Why are some of Australia’s top restaurants, demanding flowers of violas, fennel, coriander, peas, rocket and borage? Is there something that you eat that’s a tad boring that needs an extra bit of zing and colour? The history of edible flowers can be traced back thousands of years. Romans used edible flowers such as mallows, roses and violets in a lot of their dishes.
You’ve probably heard of and even eaten capers, but did you know capers (Capparis spinosa) are the flower buds of an Mediterranean evergreen shrub and have been used to flavour foods and sauces for over 2,000 years? And believe it or not, but dandelions were one of the bitter herbs referred to in the Old Testament of the bible.
Edible flowers such as daylilies and chrysanthemums have been used by the Chinese and Greeks for centuries. In a fifteenth century book of recipes in a list of herbs considered necessary for the garden are borage flowers, daisies, violets to be used in soup, violets for sauce and gilly flowers (that’s clove pinks to you and me) for drinks.
Seems like eating flowers is nothing new.
Nobody says you should tuck into a plate of flowers, that would be too much and if you suffer from hayfever, then give eating flowers a big miss as well. Never eat flowers bought at a flower shop or nursery as these may have been treated with harmful chemical. And another warning – not all flowers are edible, and some are poisonous – if you can’t identify the flower, then don’t eat it! Then there are some that aren’t poisonous, but don’t taste nice. Which flowers are safe?
Ever thought of tossing nasturtium and calendula petals into a fresh garden salad, or top a parfait with a couple of violets or heartsease? Everyone’s heard of stuffed zucchini flowers, and maybe nasturtium flowers as well. They’re easy to identify. Nasturtium flowers are sweet with a peppery flavour. Zucchini flowers taste sweet, with a honey nectar flavour.
Calendula or pot marigold tastes a bit like saffron-spicy tangy and peppery. Flowers of the herb rocket are much less peppery than the leaves, but the propeller shaped flowers are delicate, so handle these carefully. Violets and heartsease taste like sweet nectar and suit desert dishes.
Borage is another one that many people might know already – those bright blue flowers on the blue-green stalks with large leaves that are a bit rasp like to touch. Borage flowers tastes a little like mild cucumbers. Pea flowers – guess what, they taste like peas!
So what should you do when collecting the flowers and how do you use them in your dishes?
First of all, unless the flavour suits the dish, then there’s no point to adding the flower, so good chefs say. Take note all you budding Masterchefs. Looking pretty isn’t enough, it has to enhance the food.
You might use pea flowers with other green flavours, and of course the flowers that taste of sweet nectar are used to lift the flavours of sweet dishes. Those with peppery or spicey flavours go well in salads.
Pick your flowers just before you’re about to use them if at all possible. Check them carefully for bugs, but don’t wash them, because the petals are fairly delicate. Store them in the fridge in a plastic container covered with a damp paper towel while you’re preparing dinner, or lunch. Just as you’re about to serve the meal, add the flowers as a final touch.
Sweet flowers can be combined with tea or frozen into ice cubes. Ground dried petals can be mixed into biscuit pastry or pancake batter for something different. Some flowers in your vegetable garden you don’t want to pick because they’ll grow in veggies that you want. So just be selective.
There are others that you need to pick even if you’re not going to eat them because the leaves of these plants become bitter, these are – greens including spinach, kale, mustard, bok choi, broccoli, and lettuces, radish and for herbs, basil, coriander, thyme, and mint.
Are edible flowers good for you? The flowers contain a portion of the same nutrients that the plant they came from has. Simple as that. Finally, remember if you’re not sure, to check with a reference book, your garden centre or nursery, before eating a flower to make sure it’s safe to eat.