Edible Flowers

Short version:

There are plenty of edible flowers that can be both beautiful and tasty. There are some that taste a bit rubbish or look a bit boring and there are some that you may already eat without thinking about it.

I have tried hard to maintain my “if I can’t eat it then I won’t grow it rule “so of course my little one has consistently kept up a campaign of asking for flowers. She absolutely loves flowers. I have in my ‘lockdown, terrible home teacher, nanny TV, trying to squeeze working in and ignoring her’ guilt, caved. During our lockdown exercise walks (where photos of lovely things were gathered for ‘My Beautiful neighbourhood 2’)  little one saw lots of beautiful, scented wisteria over many lovely houses. Near the start of lockdown, around April/ May they were glorious in their purple clustered beauty. I agreed to get one, but only because the Thompson and Morgan website, that I purchased the flowers from, said that wisteria flowers were edible.

Quote:

Wisteria: The flowers are the only edible part of the plant and can be made into an aromatic wine. All other parts of wisteria are poisonous.

We won’t of course eat it till more research is done. That’s a problem for future me anyway as it won’t bloom for a least a year. Apparently, it can take up to 15 years for a wisteria to bloom. In hindsight I have realised that this is probably going to be a mistake. Wisteria also lives to a ripe old age and can get very very large. I’m sure my very small garden will not be able to support it without some very heavy-handed pruning. Future me will not be grateful for current me being bested by a 4 year old.

Whilst I was at it, possibly still under the influence of terrible lockdown parenting guilt, I bought seeds for dahlias, forget me nots, aquilegia, and a variety of violets…. And er… some fuchsia plants as I know these are edible. Apparently, some taste better than others. As a bonus, fuchsia berries are also edible.

So now, I thought it might be worth writing about some edible flowers. If you thought about it, you’d probably realise that you already eat some flowers. You may also be growing edible flowers as ornamentals.

We have in the past grown, or are currently growing a few edible flowers. Where flowers are highlighted (in red), hover for a link you can click on for more info on the plant.

Brassicas

Broccoli or cauliflowers (the clue being in the name) are the flower buds of the plant. Sprouting broccoli is basically the flowering shoots. You can also eat the flowering shoots of kales, Turkish rocket or radishes too.

Chard – Beta vulgaris

You can eat the flowering shoots of the chard, though the flowers are not much to look at. Different coloured chard can be grown as ornamentals too with their interesting coloured stems. The young flowers shoots are very tender when cooked and taste like spinach.

Artichokes – Cynara cardunculus

It is the young flower buds that are eaten. These are great boiled for 20 mins, then you eat the fleshy bottom of each ‘petal’. They make an excellent vegetable with plenty to eat. If left to mature the flower resembles a thistle and is loved by bees.

Squash flowers – species within the Cucurbita genus

We very rarely eat the flowers because we want the female flowers to develop into squashes/courgettes and the males are crushed a little in hand pollinating. So, I’ve only eaten the flowers when there are an abundance of male flowers and no female ones. However, the female flowers with their young squashes would make a beautiful dish. Both sexes are versatile and fun to cook with. The pistil and stamens (the sticky out reproductive bits) need to be removed. They can be stuffed with cheese and baked, fried in butter or steamed. They taste much like the squashes do.

Nasturtiums – Tropaeolum

We can’t really get enough of these. It’s amazing to find such large, lovely flowers that taste good. They are really quite spicy with a watercress taste so may not be everyone’s cup of tea. We have a lovely climbing variety that self seeds every year. The leaves are also edible, and cooking makes the flavour much milder so even the little one will eat quite a bit. The petals are great sprinkled on hot food to wilt them and reduce the spiciness. They have a little cone of nectar at the back that my little one sometimes pulls off to suck.

Borage (starflower) – Borago officinalis

This is my little munchkin’s favourite snack flower. She will happily graze on these cucumber tasting beauties that bees also love. They look lovely in ice cubes and work well in Pimms and in gin.

Violets – Violaceae

These gorgeous little flowers have a wintergreen flavour, which is like a minty/menthol taste. Pansies are also from the violet family and can be eaten. Little viola tricoloreating (also called heartsease, johnny jump ups and wild pansies) are very mild due to their size and are also gorgeous frozen into ice cubes.  

Elderflowers – Sambucus nigra

We don’t grow these but we have foraged for them or our neighbour sometimes drops some round from their tree. The flowers make great cordial and sweet fritters. They basically taste how they smell, with a lovely floral yumminess. Do not eat the leaves or stems.

Calendula – Calendula officinalis

This one comes up quite often on lists of edible flowers. They can be grown easily from seed and give a lovely splash of orange for long periods. I’m afraid we didn’t like these much. They taste a bit bitter. The petals can be sprinkled into salad though for a bit of colour.

Chrysanthemum – Chrysanthemum

This is one we have grown as ‘chop suey greens’, so say the seed packets. They have a strong taste that I remember from childhood (it’s sometimes used in Chinese cooking), but it’s not one that I’m sure I like. Cooking doesn’t change the flavour much. It’s a specific flavour that is difficult to describe. Chrysanthemum tea is rather pleasant though.

Cornflower (bachelor’s button) – Centaurea cyanus

Little one loved the colour of these as they are indeed beautiful. Bees also like them. We don’t bother to eat these anymore though as the texture of the petals is a bit papery and the taste is a bit bland.

Roses – Rosaceae

We are only growing these because they were here when we moved in. I was going to dig them up and replace with fruit bushes or kales, but they were beautiful, smelled lovely and the little dictator forbade it. I’ve read that all rose petals are edible, but not all taste good. Where the petal attaches to the base should be removed as it is often bitter. We don’t eat these often, but we do love making crystallised rose petals.

Musk mallow – Malva moschata

Marshmallow (althaea officinalis) flowers (and leaves) are edible. Their roots used to be used as a thickener for the sweets that carry their name. We’ve been growing musk mallows from the same family. These rather large pale pink flowers taste a bit like a sweeter version of lettuce.

There are of course plenty of flowers of vegetables and herbs that can be eaten that basically taste like the rest of the parts that you are used to eating.

Watercress – Nasturtium officinale

These tiny flowers pack a punch. They have that same peppery taste as the leaves when raw (with a bit of sweetness), but like the leaves, are much milder and really tasty boiled.

Purslane

Winter Purslane flowers (claytonia perfoliate) have the same lettuce like taste. Siberian purslane (claytonia sibirica) are prettier and pink, unfortunately they have quite a bitter earthy taste, like the rest of the plant. Summer purslane (portulaca oleracea) has pretty little yellow flowers and have the same refreshing sour tang as the leaves.

Peas – Pisum sativum

It does seem a shame to eat the flowers when they could develop into something more. However, we’ve been growing lots of peashoots from cheap, supermarket bought dried peas in lockdown and when these are left to grow a bit too much the flowers develop. Because these are dried peas for eating rather than growing – the pea pods produced are rubbish. We eat the pea tasting flowers with some of the shoot attached as an easy garden snack or as a salad addition.

Alliums

We’ve eaten three cornered leeks, Chinese chives, chives and wild garlic flowers. They all basically taste of some mix of garlic and/or onion. All the alliums have edible flowers that taste like the rest of the plant. They make great garnishes or go great for that garlicky or oniony kick in salads. Cooking makes the taste milder and sweeter in all the ones we’ve tried.

Herbs

Oregano, marjoram, rosemary, mint, coriander and dill flowers have been used in our cooking the same way we use the leaves. The flowers are generally small and unremarkable, but they do make pretty garnishes. We especially love the dill flowers because we think they look like little fireworks. The coriander and dill can be used in fairly heavy quantities in salads too.

Fuchsias

This is the first fuchsia flower we have ever grown. Apparently all fuchsias are edible but they vary in taste. The berries are also edible, but again they vary in taste. We of course had to taste it (literally this morning). The petals were pleasantly succulent. It tasted a bit peppery with a slightly bitter after taste. I doubt they’ll survive to berry stage if my little one, with her fondness of picking all our flowers, has anything to do with it. There are a couple more varieties still to bloom in the garden so we’ll have to wait to be sure if these are worth growing.

I’ve been trying to introduce bellflowers, purple clover and daisies into the lawn for both colour and food but have so far been rather unsuccessful. I’ve also been trying to grow daylilies and dahlias. The dahlias have become happy little plants, but no flowers so far. Dahlias flowers (and tubers) are edible, but they can taste very different. Hopefully I’ll continue to find edible flowers that I love that I can share with you in another post.   

These, below, aren’t dahlias that we’ve grown but are photos I took in the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall as an example of how beautiful they are. Didn’t think it was acceptable (or safe) to taste them. That will have to wait till we’ve grown our own.

Warning

Please don’t eat anything that you cannot confidently recognise. Please also do some research and read sites that you feel are trustworthy for information. Please also be aware that you may have unknown allergies e.g. if you have a ragwort allergy – chamomile tea is not advised. My daughter used to be allergic to watermelons. This was connected to ragwort pollen allergies. Luckily, she has grown out of it. My brother-in-law has a raw apple allergy and that is connected to birch tree pollen allergy. Anyway, the point is – try a small amount of anything new first after you are sure it is edible. There are similar looking species like the three cornered garlic flowers look much like white bluebells, though the allium smell of the flower is unmistakeable. Bluebells, lily of the valley, snowdrops and foxglove, amongst others, are really very toxic.

Worrying – but necessary to mention. Still, there are plenty of flowers that are already in a typical diet and there are plenty more that can be added. You might be surprised how beautiful a salad can be.

Borage

Short version:

A self-seeding, upright annual that can grow to about 80cm tall. It has lovely edible blue flowers that bees and butterflies love. The young leaves can be used as a cooked green. Older leaves can be blitzed into soup.

My child thinks that I am really cruel for not growing her proper showy flowers in the garden. The general rule is – if I can’t eat it (or some part of it) I won’t grow it. Having a small garden in the city means that space is a premium. Even if I get a pot to put something fun in, that would still be a pot that I could grow something edible in. I won’t grow a bee or butterfly friendly flower for the sake of it. Some part of the plant also needs to be edible. I am, however, trying to convert the lawn into more of a bee friendly flower patch though, with edible clover and wild pansies. There’s more info how the lawn came to be here.

Borage ticks all the boxes for the little critters, the little critter and me. My little one absolutely loves grazing on the flowers and she loves to put them into drinks. We also like to make little ice cubes with them in.

How to grow

If you want very early plants, you can start them in individual in small pots from February. I say individual as the seedlings are rather large and they do grow quickly. Otherwise, the easiest way is to sow them straight into the ground around 1cm deep where you want them to grow between March and May. Give them plenty of space between plants as they can spread around 45cm. I like to squeeze them in, so I usually have them around 20cm apart. They like full sun best but will do fine in some shade. From seeing where my self-seeded seedlings have popped up, I can tell that they are not too fussy, but love a good compost.  

That is something to be aware of. Once you have sown borage, you never need sow again.  Self-seeded seedlings can appear as early as March, but they don’t mind being transplanted.

How to harvest

You can eat the young leaves. In fact, if they have self-seeded themselves into a nuisance you could pick lots of seedlings to eat. I love how borage can turn weeding into harvesting. I say ‘young’ leaves as borage leaves are a little prickly. The older the leaf the pricklier. After cooking the young leaves, the prickles will have wilted and not be noticeable. If you really want to use the older leaves it would be better to blitz them into soup. You would need some gloves to protect your hands. They don’t sting like nettles do, but they can be uncomfortable to handle. Once the flowers start appearing you can pick the flower off and eat straight away.

No matter how much you try to eat every flower (believe me, the kid has tried) you will never get them all. That’s a great thing. It’s good to leave some for the bees and butterflies. You can still eat the flowers after they have visited, but it’s hard to time harvesting after a pollinator has had a feed. The plant will give out plenty of flowers over a long period. This plant has been flowering for 6 weeks and it doesn’t show any sign of giving up. Unfortunately I didn’t stake it up so it has collapsed all over the place and it has also become a bit diseased.

How they taste

The leaves and the flowers have a cucumbery-lettucey taste.

The flowers have a bit of added sweetness due to the nectar. They are best eaten raw as a foraging snack, scattered in salads or sprinkled on dishes as a garnish.

The salad above was mostly picked by little madam. It had to be washed about 4 times due to the large amount of bugs. All ingredients were from the garden:

Borage (obviously), nasturtiums (the yellow and orange flowers should be added in moderation as they are spicy), siberian purslane (tiny pink flowers – their rather bitter taste is masked by everything else), winter purslane flowers (really tasty but not bitter – the flowers are so tiny that you pick the whole stem, with a circular leaf), there were some kale flowers (taste a bit cabbagey), there was some three cornered leek flowers (I added those, but she then demanded I remove them for being too garlicky), rose petals, Caucasian spinach leaves, dill and mint.

Borage looks and tastes great in Pimm’s. This is also where the borage ice cubes go down a treat. My four-year-old likes to put mint and borage together. It’s like she’s preparing herself to drink Pimm’s one day.

The leaves, when cooked, are very soft. They shrink down a lot, like spinach does.

Problems

The only disease that has affected my borage, so far, is powdery mildew. This is something I get a lot in my garden – on the brassicas, tromboncinos and even on peas. Probably because I’m constantly trying to pack the plants into a small space. It is also because I get the little one involved in watering which inevitably leads to a spraying on the leaves. This provides perfect conditions for powdery mildew – humid air that doesn’t have space to circulate well. I’m afraid the best way to get rid of it is to catch it early and remove all affected leaves. If left too late the whole plant must be binned. It can’t even be recycled in the compost as the spores will make infection more likely next season.

Fun science stuff

The flowers make for a great acid test. If you put the flowers into an acidic drink, they will turn pink. It does takes quite a while though (20 mins) and happens very gradually.

Radishes

Short version:

Radishes can be available as early as 4 weeks from seed. They’re fine in a big pot and you can also eat the greens too. The young shoots are great stir fried if you leave them to turn into triffids. The flowers and green seed pods also make a great snack. Kids find them to grow and they’re great to carve.

Radishes are a great quick crop veggie for these lockdown times. Being so small you could grow radishes almost anywhere. They can be used to fill up space in between other larger vegetables when they are still small. They are great in borders or round the edges of beds. They are compact enough for balconies and deep window boxes. You can eat all the radish, including the greens so it feels like a triumph to waste absolutely nothing. When you buy them in the shops, if you’re lucky enough to get ones with tops on (so you can see how fresh they are), chances are they will be too wilted to be particularly appetising. They can be grown through most of the year so are a great vegetable for winter and the hungry gap. One of my weirder bonus points is that radishes come out very cleanly (unlike beetroots, which I always have to hack at with a knife and peel).

How to grow

  1. Sow straight into the ground. Radishes don’t like having their roots disturbed. This is great as this saves time and effort transplanting.
  2. Ensure that the soil is stone free and has a good amount of compost. Radishes don’t like to dry out too much, nor do they like being waterlogged. Sounds like hard work but basically, they don’t do well straight into my rubbish heavy clay, stony soil. I prefer to grow them in pots anyway as they are small and can be put anywhere (like the shed roof). Soils with more compost retain water better without getting waterlogged. Radishes do have roots that extend beyond the base of the radish so have a pot that allows about a foot depth of compost.
  3. Sow the seeds in staggered rows about 1.5cm deep and leaving about 4cm between seeds. Many recommendations say to sow in rows and then thin out. You can do this and eat the thinnings but it ends up being more time consuming and I often find that pulling up a spare seedling will disturb the other seedlings around it. If you just sow them where you intend them to grow, then your job is done till harvesting (except for regular watering of course). Alternatively, you can also sow the occasional seed here and there around bigger plants. Because the radish is primarily a root veggie, it won’t have the same nutritional needs as fruiting plants. You can sow around aubergine, peppers, chillies and squashes if you start early enough.
  4. Water the seeds in and then ensure that the radishes don’t get too dry – moist but not waterlogged. Good compost and a pot with a hole in the bottom can reduce the worry.
  5. You can sow a few seeds regularly (every couple of weeks) to ensure a consistent supply of radishes in spring and in autumn. There’s not much point sowing in summer as it can get a bit hot so the plants will bolt. You’ll get small woody radishes and thin flower stems. If you leave some radishes past their best in late autumn they will provide you with leaves over winter. In early spring they will have plenty of new growth and flower shoots.

How to harvest

When conditions are suitable you could be harvesting lovely little radishes 4 weeks from sowing. Because I’m trying to use the garden as a larder I go and gather each day. With radishes you can check they’re ready by pushing the soil away from the base of the leaves. You can see how big the radish is. Around the size of a ping pong ball is ideal (depending on your radish variety). Pick the biggest ones and leave the rest to grow.

If you don’t harvest the radishes when they’re the right size, you can leave them to grow into shoots to be used like purple sprouting broccoli. You could sow them slightly further apart or harvest and leave well-spaced plants with this intention from the start. The flower shoots and young leaves make a great green vegetable.

The flowers themselves and green seed pods make a great snack.  

How it tastes

I absolutely love the radish for being one of the few vegetables where you can utilise absolutely every part of it. They are primarily grown for the roots, but the greens are fantastic. They’re no good in salads as the leaves have slightly prickly bumps on them but when they’re cooked these completely soften.

The radish itself, when raw has that horseradishy / mustardy taste. They can be quite hot. It will depend on the variety. They have a lovely crunch when raw and are tasty and cute sliced thinly into a salad. The whole family prefer them cooked. They taste like turnips and are great sautéed or roasted. They lose their spiciness when cooked.

The greens that come with the radishes can be thrown into the pan when the radish roots are almost done. They can be used to bulk up stir fries or blitzed into sauces. The young greens from a radish pulled for the root have a chard like taste. The thing that I find it most similar to is theChinese leaf – choi sum.

The flower shoots and young leaves can be used like purple sprouting broccoli. It’s a bit softer in texture and taste like a cross between broccoli and cooked radish.

The cute little flowers can be added to salads and taste a little like cabbage, but with a hint of sweetness to it.

The raw green seed pods are juicy and have that same slightly sweet cabbagy taste. I’m afraid I haven’t yet collected enough of them to have tried cooking with them.

I generally just snack on the flowers and seed pods raw whilst in the garden.

The older leaves are a bit more prickly and even with lots of cooking can still be a little weird on the tongue. These are better added into a blended soup.

I leave you with a last image. The radishes are great fun to carve because of the amazing contrast of the pink against the white. In case you can’t tell…er… it’s supposed to be a rose. I carved it for my little one… like the cat boy Halloween pumpkin. Incidentally, radishes are a fun one for kids. The seeds, whilst small, are still manageable. She likes to drop them into the holes that I’ve made in the compost. They seedlings appear within a week. They can be harvested quick and they’re easy for little ones to pull out. They’re also an amazing colour. Littl’un asked for a radish and called it her jewel. She won’t eat the radish itself, raw or cooked, but she does like the shoots of the overgrown ones.

Nasturtiums

Short version:

With large attractive blooms in warm colours, these rampant self-seeders can be bushy or trailing/climbing depending on the variety. The flowers, leaves and seed pods are edible and when raw have a peppery taste similar to raw watercress. Its pungency is dampened by cooking.  

Eating the flowers

I’m surprised that people still visit me when I often chase guests with things I’ve just pulled from my garden, demanding that they eat it. Proffered nasturtiums meet the most resistance. People often don’t believe that something that pretty and boldly coloured is edible. They range from red, through shades of orange and yellow, to a pale peachy colour (which I sadly don’t have). The trumpet shaped blooms are around the size of a ping pong ball and the petals are soft and velvety.

I often warn people that they do taste rather peppery. Children are attracted to the appearance, but often put off by the taste. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling it well but around the peppery taste there is this unusual sweetness. We sometimes eat a couple in the garden as an interesting snack. Though, I’m afraid, we find it unpalatable to eat a large quantity of raw flowers, so they are often consigned to being a garnish or torn and sprinkled liberally in salads.

I’ve discovered that my 4 year old is a sly one and rather than eat the flowers she goes straight for the nectar.

This ‘cone’ at the back of the flower is where the nectar is stored and if you nip off this tiny bit to eat then it is very sweet with only that slight hint of pepper.

Bee friendly flowers

This brings me to the next plus point. On top of being attractive and edible, they’re great for bees and other pollinators. Nasturtiums are a good source of pollen and nectar. The shape of the flower also provides a little landing pad for the bees too. They also have a decently long flowering season – from May to September. Even with my little monkey pinching out the nectar from as many flowers as she can, there is always plenty for the bees.

Vertical gardening

It’s also fortuitous that I grow the trailing/climbing variety in my garden. Munchkin can only really reach the lower third of the plants. The bushy varieties make a stunning display in a plant border but in my small enclosed garden the climbing ones have a small footprint whilst providing a large amount of eating. Where they haven’t climbed up the supports, they trail along the ground and make good ground cover to crowd out the weeds around the base of the perennials.

They self-seed

I sowed nasturtiums in 2017. They can be sown indoors, in individual pots, just before the last frost. Individual toilet roll pots are best because the stems are easily snapped. For ease sow in situ in from April onwards. I planted the variety ‘Gleam’ as they are a climbing variety and an ‘African Jewel’ mix, another climbing variety which also has variegated leaves for something cool to look at. Since then they’ve come back every year without any intervention from me. One of the great things about edible self-seeders like these is that any unwanted seedlings can just be pulled and eaten.

Great for kids

The seeds are nice and large, so they’re easy for kids to handle. They germinate quickly so little ones don’t have to wait so long. The leaves are also hydrophobic, as in, they repel water. They make a fascinating plant to play with and then of course they’re pretty to look at and edible later.

If you grow nasturtiums then try this game: Put a large drop of water on the leaf, try and throw the drop in the air and catch it again in the leaf.

Eating the leaves

So, both flowers and leaves are edible, raw. They can be added to salads, but at our table I wouldn’t dare to add much beyond a few shredded leaves. Both the husband and the infant would have a tantrum. It’s the same with raw watercress. Blanched watercress, however, pleases the husband but not the child.  

A light stir frying of the nasturtium leaves takes away much of the pepperiness and leaves a pleasant taste that I’ve not found anywhere else. Again, the husband will accept this but not the child. She will, however, eat nasturtium leaf crisps. You can make them like kale crisps. Spray lightly with oil and oven bake in single layers for a few minutes on a medium heat. Alternatively, a hot, non-stick frying pan with oil will crisp up leaves very quickly but the leaves must be done a few at a time in a single layer. You can imagine I don’t do this often as it’s a bit too much work for someone who wants to eat out of the garden lazily and easily. Also, I suspect all the oil and heat makes it all much less nutritious and healthy.

Easy to grow

In addition to the happy self-seeding, nasturtiums grow well in poor soil. This means that they will grow readily in soil that is not fertile enough to grow vegetables. This doesn’t mean that you need to deliberately seek out rubbish soil. If the soil is fertile you will just get more leaves, which isn’t a problem as you can eat them.

As a companion

They are very attractive to aphids and cabbage white. This may sound like a bad thing as you don’t want to attract either to your garden really, but what they do is they ‘trap’ the pests and they feed on the nasturtiums rather than on your other crop buds or brassicas. The best thing is that nasturtium is so prolific that the plant doesn’t seem to be affected much by the aphids. The caterpillars can eat a good chunk of plant but it’s really easy just to pick all the leaves affected by pests and bin them all. If you’re not too squeamish you can take the leaves with the aphids and soak them in very salty water (literally a large bowl filled with water and about 2 tablespoons of salt) for 10 mins. It’s quite satisfying to see the water crowded with aphids. These are now pests no longer in your garden and you can still rinse the leaves and eat them. I’m afraid I’m a bit too squeamish to do this with the caterpillars.

Seed pods

Lastly the seed pods are, apparently, a substitute for capers. I’m afraid I’ve never done anything with them. Maybe one day when I’m feeling more adventurous. I let you know when I get there!

As a parting image – this is a photo taken 27th August. Seedlings are still appearing and the current plants are still going strong. This is really with no effort at all on my part. I don’t sow or transplant. All I do is play with the leaves, snack on the flowers, allow my little one to steal all the nectar, harvest leaves and pick off leaves with aphids as I’m harvesting (wash the aphids down the sink and eat the leaves) and experiment with different ways of cooking/preparing them.