I find it a little strange that in the culinary world we live in, the term edible flowers is used to describe a very long list of blooms that are very different in look, smell, taste, texture and size. It's like saying, garnish with "herbs" when we know that throwing a large handful of sage on your sashimi platter, adding lavender to your Mum's Sunday roast or sprinkling dill onto your chocolate tart isn't going to do your cooking any flavour-favours. Topping a plate of food with coloured petals has somehow become a way of making it look instragram-worthy, but there's definitely more than meets the eye with this trending garnish. Based on my love of nature and of course plating up, I'm going to walk you through the flowers I have growing, some suggestions and some do's and don'ts. Let's start with my herb garden.
Herbs have flowers?
They certainly do, but what do they taste like? It's a pretty straightforward answer for what may seem a silly question - they taste like the herb! There's something very special about cooking a meal or a dessert with the leaves and stems and then being able to finish it off with sprigs of flowers from the same plant. The flowers can be stronger in flavour or even more subtle than the leaves themselves. Plus picking the flowers encourages growth, so it's a win-win. Even more of a reason to unleash your green-thumb and get your own herb garden up and flowering!
A few of my other favourites include thyme [tiny clusters of perfect white or purple flowers that are full of flavour], lemon verbena [sprays of pinky-mauve flowers with darker stems that carry an amazing scent], fennel [absolutely gorgeous golden sprays with a subtle aniseed flavour], chive and garlic chives [pretty green buds turn into stunning pom-poms of white or purple petals with great flavour, especially in salads. I've even known people to have them in their wedding bouquets they're so pretty, a little stinky, but pretty] and pineapple sage [ruby red in colour with a sweet, fruity and sublte sage flavour].
MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE
When purchasing edible flavours in a labelled punnet, you will usually get a mixed variety. As pretty as they look all thrown in together, I have a few qualms about it. You need to make sure that the flowers you select will work with your recipe! There's definitely more to it than just randomly selecting from the packet and plonking them on top of the food - what's the point? Not knowing what the petals taste like can have a negative outcome by overpowering or tainting the subtleties you've built into your dish or ruining it altogether - we're meant to eat them after all! On a positive note, they can be incredibly complementary and take your creation to another level. So far we've established that herbs taste like the rest of the plant - but when using blooms from different plants, it's a whole other story.
Roses are great if you're cooking with rosewater, use the petals as a beautiful garnish. This is definitely one of those 'taste like it smells' scenarios. See Things to Remember below before for more info. Marigolds are quite strong in smell and can be bitter. Also known as calendula, these flowers come in a variety of beautiful colours and sizes. Remove the stamen and you will have dozens of pretty petals. Lavender is very strong in taste and scent and should be used sparingly. Crumble the top of the flower to separate the segments. Nasturtiums have a fantastic peppery flavour that complements savoury flavours beautifully. Colours vary from pastel yellow to deep burgundy. You can eat the leaves as well!
Other suggestions that have a distinct flavour but shine brilliance when used correctly are chamomile [it's difficult to find these fresh where I live, but it's one of my favourites for it's rich, earthy flavour], dandelion [more than just a weed, the entire plant is completely edible, but can be very bitter including the flowers - in my world of natural health it's commonly used for liver and digestive health], rosella [such a popular flower in Australia - just seeing the word reminds me of hot buttery toast with homemade rosella jam. The petals can be used to garnish but are also delicious cooked into jams, pickles or syrups. There was a stage where every hostess with the most-est was putting a syrupy, red 'wild hibiscus flower' in the bottom of a glass of bubbly] and hibiscsus [these flowers are beautiful brewed into a tea or the soft petals eaten for their tangy berry flavour].
Can'T I JUST have all flower, no flavour?
There are quite a few flowers that are subtle in taste, but in my opinion the biggest focus is making sure the food and the flavour of your dish is the real masterpiece [my Mum's lasagne is far from pretty, but it's still one of the tastiest things I've ever eaten]. Presentation is definitely a big factor because let's face it, food invites all of your senses [anyone who has read Heston's books will know what I'm talking about]. You want to see people wide-eyed and gushing about it before they've even tasted it, hearing sounds of "wow... yum..." By throwing flowers around willy-nilly you can create a very attractive bandaid. If it doesn't taste good your guests will have forgotten what it looked like and will either be, a) chasing every mouthful down with their wine like a child swallowing yucky medicine, b) awkwardly shuffling the food around the plate to appear as though they're loving it, or c) feeding your dog under the table. If you know your food is scrumptious and you want to make it look as beautiful as it tastes, show restraint and choose what ties in with the dish. These are a few of my favourites that grow easily in my garden [note: some species of geranium can have a moderate scent, so taste in advance].
Other subtle suggestions include cornflowers [it's obvious where the colour 'cornflower blue' comes from - so, so pretty], violets [sweet petals that are a deep purple] , carnation [related to dianthus, the petals are frilly and subtle with a sweet floral scent], borage [another blue coloured flower, these little guys are star shaped with a subtle and sweet, fruity flavour] and not forgetting our old friend zucchini flower [very subtle in flavour but a beautiful vessel for stuffing with delicious ingredients or tearing into salads].
Looks can be deceiving
PLEASE NOTE: SOME FLOWERS ARE POISONOUS
There's a reason they're called 'edible' flowers. It's easy to assume that many flowers are edible due to their familiarity [you might of seem them in the veggie patch or on wedding cakes etc] however, they can make you very unwell. The same goes for species that look similar to edible varieties, in other words a simple case of mistaken identity. Some examples of poisonous flowers that may be a familiar face or similar in appearance to edible varieties include: frangipani, lantana, deadly nightshades [the flowers from potato, capsicum, chilli, eggplant and tomato plants], iris, hyrangea, hyacinth, wisteria and sweetpea [I just realised that the term of endearment really means toxic-death-flower].
important things to remember
So often people ask if they can eat the flowers on their plate, or you'll find them pushed to the side of the plate like a sprig of curly parsley found on every plate in the 90's. Asking questions is the key! There is overlap between some flower species that are deemed edible but are also aesthetically pleasing as gifts or for the home etc. Walking into the florist and asking for some roses to jazz up your chocolate cake isn't a wise move as they have been treated with pesticides and chemicals to make them look picture perfect! Ensure you are buying products that are clearly labelled EDIBLE. Here are a few other pointers!
I hope this little piece has shed some light on eating flowers and you've gained some inspiration to take into your own kitchens and gardens. Remember that every garden is different based on where you are, the climate, the soil and what's accessible to you. For my coastal south-east Queensland location, the flowers in the pictures above are what work for me here but you might have better luck with some of my other suggestions. Thanks for reading my blog. If you found it useful feel free to hit the little heart below and/or leave me a comment. Feedback is always welcome.
Until next time sweetpeas... pansies? Petals? I was attempting wit, but you catch my drift!