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!
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.
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.
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!”
Originally published in Vegetarian Living 2016