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)