Guide to Edible Flowers: What They Are and How to Use Them
Ever spotted a pansy atop your salad in a fine restaurant? Been served a lavender-infused cookie? Farm-to-table restaurants, fancy bistros, and random restos are turning into total flower children, serving up a bouquet of colors and unusual flavors. It's a fancy yet earthy trend you can translate to your own table. But before you head out to your parking strip or backyard garden, there are a few important things to know about eating flowers.
Why Eat Flowers?
It might seem kinda crazy, but it really isn't. Do you eat basil? Broccoli? Kale? All of those plants put out flowers at some point in their lifespan, whether it's a bolting bloom when the sun comes on strong or a last wispy cloud before the plant dies. While they're a bit prettier than the rest of the plant, flowers are just another part of something you're already eating.
But "edible" doesn't always translate to "delicious." And it can be dangerous —some flowers are poisonous. So before you nibble, check the list of flowers you can and can't eat, assembled by Seattle plant mecca Swanson's Nursery.
Best in Moderation
Some flowers, like pansies, are fine to consume, but may not be bursting with flavors; others have a ton of flavor, so you should proceed with caution. Preparing a delicate semifreddo and want to dot it with color? Super peppery flowers like calendula might not be the best taste. Always taste your flower petals before tossing them onto plates.
Like any garnish, flowers are best used in moderation. At a recent dinner at a regionally famous, very farm-centric restaurant, I found flower petals on every single course. While the flavor wasn't overpowering, the novelty of it got lost around course 4, and I started to wonder why they kept showing up. They took my focus away from the flavor of the dish I was eating, which was likely not what the chef was going for.
To learn more about edible flowers, I checked in with Alana King of fourth-generation family farm, King & King Ranch. Located in Fillmore, California, the farm has been around for 100 + years, but only recently started selling edible flowers to chefs in the area.
King says she's fascinated with edible flowers as a fun and different approach to thinking about what's growing. "We started selling produce to an amazing food truck in Ventura called Shrimp vs Chef," King says. "They make really delicious seafood tacos, and wanted a peppery, pretty accent." King suggested nasturtium flowers for a little burst of subtly sharp flavor on a scallop taco, and have now expanded to providing other flowers to multiple vendors.
Try This at Home
Intrigued? You don't need a big garden to grow edible flowers; King suggests using the flowers from common kitchen herbs. "Those are really tasty. Rosemary, sage, oregano, mint…if you're growing those and it gets hot, the flowers come out; they taste like the herb they come from, but with an extra sweetness." King likes to use basil flowers — which can be pink, white, or violet — in a caprese salad.
When your plant "bolts" — produces a flower on a stem — King suggests pinching the flower off and using it. This can also prolong the plant's useful life. The herb flowers signal a movement into a reproductive phase, but that can be delayed if you're quick about picking your new garnish. If you do it right, the plant will remain in leafing mode.
One of King's favorite flowers to eat is alyssum. "They usually have white or purple flowers and they smell like honey," she says. "They're vaguely sweet, but the aroma and visual are the real draws." She recommends using them to decorate desserts, especially cupcakes.
"All the brassicas, like broccoli and radishes, have flowers with a nice little sweetness, but the radishes also have that telltale spice you get from an actual radish," King says. And she especially loves the boarge flowers; "They're cucumber-y and delicious!"
Tips for Harvesting or Buying Edible Flowers
- When you're choosing flowers, think of the flavors as well as the look. Just because radish flowers are pretty doesn't mean a non-radish lover will like them.
- While the plants at King & King Ranch are grown from seed, yours don't need to be. Check out a nursery that you trust to get food plant starts or flower plants for an easy head start.
- Never buy or grow edible plants that have been treated with chemicals.
- Some plants flower more than once. Pansies, for example, will keep flowering as long as you keep picking them. Others are one-and-done types.
Try this simple technique using egg whites and superfine sugar to create sweet, edible embellishments for all kinds of desserts.