Avant-garde chefs have been incorporating flowers into their culinary displays for many years and today that trend is moving into our homes as more and more often we enhance our dinner plates with a garnish of edible flowers.
You really have to know what you're doing when it comes to eating flowers, because carelessness can cause more than just a tummy ache. Lets face it, even when flowers are used to enhance the presentation of a plate, very few folks actually eat the blossoms.
The fact is that any of these edible flowers have interesting flavors, but most are not so tasty that you would ask for seconds.
The idea is to fill them with exotic foods or to create sauces and syrups with distinct flair and flavor. Some, like masturtiums, add just the right amount of spice to a tossed garden salad. The following suggestions contain some sure bets for the more daring culinary artist.
- Herbs are always interesting and fairly safe, of course we have chives to spice things up, but what about those clover like pink blossoms that appear? When the buds first open.they apparently have a slight onion flavor but as they mature the flowers become rather tough and tasteless.
- Borage, on the other hand, has a delightful cucumber taste. The borage flower is really quite beautiful a match for many of our annuals It will look good on any plate hut you must remove the hairy sepals from from each flower before it is used.
- Lavender flowers have a wonderful a wonderful perfume and really freshen up the closet, but English Lavender (Lavendula augustifolia) has a slightly lemon flavor and is often used in cook king. Most other lavender varieties, by the way, taste quite medicinal.
- Sage is another herb with an interesting flavor. It's spiky pink liatris-like flower stem can be stripped, and the flowers sprinkled over a bed of rice.
- Anise hyssop also has a full spiky pink flower head with a flavor that hints of root beer.
- Fennel, with it's lacy dill-like yellow flowers, adds a delightful touch to tomatoes or stuffed peppers.
- Rosemary flowers are slightly medicinal in flavor, as are the rather plain while flowers of the most popular herb basil..
- 'Butter Blossom' squash has come into vogue lately too. Zucchini and many other squash blossoms are large and easy to stuff. but the flowers of the new 'flutter Blossom' squash are apparently tops.
Incidentally, most summer squash like zucchini and scaloppini, are at their prime in flavor while the blossom is still on the squash. The blossoms all have a slight squash flavor, but the large yellow flowers make quite a statement on one's plate.
- Pansies are one of the most beautiful of all blossoms. They all have floral flavor and they are a real novelty. Giant pansies tend to be a little pretentious, so stick to the smaller viola varieties like `Johnny-Jumpups.
- Nasturtiums are certainly one of the best known edible flowers. They have a flavor similar to watercress, and as I mentioned, they are quite at home in salads
The new “Whirlybird series” are the best to use because of the absence of the usual black spit: They also come in separate colors, so now you can even color co-ordinate your salads.
- Geraniums have always had that famous distinctive fragrance, but the varieties you can enjoy are slightly different. The scented leaf varieties are among the best for flavor, particularly the peppermint and rose varieties. They don't flower very heavily, but their soft pink white and lavender flowers do have a unique flavor.
- The Old Scotch Marigold (Calendula officianalis) is quite attractive and also has that unique floral taste. The blossoms are so large, I couldn't imagine munching on one, but they are colorful and safe to eat.
- Carnations would be quite a mouthful, as well. The smaller single-flowered dianthus are not only beautiful, but they also have a perfumed clove-like taste. There are many varieties, but the tiny, single varieties are best.
- Beans: Most folks who have a vegetable garden, or even a patio, usually have a 'Scarlet Runner' bean climbing up a pole or fence. Well, their flowers are edible and taste of nectar and bean. Those of you who complain that you just get flowers and no fruit all summer now have a solution to that problem.
- Roses are gorgeous in our gardens, and some varieties are quite tasty. Unfortunately, the rugosa (Rosa rugosa) types have the best flavour, but few people grow them. They are also well known for their delightful rose hips which make great jelly and superb tea.
If you get into the habit of incorporating flowers into your cuisine, be very specific about the ones you use. Many beautiful flowers can be toxic and that is why 1 always refer to the book Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada, by John M. Kingsbury (Prentice-Hall Inc., 1964). Many plants are listed as toxic, while others have yet to be proven safe.
Some of the annual varieties to avoid: snapdragons, petunias, impatiens, sweet peas and larkspur.
Perennials to watch out for are primroses, Bachelor's Buttons, lupines, Lily of the Valley, Lobelia cardinalis, most anemones, and monkshood.
Flowering bulbs are beautiful, especially narcissus, but you must be selective here too. Iris, Autumn Crocus, Amaryllis belladonna and anemones should be left alone.
Azalea and rhododendron blossoms are spectacular in the spring, but they are listed as slightly toxic.
Do not use any variety of hydrangea, or the exotic weeping wisteria blossoms.
To be sure, the flowers YOU place on someone's plate are safe, you must do a little more than just select the right varieties. It is also important to keep them free of toxic sprays. Remember: well grown and cared for plants are the last ones to be affected by insects and disease.
Brian Minter owns and operates Minter Gardens just outside of Chilliwack.