Flowers are gorgeous to look at, but they also can be a lovely and healthful addition to what you eat.
“If you are going to grow flowers, why not plant those that are edible?” says Brigitte Mars, a medical herbalist based in Boulder, Colorado, who teaches internationally and at Naropa University.
Flowers contain pollen, which can offer health benefits. “Flowers are the sex organs of plants, and they attract pollinators with their beautiful colors and aromas,” Mars says. They also have small levels of flavonoids, thanks to their color.
Flowers add dimension and verve to dishes and drinks.
“Usually I determine whether or not the dish needs a ‘fresh’ element, something to lighten it up in terms of overall flavor, and to also add a pop of color,” says Clark Barlowe, the chef and owner of Heirloom Restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. “However flavor is always my number one concern. Currently, we use Queen Anne’s Lace on our Chocolate Sourdough Cake for exactly that reason, as well as a tuna crudo dish that we always garnish with Johnny Jump Up.”
Most of us aren’t herbalists or chefs though, so guidance in the obscure blooms-you-can-eat realm is welcome.
1. Before you eat them, know which flowers are edible
Identifying poisonous flowers can be difficult. To wit, some flowers in a plant family can be fine to eat while others are not. So stick to flowers deemed safe by experts.
Flowers of culinary herbs are edible. Not all herbs produce flowers, though.
All mustard family flowers are edible too—broccoli flowers, arugula flowers, kale flowers—“though some taste better than others,” say Mars, whose book Rawsome! includes an extensive list of edible flowers. Outside that family, carnations, roses, marigolds and pansies are good too, says Mars.
Here are Barlowe’s top-five edible flowers and why he ranks them high:
- Honeysuckle: offers diverse range of uses and the most brilliant flavor.
- Johnny Jump Up: known for its beautiful color and very neutral flavor.
- Queen Anne’s Lace: a subtle and beautiful flower that has a very unique flavor.
- Nasturtium: features a spicy flavor that’s great when you want to add a pop of heat and color at the same time.
- Locust: has a sweet legume-like flavor; very large, easy to clean and easy to prepare and eat.
2. Eat pristine, fresh flowers
Never eat flowers from a floral shop. Those flowers aren’t meant as food. They’ve probably been doused in pesticide and could come from countries using pesticides banned in the United States, for example.
“Use organically grown flowers or from your own garden or wild edible flowers,” Mars says. You don’t need a big outdoor space to grow your own. “I live in a condo downtown so I grow on the porch or windowsill,” Mars says.
If you’re harvesting from your yard, do your homework. “You don’t want flowers that have been exposed to pesticides within a couple years,” Mars says. “If you just moved in and there’s a rose bush, ask the previous owner about it.” Or wait a few years to eat the petals, to be sure. Also, “ideally you don’t want to collect flowers from within 50 feet of a busy road,” Mars says.
Another reason unsullied flowers are important is that it can be tough to clean them. “I usually don’t rinse the flowers, and I don’t want to rinse out the pollen,” Mars says. “They are so delicate that they get really soggy immediately. If I do rinse, I pat them dry and I keep them refrigerated.”
3. Never place non-edible flowers with a dish
“You can’t expect people to tell what’s edible and what’s not,” Mars says.
And use just a few petals, which tend to be a flower’s tastiest part. “You want to make it appealing to people, so if you put a whole rose or day lily on a plate, no one is going to eat that,” Mars says. “Take your flower and break it up into manageable pieces. Make it into a mandala, as opposed to placing a whole marigold on a plate.”
4. A flower’s flavor doesn’t necessarily match its smell
“It’s always best to taste a small amount before adding to a dish,” Barlowe says. “I usually taste then think about how I want to season, and add it to a dish.
5. Flowers can be used in a variety of food-prep ways
Mars prefers not to cook or bake flowers, instead capitalizing on their decorative qualities. “I often add flowers at the end of recipes,” she says. For example, she puts honeysuckle flowers on chia pudding. Alternatively though, you could blend them into butter or coconut oil, or chop them up and add salt and honey, she says.
But baking flowers can work wonders, Barlowe says. “I often cook flowers into a cake, pasta dough or ice cream bases, usually to infuse their flavor and color into the finished product.”
You can freeze flowers too: Fill ice cube trays halfway, put the flowers in, and freeze. Then add the rest of the water, and freeze again. Place cubes in drinks!
Journalist and yoga teacher Mitra Malek regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at mitramalek.com.