance the flavor. They use a gallon of fresh dandelion flowers to a gallon of boiling water plus sugar. Other uses for dandelion flowers include as a garnish for salads, as a chopped addition for butter and other spreads to add color, and as an additive to flavored vinegars. They can also be made into jelly or dipped in batter and fried for dandelion fritters. The flavor is sweeter if picked immediately after the flowers open. The root of the dandelion can be dried and roasted and used as a coffee substitute or added to any recipe that calls for root vegetables.
English Daisy (Bellis perennis)
English daisy is a common European species of daisy, of the Asteraceae family. It is thought that the word “daisy” derives from the Anglo-Saxon “daes eage” which means “day's eye”, as the flower opens at dawn and shuts at dusk. It has been used medicinally for centuries for eye problems, and Henry VIII of England ate daisies to treat stomach complaints. It is one of the plants mentioned by Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. In ancient Rome, the surgeons who accompanied Roman legions into battle would order their slaves to pick sacks full of these daisies in order to extract their juice. Bellum, Latin for "war", may be the origin of this plant's scientific name. Bandages were soaked in this juice and would then be used to bind sword and spear cuts. Today, people take this daisy in tea for coughs, bronchitis, disorders of the liver and kidneys, and swelling (inflammation). They also use it as a drying agent (astringent) and as a “blood purifier.” 21, 22, 23
Also, Bellis perennis is commonly used in homeopathy, like arnica, for sprains and bruises. Homeopathic Bellis perennis is especially used for injuries from blows, falls and accidents and after certain surgical procedures.24, 25
Chewing the fresh leaves is said to be a cure for mouth ulcers, but even though leaves and flowers are edible raw they are not particularly tasty, thus the plant is mostly used as a medicinal herb in concoctions or infusions.
The flowers have a mildly bitter taste and are most commonly used for their looks rather than their flavor. However, English daisy flower buds and petals can be eaten raw in sandwiches, cooked in soups and eaten in salads. The open flowers are very decorative but can be slightly bitter or acrid. Flower buds can be pickled and used instead of capers. The leaves (think lamb's lettuce) have an astringent or sour flavor. Young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, noting that the leaves become increasingly astringent with age.
Dianthus (Dianthus chinensis)
Dianthus is a genus of about 300 species of flowering plants in the family Caryophyllaceae, native mainly to Europe and Asia, with a few species extending south to north Africa, and one species (D. repens) in arctic North America. Dianthus has flowers in shades of white, pink, salmon and red.
The species Dianthus chinensis has long been a part of traditional Chinese herbal medicine (TCM), known as “Qumai” in Mandarin, where it is used to promote bladder and urinary tract health. In TCM, dianthus is considered “cold and bitter”, and is associated with the meridians of the bladder, heart, and small intestine. It unblocks the bowels, breaks up stasis, clears damp heat, and promotes urination.26, 27
In western herbal medicine, the entire plant is used as a bitter tonic herb that stimulates the urinary system, digestive system, and bowels. Dianthus chinensis is classified as antibacterial, anthelmintic, antiphlogistic, diuretic, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, febrifuge, and haemostatic. Internally it is used to treat cystitis. This herb is used to aid digestion and the urinary system. It is also used to treat urinary stones, constipation, and failure to menstruate. Externally a decoction is used to treat skin inflammations and swellings.28
Dianthus can stimulate the uterus, so it should not be taken in large quantities during pregnancy. Overdosage of dianthus can cause prolonged contractions of the uterus. Currently, there are no known drugs that interact with dianthus.29
Petals are sweet, once trimmed away from the base and their blossoms taste like their sweet, clove-scented perfumed aroma. Fresh dianthus petals can be used to liven up salads, sandwiches and pies. They are perfect as a garnish on iced drinks such as lemonade. The petals of the flowers make beautiful decorations for cakes and pastries. When using this herb for cooking be sure to remove the petal base, as it is quite bitter.
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
Daylilies are native to Asia from the Caucasus east through the Himalaya to China, Japan, and Korea. They are known to have been cultivated in Chinese gardens 2,500 years ago. They were not originally ornamentals; rather, the young leaves and flowers were eaten as vegetables. The root and leaves were and still are used medicinally in traditional Chinese medicine where an extract of the flowers is used as a blood purifier and antidepressant.30, 31, 32 The rhizome has shown antimicrobial activity, it is also tuberculostatic and has an effect against the parasitic worms that cause filariasis.33
Daylilies are used in Korea to treat liver diseases, jaundice, constipation and pneumonia. This plant is quite nutritious, being a decent source of protein, fat, and carbs. It contains quite a bit of carotene, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium.34
Most types of lilies are mildly toxic when consumed, but not daylilies. (Though botanically speaking, daylilies are not a true lily.) Daylilies are not only edible, they are spectacular. The flowers, leaves, and tubers of the orange daylily are all edible. Daylily blossoms are meatier than most flower petals, with a succulent texture and a mildly sweet taste, like romaine lettuce. Leaves and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked when very young (or they become too fibrous). The flowers and young tubers can be also be eaten raw or cooked. The flowers can be dried and used as a thickener in soup. Add a few blooms to add color and flavor to a fresh green salad. Chop them up and add them to salads, but be sure to sample the flavor first, as some daylily varieties taste better than others. Try cooking them with scrambled eggs or adding them to a vegetable stir fry.
Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis and Nigra)
The elder tree has been used for a variety of purposes throughout history ranging from musical instruments, to food, medicine, and magic. Elderberry fruit and its extract has been used in folk medicine for centuries to treat influenza, colds and sinusitis, and has been reported to have antiviral activity against influenza and herpes simplex.35, 36, 37, 38
The flower (known as an elderflower) is edible, as well as the ripe berries. Other parts of the plant, such as leaves, stems, roots, and unripe fruits, are toxic due to the presence of cyanogenic glycosides, and alkaloids. The flavor of the elderberry flowers does not come from the petals or nectar – it comes from the flowers’ pollen. It’s important to harvest the flower heads at the stage when the pollen is fresh, not before the flower buds open and not after the pollen is gone. So, if the flower buds haven’t opened yet, come back for them later. If the flowers have started turning brown, leave them alone. The aromatic flowers appear in the late spring or early summer, depending on where you live. They are creamy, white umbels, although some sources refer to them as corymbs. They can be as wide as eight inches across.
Elder Tree Folklore
The elder tree is one of those plants surrounded by mystery, magic, and superstition.
Anglo-Saxons, the Danish, and other old European societies (Celts) believed the elder tree was sacred. According to elder tree folklore, this sacredness came from the mother spirit or goddess believed to reside in the plant. The leaves were thought to protect a home or a person from evil spirits when dried and hung in a doorway or around the neck. It was a particularly good omen if an elder grew near a dwelling, as the tree’s proximity to the home would protect the household. Thus, it was often planted around homes for protection. Permission was always sought three times prior to cutting branches, but they were never to be used as firewood or for woodworking, since doing so would offend its mother spirit. Gifts of water, beer, milk, cake, or bread would often be found around elder. The Celts sometimes planted elder trees on the graves of their loved ones, believing that blossoms were evidence of happy souls.
Elderberry flowers have a light, honey-like aroma and taste, and they’re often used to flavor white wine, champagne, lemonade, iced tea, and other summery drinks. They can also be used to flavor cooked fruit and jam and make a sound match with gooseberries, which are in season at the same time as elderflower. Some culinary experts claim the white flowers from elderberry trees generally are best cooked before eating. However, you can sprinkle the tiny individual flowers in salads or fry the dome-shaped clusters whole to make elderberry fritters. Beware that elderberry foliage is mildly toxic, as is the uncooked fruit (the cooked fruit, however, is edible and delicious).
Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensisis)
Chinese hibiscus a species of tropical hibiscus, a flowering plant in the Hibisceae tribe of the family Malvaceae. Hibiscus is a diverse genus made up of roughly 220 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, subshrubs, and trees. Hibiscus have been cultivated for centuries. The name “Hibiscus” comes from hibiskos, the old Greek name for the common marshmallow. One of the most commonly grown species and popular edible variety is Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, which means "China Rose”. However, there are numerous other edible species of hibiscus, such as the Jamaican Hibiscus sabdariffa. Many plants of this family are useful ornamentally, while some, like Chinese hibiscus, are also sources of fiber, food, and medicine, and commonly made into tea.39
Studies have showed that H. rosa sinensis possesses many biological activities, such as anticomplementary, antidiarrhetic and antiphlogistic activity.40 It has also been reported that the plant’s flower possesses antispermatogenic, androgenic41,antitumour and anticonvulsant properties. In addition, the leaves and flowers have been found to be hair growth promoters and aid in the healing of ulcers.42 Other reported biological activities of H. rosa sinensis include antiestrogenic, anti-implantation, abortifacient, antipyretic, antispasmodic, hypotensive, embryotoxic, insect attractant, analgesic, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties.43
Chinese hibiscus tea is caffeine free, with a unique, delicious tart, cranberry-like flavor with tropical notes and can be consumed both hot and cold. It is rich in vitamin C and is known to be a natural body refrigerant in North Africa.44
Hibiscus flowers, though they are most often made into iced tea or infused into other cold drinks, may also be chopped and added to salads and desserts. Dried hibiscus flowers may be purchased in Asian and Latin groceries.
Tea Recipe Ingredients
2 quarts water
3/4 to 1 cup sugar or honey (depending on how sweet you would like it to be)
1 cup dried hibiscus flowers
1/2 cinnamon stick (optional)
A few thin slices ginger (optional)
Lime juice (optional)
Orange or lime slices for garnish
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Hollyhocks are members of the Malvaceae or mallow family. They were imported into Europe from southwestern China during, or possibly before, the 15th century. The herbalist William Turner gave the plant the name "holyoke" from which the English name derives. Hollyhock is completely edible – leaves, roots, flowers, seeds.
It is a valuable medicinal plant, too. The flowers are harvested when they are open and are dried for later use. The shoots are used to ease a difficult labor. The root is astringent and demulcent. It is crushed and applied as a poultice for chapped skin, splinters, areas of painful inflammation and swellings. Because of the thickness of the leaves, it is most useful to lightly steam them first to make them more flexible. Apply to the area while still very warm, following with a towel for insulation then strips of cloth to hold the poultice in place.
Taken internally, Hollyhock is soothing to the gastrointestinal, respiratory and urinary tracts in the human body. It promotes urination, soothes ulcers and can help relieve a dry cough. Internally, it is also used in the treatment of dysentery.45, 46
The roots and the flowers have long been used in Tibetan medicine, primarily in the treatment of inflammations of the kidneys, uterus, and vagina. They are said to have a sweet, acrid taste and a neutral potency. The roots on their own are used to treat loss of appetite. The seed is demulcent, diuretic and febrifuge.47, 48
Young leaves have a mild flavor and may be eaten raw or cooked. They can also be finely chopped up and added to salads. Flower petals and buds may be eaten raw and added to salads or used as a colorful garnish. Flowers may be made into a refreshing tea.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
Honeysuckles are arching shrubs or twining vines in the family Caprifoliaceae, native to the Northern Hemisphere. Honeysuckle is renowned for its colorful, fragrant flowers and possesses more than 150 complex phytochemicals - iridoids, anthocyanins, flavonols, flavanonols, flavones, and phenolic acids.
Many of the species have sweetly scented, bilaterally symmetrical flowers that produce a sweet, edible nectar, and most flowers are borne in clusters of two (leading to the common name of “twinberry” for certain North American species). The strongest odor is found to be emitted in the middle of the night.
The honeysuckle family is “iffy" for foragers. It has edible members and toxic members, edible parts, toxic parts, and they mix and match. Some species are medicinal and tasty, but some species are also toxic. So, it is important to know which species you are eating and make sure which part is usable. Thus, when making a tea it is best to purchase organic flowers of known species from a reputable supplier. Generally, Asian markets, health food stores or online herb suppliers are the best sources to find honeysuckle.
Among the edible species are: L. affinis, flowers and fruit; L. angustifolia, fruit; L. caprifolium, fruit, flowers to flavor tea; L. chrysantha, fruit; L. ciliosa, fruit, nectar; L. hispidula, fruit; L. involucrata, fruit; L. kamtchatica, fruit; L. Japonica, boiled leaves, nectar; L. periclymenum, nectar; L. utahensis, fruit; L. villosa, fruit; L. villosa solonis, fruit.
There are about 180 species of honeysuckle, most native to the northern hemisphere. The greatest number of species is in China with over 100. North America and Europe have only about 20 native species each, and the ones in Europe are usually toxic. Taste is not a measure of toxicity. Some Lonicera have delicious berries that are quite toxic, and some have unpalatable berries that are not toxic at all. This is one plant on which taste is not a measure of edibility. Again, to be safe, properly identify the species.
Two types of honeysuckle commonly used for medicinal purposes are Lonicera pericylmenum and Lonicera japonica. Herbalists use honeysuckle primarily for its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and calming properties. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the flowers and buds of Lonicera japonica are used for treatment of affection by exopathogenic “wind-heat” or epidemic febrile diseases at the early stage, sores, carbuncles, furuncles and swellings. The plant has been reported to possess properties of clearing “heat” from the blood and arresting dysentery.49, 50
In TCM honeysuckle is commonly used as an expectorant. European honeysuckle flowers can be drunk as a tea to treat coughs and colds. Honeysuckle can also be used to treat upper respiratory tract infections and asthma. It is commonly combined with chrysanthemum flowers as a tea to treat a cold.51, 52
The tea can be made by pouring scalding water over the fresh or dried blossoms and letting it cool at room temperature. Then you can chill your infusion in the refrigerator. When iced, it makes a refreshing, cooling summer beverage.
Fresh flowers can also be added to stir-fries, rice dishes as well as salads or cooked into breads and pastries.
The genus Lavandula is native to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (including the Canary Islands and Madeira) as well as east through Ethiopia and the Middle East to India. It includes more than 30 species, dozens of subspecies, and hundreds of hybrids and selected cultivars. It belongs to the mint family, Lamiaceae. Lavenders fall into four main categories: Lavandula latifolia, a Mediterranean grass-like lavender; Lavandula angustifolia, a stockier plant with a fuller flower, commonly known as English lavender (formerly known as L. vera or L. officinalis); Lavandula stoechas, which has butterfly-like bracts on top of the flowers and is sometimes known as French lavender; and Lavandula x intermedia, which is a sterile cross between L. latifolia and L. angustifolia.
The various lavenders have similar ethnobotanical properties and major chemical constituents, however, there are some differences in the reported therapeutic uses for different species.
Documented evidence for the use of lavender as a therapeutic agent can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. Lavender oil was first cultivated in the high mountains of Persia and southern France. A hearty and robust plant, Lavender thrives in barren environments. This sharp environmental contrast has helped Lavender to evolve its natural power to heal.
Historically, lavender has been the source of drugs as well as perfumes, soaps, flavorings, and crafts. Lavender is traditionally believed to be anti-fungal, antibacterial, carminative, anti-depressive, sedative and effective for insect bites and burns. Lavender was also prescribed by some medieval physicians for treatment of epilepsy and migraine attacks. Furthermore, Lavender is considered beneficial in treatment of pain and tremors.53
Today, lavender is used as an oil predominantly in aromatherapy or massage. In addition to psychological effects, aromatherapy is thought to be therapeutically effective due to physiological effects of the inhaled volatile compounds. It is believed that inhaled lavender acts via the limbic system, particularly the amygdala and hippocampus.
Lavenders have carminative actions and the oils are commonly used as a nervine – to calm the nerves. L. stoechas has traditionally been used for headaches, and L. angustifolia has been used as a diuretic.54
While the exact cellular mechanism of action is unknown, some studies have suggested that lavender flower oil (based on studies of L. angustifolia) may have a similar action to the benzodiazepines and to enhance the effects of gammaaminobutyric acid in the amygdala.55, 56 Others have found that linalool inhibits acetylcholine release and alters ion channel function at the neuromuscular junction.57
Culinary lavender or the most commonly used species in cooking is L. angustifolia. As an aromatic, it has a sweet fragrance with a taste of lemon or citrus notes. It is used as a spice or condiment in pastas, salads and dressings, and desserts. Their buds and greens are used in teas, and their buds, processed by bees, are the essential ingredient of monofloral honey. Lavender flowers are often used in summer drinks, ice cream, chocolate, and other sweets. The flower buds can be rubbed between your fingers to separate the tiny individual flowers and then sprinkled into your dish.
The key to cooking with culinary lavender is to experiment; start out with a small amount of flowers and add more as you go. The lavender flowers add a beautiful color to salads. Lavender can also be substituted for rosemary in many bread recipes. The flowers can be put in sugar and sealed tightly for a couple of weeks; then the sugar can be substituted for ordinary sugar for a cake, buns or custards. Grind the lavender in an herb or coffee grinder or mash it with mortar and pestle. The flowers look beautiful (and taste good, too!) in a glass of champagne, with chocolate cake, or as a garnish for sorbets or ice creams. Lavender lends itself to savory dishes also, from hearty stews to wine-reduced sauces. Blooms add a mysterious scent to custards, flans or sorbets.
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Lilac is a species of flowering plant in the olive family (Oleaceae), native to the Balkan Peninsula, where it grows on rocky hills. Grown for its scented pink flowers in spring, this large shrub or small tree is widely cultivated and has been naturalized in parts of Europe and North America.
According to Greek mythology, a beautiful nymph named Syringa (lilac’s genus name) had captivated, Pan, the god of the forests and fields, with her beauty. Pan chased Syringa through the forest. Syringa escaped Pan’s attention by turning herself into a lilac bush with the assistance of some nearby nymphs. Pan realized he was holding reeds instead of Syringa. His sighs combined with the wind and reeds made harmonious sounds. Hermes (aka Mercury) suggested that, seven reeds of different lengths bound together could make pan pipes, which were called Syrinx in honor of the nymph. Syringa also means “Hollow tube; tubular shape, pertaining to the shape of the flowers”. Although not hollow, lilac twigs can be easily drilled out to make flutes and pipe stems. Vulgaris, the species name, means common.
Lilac blossoms are edible, though they smell better than they taste, so use in small amounts. Probably the simplest way to enjoy lilacs is to make this beautiful lilac water. Simply fill a glass pitcher with fresh (unsprayed, of course) lilac blossoms. Fill to the top with spring water. Allow it to steep for an hour. Strain before serving in glasses. Scatter a few lilac blossoms on fresh green salads. The blossoms can be candied and preserved to decorate desserts later in the year. Cakes and cupcakes can be beautifully decorated with lilac blossoms as well. The unusual floral flavor of lilac pairs well with citrus.
Tagetes is a genus of annual or perennial, mostly herbaceous plants in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). It was described as a genus by Linnaeus in 1753. The common name in English, "marigold", is derived from "Mary's gold". Marigolds have an extensive history. They were revered by the Aztecs and used medicinally, ornamentally and in religious rites. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought them back to Europe. There they were referred to as “Mary’s Gold” in deference to the Virgin Mary as well as a nod to their gilded hues. Marigolds are used in Pakistan and India to dye cloth and make flower garlands for harvest festivals. Here marigolds are used as food as well.
The use of marigolds is, for the most part, to add brilliant color, much like saffron threads impart a gorgeous golden hue to dishes. In fact, marigolds are sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s saffron”.
Flowers were used in ancient Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures as a medicinal herb, as well as a dye for fabrics, foods, and cosmetics. Many of these uses persist today. They are also used to make oil that protects the skin and the marigold leaves can also be made into a poultice that helps scratches and shallow cuts to heal faster and can help prevent infection.
The species Tagetes lucida, known as pericón, is used to prepare a sweetish, anise-flavored medicinal tea in Mexico. It is also used as a culinary herb in many warm climates, as a substitute for tarragon, and offered in the nursery as "Texas tarragon" or "Mexican mint marigold".
Tagetes minuta, native to southern South America, is a tall, upright marigold plant with small flowers used as a culinary herb in Peru, Ecuador, and parts of Chile and Bolivia, where it is called by the Incan term huacatay. The paste is used to make the popular potato dish called ocopa. Having both "green" and "yellow/orange" notes, the taste and odor of fresh T. minuta is like a mixture of sweet basil, tarragon, mint and citrus. It is also used as a medicinal tea in some areas. It is commonly sold in Latin grocery stores in a bottled, paste format as black mint paste.
Both French marigolds (Tagetes patula) and African marigolds (T. erecta) produce flowers that are technically edible, but the pungent scent is probably worth avoiding. African marigold flowers are used as a food colorant in Europe but have only been approved for use as a poultry feed additive in the US.
Marigold flowers, especially T. tenuifolia, have a refreshing citrus, lemony flavor, and the petals work well torn into salads or sprinkled onto soups. They may also be added to hot tea or cold drinks.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Nasturtium, also called Indian Cress, is a species of flowering plant in the family Tropaeolaceae, originating in the Andes from Bolivia north to Colombia. All its parts are edible. It is very high in vitamin C along with iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. The whole plant is considered a powerful antioxidant, so it may be used regularly and often. Moreover, nasturtiums contain up to 45 mg of lutein per 100 grams, being beneficial to the eyes, which is the highest amount found in any edible plant.
The nasturtium flower makes for an especially ornamental salad ingredient. It has a slightly peppery taste (reminiscent of watercress), to which the plant is closely related. It is primarily used in salads and as a garnish for hors d’oeuvres. (Though the tubular flowers are large and sturdy enough to stuff with cheese or tapenade.) Nasturtium flowers and foliage can also be used in stir-fries. Young seed pods may be eaten raw or cooked and are even hotter than the flowers or leaves. They can be harvested whilst immature and pickled for use as a caper substitute. The mature seed can be ground into a powder and used as a pepper substitute. The seed contains 26% protein and 10% oil.
Rose (Rosa spp.)
A rose is a woody perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae, or the flower it bears. There are over 300 species and thousands of cultivars. They form a group of plants that can be erect shrubs, climbing, or trailing, with stems that are often armed with sharp prickles. Flowers vary in size and shape and are usually large and showy, in colors ranging from white through yellows and reds. Most species are native to Asia, with smaller numbers native to Europe, North America, and northwestern Africa. Species, cultivars and hybrids are all widely grown for their beauty and often are fragrant.
The rose hip, usually from R. canina, is used as a minor source of vitamin C. The fruits of many species have significant levels of vitamins and have been used as a food supplement. Many roses have been used in herbal and folk medicines. Rosa chinensis has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. This and other species have been used for stomach problems and are being investigated for controlling cancer growth.58
Every variety of rose is edible, and each one offers a uniquely sweet and floral flavor. Roses taste much like they smell, but with a slightly bitter undertone. Rose petals resemble flavors of green apples and strawberries, with a soft scent that is a perfect addition to aromatic dishes.
Rose petals can add a subtle floral taste to lemonades, juices and iced tea. Simply muddle fresh rose petals to release the flavor, and stir them into a cool, fruity beverage. Rose petals can also be frozen into ice cubes for a beautiful and delicious punch.
Fresh rose petals make a great addition to fruit salads and mixed greens salads. Create a salad filled with other herbs and flowers from your garden for a refreshing summer lunch. Add dried rose petals to a sweet granola mix with dried cranberries, apricots and honey. This floral granola pairs well with vanilla yogurt or can be eaten plain as a healthy snack.
Rose-infused water offers a great way to incorporate the flavor of rose into an entire dish, such as a custard, sponge cake or other baked goods. Rose water can also be added to beverages or used as a perfume or toner. Spritzing rose water on your face and neck will refresh and tighten your skin. Rose water has a very distinctive flavor and is used heavily in Middle Eastern, Persian, and South Asian cuisine, especially in sweets such as barfi, baklava, halva, gulab jamun, kanafeh, and nougat.
In France, there is much use of rose syrup, most commonly made from an extract of rose petals. Mix equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Stir continuously until the sugar is completely dissolved. Reduce to a simmer and stir in dried or fresh rose petals. Remove the mixture from the heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes. Strain out the rose petals with a fine sifter and allow the syrup to cool. Rose simple syrup is delicious in cocktails, tea and lemonade.
In the Indian subcontinent, Rooh Afza, a concentrated squash made with roses, is popular, as are rose-flavored frozen desserts such as ice cream and kulfi.
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)
Snapdragon, Antirrhinum majus, is native to parts of China and the US. Its name comes from the pinchable blossoms that open and close like the mouths of friendly dragons. It is a member of the Plantaginaceae, or plantain, family, a sub-group of the expansive Scrophulariaceae, or figwort.
It was used traditionally as a diuretic, for treatment of scurvy, liver disorders and tumors. The leaves and flowers were used as antiphlogistic, resolvent, stimulant and as poultices on tumors and ulcers. Antirrhinum majus contains amino acids, pigments, oils, anthocyanidins, flavonols, flavones, aurones, flavanones, cinnamic acids and many other compounds. Recent studies have shown that Antirrhinum majus possesses antimicrobial, insecticidal, cytotoxic, antioxidant, central and peripheral nervous system effects, and many other biological activities.59, 60
Snapdragons are on the edible flower lists, but they are usually prized more for their ornamental value than taste. Really, of all the edible flowers, snapdragon probably ranks last on the list because it is somewhat bitter.
Snapdragon flowers are a good source of vitamins and may be best used in green salads or infusion teas. Due to their bitter taste, snapdragon flowers are more commonly used for decorative purposes on cakes, tarts, pastries and other elegant dessert preparations. They can be used as a colorful garnish alongside salads, frittatas, crepes, spring rolls and fruit plates or on specialty cocktails.
Viola is a genus of flowering plants in the violet family Violaceae. Viola (violets, violas and pansies) are among the most popular edible flowers in North America, and with good reason. Viola are easy to grow and are among the few flowers that taste good, too. Violets and pansies come in every color under the rainbow. When eating pansies, you can break two of the cardinal rules of edible flowers: eat only the petals and remove the pistils and stamens before eating. In fact, you can eat the pansy sepals as well.
Consider the species listed here, as not all Viola species are safe to consume. Some of the plants mentioned here are often referred to as, or share the common name, pansy.
Viola cornuta is known as tufted pansy or horned violet. This pretty little spreading evergreen perennial is often treated as an annual. Its slightly scented flowers give a mild wintergreen flavor. The flowers appear from spring into early summer and sporadically after that. There are several different colored varieties available. A favorite is King Henry, with showy purple flowers and a yellow throat.
Viola x wittrockiana is the familiar pansy. Many different colored cultivars (often with two or three colors on the same flower) have been developed from this perennial that is often treated as an annual. It blooms from June to September. The flowers have a slightly glasslike flavor with a hint of wintergreen.
Viola tricolor is known as heartsease or Johnny-jump-up. Treated as an annual, it bears small flowers with three colors: deep violet, light blue or white, and gold. These have a wintergreen-like flavor and appear from June to September.
In purchasing edible violas, look for them at farmers' markets or in the produce aisle of a specialty grocery store; order them from an edible-flower source; or even better, grow your own.
Culinary viola flowers may be used to decorate salads or in stuffing for poultry or fish. Soufflés, cream, and similar desserts can be flavored with the essence of Viola flowers. The young leaves are edible raw or cooked as a somewhat bland leaf vegetable.
Where to Buy
The best place to find edible flowers is your local farmers' market. Not only are the options more interesting than what is available at grocery stores, but you can also talk to vendors to make sure their crops are safe for you to eat (always avoid flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals). If you don't have a farmers' market nearby, look for edible flowers in the produce section (not the florist section!) of your grocery store. You can also order them online. Shops like Gourmet Sweet Botanicals, Marx Foods, and Melissa's will ship to you overnight so they are as fresh as possible.
Companies Selling Edible Flowers
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