Edible flowers can make your cooking far more flavorful and intriguing, but while common, they’re often overlooked.
In fact, many are easy to grow yourself, says Judi Strauss, proprietor of The Charmed Kitchen. “None of these are hard to grow [from seed],” she says. You can also find mature plants at garden centers. “This is the perfect time of year to be planting.”
Attention to detail and careful sourcing is important, because edible flowers — which are frequently used raw, in salads — must be labeled as organic and pesticide-free. “You can’t take a dozen roses you get at a florist and eat them,” Strauss says with a slight laugh. “Or you could, but you shouldn’t. They haven’t been treated as a food crop.”
Strauss also stresses that people looking to use edible flowers in recipes need to be rigorous about identification. “Make sure you know that [what you’re using] it is what you think it is,” she says. “Make sure your identification is correct.” If not, the effects could be deadly: Strauss tells a story about a woman who died after using the poisonous herb foxglove in tea, mistaking it for something safe. “Just because it’s growing in your yard doesn’t mean you can eat it,” she cautions.
At Spice Acres, edible flowers are popular crops. Besides herbs like sage, cilantro, dill, chives, and basil, the farm grows several of Strauss’s beloved flowers, (denoted below with an asterisk), and incorporates them into many recipes and cocktails. Visit Spice Kitchen + Bar for inspiration, and try some of Strauss’s tips for her favorite uses.
Overview: These annuals are “one of the most versatile edible flowers out there, because the whole plant is edible,” Strauss says. “The flowers are fairly mild, with a little spice to them. The leaves taste a bit like watercress. And if you get the little buds before the flowers open, you can pickle them and use them as a substitute for capers.”
Characteristics: Although these grow easily from seed and flourish in a flower pot, some “can get rather vine-y. Plant them along a fence,” she notes.
Food: Nasturtiums “are usually used to garnish salads and cheese plates,” Strauss says. “They have a lovely flavor, and the color is so gorgeous: bright yellows, oranges, and really intense reds.” The leaves, meanwhile, can also be used fresh in a salad or in sandwiches as a lettuce replacement.
Overview: An annual, borage “tends to seed itself, so once you get it going, it’ll usually come back the next year,” Strauss says.
Characteristics: The plant itself can be tall: “sometimes even six feet,” Strauss notes. Its fuzzy leaves “have an almost cucumber flavor,” she says, and the flowers tend to be purplish-pink or blue.
Food: “The flowers are used primarily because they’re pretty,” Strauss says. “They’re nice to have on cheese plates veggie trays, because you can pick them up and nibble them.” And, like nasturtiums, you can also use borage on salads.
Overview: “Marigold is an interesting one,” Strauss says. “There’s a lot of different kinds.”
Food: “You don’t want to cook them because they’re delicate,” she cautions. “Sprinkle the petals on top of salads, or almost any food. You can have an omelet, put some marigold petals on top, and it’s going to look prettier.”
Overview: These flowers “are fun because they have a distinct peppery taste,” Strauss says. “There’s a little more bite to them than some of the other flowers out there. A lot of flowers are more decorative than anything else, but Dianthus definitely has its own flavor.”
Characteristics: Pinks, sweet williams, and carnations are all in this plant family, and they can be either annuals or perennials.
Food: “You can mix them up with cream cheese or mascarpone and make a cheese spread,” Strauss says. She adds that dianthus is also ideal for making infused vinegars.
Overview: “Calendulas [are] very similar to marigolds: similar colors, oranges and yellows,” Strauss says, adding that the flower is also commonly found in homemade cosmetics such as lotion and used as an ingredient in tea blends.
Characteristics: “They grow like crazy. They’re really easy to grow from seed,” she says, and they tend to re-seed themselves each year.
Food: These flowers are “not overly spicy or flavorful, but mild and pleasant,” which means they’re commonly found “looking pretty on salads and decorating other dishes.”
Overview: “Wild violets — not African violets — have a season,” Strauss stresses. But they’re extremely easy to grow.
Food: While a beautiful salad garnish, violets are also extremely versatile. Strauss infuses hers in vinegar and then strains the flowers from it to make a jelly. (Straining the flowers avoids problems with pH — a potential concern when making flower-based jellies — but also makes the jelly “a really pretty bright pink color.”) Violets can also be candied: Brush the leaves with a mixture of powdered egg whites and water, dip them in sugar, and let them harden. “They’re beautiful on pastries and desserts,” she says. “They’re so delicate.” This year, Strauss also infused some vodka with violets to create a violet liqueur.
Overview: “One of my favorites, and one of the most versatile,” Strauss enthuses. “Roses are in the same family of plants as apples and other edibles.”
Food: Not only do the petals “have their own distinct flavor,” she notes, but they can be used to make rose petal jelly as well as syrup. The latter “would be fun for pancakes, waffles, and scones,” Strauss says. “And you can use [the petals] for desserts.” Plus, after the petals fall off, what’s left are “little round balls” called rose hips, which Strauss says are an extremely good source of vitamin C. “People will let them ripen in the fall and make tea and jelly with them.”
Overview: “Lavender is one you can really throw in lots of things,” Strauss says of the versatile flower.
Characteristics: Although lavender has a “soapy” fragrance, she notes, “if you get past that, it actually has a little bit of a bite. It’s kind of peppery.” Plus, it’s resilient: ” English lavender comes back every year,” Strauss explains. “As soon as it gets a first set of blooms, I cut them all off and I usually get a second, and sometimes even a third harvest in a season.”
Food: Lavender is one of the ingredients in herbes de provence, a popular spice mix used on lamb and pork. Strauss also makes a lavender syrup by combining boiling butter, sugar, and blossoms that can be used in cocktails and desserts. She’s even baked (and found much to love about) lavender shortbread.
For more information, check out Judi’s website, The Charmed Kitchen.