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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.

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

Culinary Tips

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 (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

Culinary Tips

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 (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.

Culinary Tips

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 (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

Culinary Tips

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)

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

Culinary Tips

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)

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.

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.

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.

Culinary Tips

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 (Hibiscus rosa-sinensisis)