Blooming tasty: edible flowers look and taste great

I discover that my spring flower garden isn’t just good looking – but good eating too!

 

When gardener Kathy Brown helped her mum decorate the annual Simnel cake as a child, it wasn’t hundreds-and-thousands or Easter eggs that were dotted among the marzipan balls – it was primroses.

“As the youngest of five, it was my job to help scour the hedgerows for wild primroses,’ recalls Kathy, who now tends her own award-winning flower garden at The Manor House, in Bedford. “Mum would crystallize them in sugar – and the scent would be delicate and sweet.”

Indeed, while many of us might relegate flowers to patio pots or borders away from the veg patch, for centuries edible flowers have been prized for their culinary uses.

Early records show floral oils and tinctures being used for herbal medicine, the Romans using roses, violas and lavender in cookery, and the Victorians making ‘Parma’ violets famous.

And while Indian and Asian cooks have long used rose petals to bring heady perfume to cakes and teas, Italians have stuffed courgette flowers, and, in China, peppery chrysanthemums have been served whole in soups and stews – in the UK, their popularity has waxed and waned.

But thanks to the recent resurgence in foraging – and growing band of edible flower growers – all that is changing. Flower power is back on the menu!

 

Floral tribute

For grower Jan Billington, who swapped management consultancy in London for the good life in the West Country – edible flowers were also a childhood favourite.

“My grandma made everything from scratch and the highlights of our visits were her elderflower lemonade and rose petal biscuits,” says Jan, who now runs her own online delivery service, Maddocks Farm Organics in Cullompton, Devon.

Ordering petals by post means you can have fresh forage within 24-hours, without lifting a finger, but if you fancy having a go yourself, primroses, violas, violets and bellis daises can be grown from seed.

Daylilies are prefect planted now, for stunning flower heads (to stuff or batter) come summer, or, sow nasturtium seeds for edible leaves, caper-style seed heads and flowers that make a glorious pesto. Borage is incredibly easy to cultivate too – just scatter seed on the soil and rake in (though beware it self seeds readily). Its flowers give a lovely cucumber tang to Pimms!

The key with all edible flowers is to remember: what goes on the petal, will go in you! So, ensure the flowers have not been sprayed with chemicals, or grown near roadside verges. “Likewise, florists, supermarkets and garden centres will spray with chemicals, so do thorough research first,” adds Jan.

And, of course, while many flowers might look deliciously edible, in reality they can be deadly, so always have a good guidebook to hand.

“Only eat those that have been tried and tested for centuries!” says Kathy, whose book The Edible Flower Garden is a treasure trove of tips, tricks and floral recipes.

 

Petal power

Chosen and grown wisely, edible flowers can have many added benefits. Recent research has suggested roses; lavender, chrysanthemum, violets and nasturtiums all contain anti-inflammatory ‘phenolics’, believed to help reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease.

“It’s easy to forget many have been used medicinally for centuries. The allium family – wild garlic, chives, onion or leek flowers – are all packed with antioxidants, and many others are high in Vitamin C,” adds Jan. “An oil made from infused calendula petals is wonderful at preventing scarring, for example.”

Fellow grower Janice James at Greens of Devon says edible flowers also play an integral part in the veg patch.

“They’re an extremely useful companion plant – attracting beneficial insects and warding off harmful bugs. Our cutting garden resonates with the low hum of our winged friends in summer, providing a delightful soundtrack to a day’s work!” she says.

 

Early bird

But their beauty and flavour can be fleeting – so grab edible flowers while you can.

“You will only have a few days with each flower,” says Kathy. “But primroses, violets and roses can all be saved using a thin coating of beaten egg white and a drizzling of caster sugar. Dry in a warm place for 24 hours and they’ll keep for a few days.”

Jan Billington recommends harvesting them early in the day after the dew has gone but before their essential oils evaporate.

“I harvest small quantities and pop them into a lidded container, and into the fridge,” she says. “This way they’ll last for several days. But if you’re growing them yourself, there’s nothing nicer than harvesting edible flowers straight from the plot to the plate!”

Edible flowers

Four flavours with flowers

Stuffed Tulips

“Tulips have a wonderful crunch and taste like a sweet cos lettuce,” says Jan Billington of Maddocks Farm Organics. “Only the petals should be eaten but they are wonderful used as posh canapé boats, stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings. I like mine with a red pepper and goat’s cheese dip, a spicy hummus or even ice-cream!”

Flower Focaccia

“I serve this bread warm for dipping in oil (perhaps with a glass of wine!) and it’s a constant favourite at the family dinner table,” says Janice James of Greens of Devon. “So, when it’s just out of the oven, drizzle a little olive oil and season with sea salt, and add any of the following: garlic chive, tagetes or rocket flowers – and eat immediately.”

Primrose Curd

Maddocks Farm’s curd is perfect on toast or sandwiched between scones. Finely chop two handfuls primrose petals and place in a container with 450g sugar. Cover and leave for 24 hours so the flavours mingle. Next, peel and chop 450g Bramley apples and heat on the hob in 100ml water with the zest of two lemons (reserve the juice). Cook until soft, then mash into a puree. Combine in a glass bowl with 125g butter, the reserved lemon juice and the primrose sugar and place over a pan of water and heat until the butter melts. Take off the heat and add 4-5 large eggs through a sieve and stir with a balloon whisk. Gentle re-heat and stir for 10 minutes until it thickens. Pour into sterilized jars and seal immediately, and store in the fridge for one month.

Daisy Drinks

“Bellis daises are among the first edible flowers to appear in spring and their confetti like petals make pretty petal rim on cocktails glasses,” says Jan. “Mix the petals with some caster sugar (about 1/3rd petals to 2/3rds sugar), and then dip the rim of your glass into an elderflower cordial or sugar syrup. Lift out, ensuring the syrup drips off and doesn’t run down the glass, and dip into the petal mixture. Shake off any surplus and upturn. This can be done hours in advance of a party – and the petals will continue to look great.”

 

 

Originally published in Vegetarian Living 2016

I'd love to know what you think about this!