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Twenty Edible Flowers


Twenty Edible Flowers

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

Caution

• 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)

Chrysanthemums

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

English daisy (Bellis perennis)

Dianthus

Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)

Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis and Nigra)

Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensisis)

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Honeysuckle flower (Lonicera japonica)

Lavender (Lavandula)

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Marigold (Tagetes)

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Rose (Rosa Spp.)

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)

Viola

Anise Hyssop, Blue Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

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

Culinary Tips

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 (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:

  • Genovese basil

  • Thai basil

  • Cinnamon basil

  • African blue basil (perennial in warm climates, shown at top)

  • Holy basil

  • Lemon basil

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.

Culinary Tips

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 (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 ice cubes are the perfect way to chill lemonade.

Culinary Tips

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 (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

Culinary Tips

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

Chrysanthemums

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.