Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Edible Flowers - Herbs of the Week

As it finally starts to get warm around here and the flowers begin to pop, I would like to point out that several spring and herb flowers are totally edible and can be enjoyed at your table.  I was recently perusing a copy of “Edible Flowers” by Catherine Wilkinson Barash.  It got me to thinking about the increased popularity of  using flowers that can be eaten.  I put together a program at the Morton Arboretum a number of years ago on edible flowers but at the time, I did not know about as many edible blooms as I do now and Catherine Barash’s book is one of the reasons I can now make several recommendations about flowers and flowering herbs you can use in your kitchen.

The flavor of flowers is as diverse as the flavors of herbs.  You can have sweet tasting flowers, savory flowers and even spicy flowers.  A sweet will compliment any beverage or fruit dish, while savories can be part of your main dish.  The spicy can be a compliment to a sauce or a way to enliven a simple main course.  The following list is broken down into those flavor categories.


Flowers with a simple, sweet flavor as well as those with a perfumed or floral taste are unbeatable for flavoring beverages, fruit salads and cake batter. In the Spring choose dandelion flowers which are sweet when they first open but become bitter as they mature. Sweet flowers can be an interesting addition to fruit salsas and fish dishes. Honeysuckle's sweet flavor as luscious as it sounds and should be experienced if you have never tried it.  It is perfect when added to a dressing over fruit salad. 

Lemon or other citrus flavors which come from lemon and orange blossoms or tuberous begonias can be used to make colored and flavored vodka.   This time of year hunt out the mild white flowers of sweet woodruff which is a staple ingredient of May wine.  Be aware that the element coumarin found in those flowers can slow blood clotting and those with a clotting disorder or those taking a blood thinner should not eat the flowers.

All of the mints, whether peppermint, spearmint or the less familiar apple mint, ginger mint and others, have flowers with a flavor like that of the leaves. Mint flowers add a cool sparkle to yogurt sauces and vanilla ice cream.

Johnny jump-ups and pansies also have a mild minty flavor. Their delightful faces are particularly attractive placed on cheese. I once saw a grilled veal chop sauced with a thin layer of parsnip puree and covered with Johnny jump-ups; with only the bone showing, it looked like a flowery lollipop. The mint flavor of the flowers complemented the grilled chop perfectly.


Arugula and mustard leaves are found in many salad mixes. If you grow these greens, you know that the leaves become too bitter to eat when the plants bloom. Instead of digging out the plants, enjoy the tang of the pale yellow, four-petaled flowers. You can also pick the flowers of broccoli and radishes that are past their prime. With distinctive flavors much like the vegetables themselves, they are especially well suited for salads.

The flowers of the edible alliums and their relatives are composed of clusters of florets. Because the flavor may be very strong, you'll want to break the flowers into individual florets when cooking or garnishing with them rather than use the entire flower head.

I couldn't bear to be without chive flowers. Harvesting them from the time they begin to bloom in spring keeps them coming, although less profusely, all summer. Rub an entire mauve pom-pom in a wooden salad bowl to give a good oniony flavor to your salad and use florets to flavor marinades. Or make a vinegar with them and use that to craft your dressings.

In late summer, garlic chives can contribute their white umbels of flowers to stir-fried dishes. The delicate lilac flowers of society garlic have the mildest flavor of this group. Sautéed nodding onion heads are a good addition to soups and stocks in midsummer.

Edible herb flowers include the yellow umbels of dill, which give a dill flavor to pickling solutions and pair well with shellfish, and thymes, whose flowers may taste of lemon, caraway or garden thyme, depending on the variety. The tiny flowers of sweet marjoram are more delicately flavored than those of its cousin Greek oregano; both are favorites for flavoring vinegar. Basil's delicate flowers uplift an otherwise ordinary pesto.

These herb flowers consort well with vegetables, whether sprinkled atop cooked ones or mixed with oil and vinegar in a salad dressing. Chopped and mixed with sweet butter, they make a perky topping to baked or boiled potatoes.

The red, orange or yellow blooms of nasturtiums are everywhere these days, from restaurant salad plates to supermarket mesculn mixes. People tasting them for the first time often are surprised by their peppery flavor. Some of the newer cultivars have a sweet taste first, followed by a good peppery kick.

Traditional Red bee balm has a minty flavor with a strong, spicy overtone.  The color makes it a nice addition to a salad and the spiciness counters perfectly with a wild leaf lettuce blend. I do not recommend the purple variety however, the flavor is not up to snuff. 

The licorice to anise flavors of anise hyssop and fennel flowers can lend a sweet and a spicy character to dishes.  I like to add them to fruit pastries like apple and rhubarb pie.  The flavor’s brightness is also good for cleansing the palate and freshening the breath, and the flowers are fun to nibble on in the garden. Anise hyssop, with spikes of tiny purple florets, blooms from midsummer to frost, and is one of my all-time favorites. Fennel's yellow umbels pair well with cauliflower and lima beans and add a different flavor to apple pie.  

A few last strong flavored herbs to consider are garden hyssop cilantro.  A little traditional hyssop goes a long way; it tastes a little like quinine, but it is excellent in a robust salad dressing.  Cilantro flowers have a mild flavor reminiscent of the leaves. 


Parsley is one of the few culinary herbs with non-edible flowers, which points out a special point to make with edible flowers, eat only those flowers you know to be safe; some kinds are toxic. Use these rules when choosing herbal flowers to use in cooking:

• Eat only organically grown edible flowers.
• Don't eat flowers from nurseries, florists or garden centers.
• Don't eat flowers picked from heavily traveled roadsides.
• Don't eat flowers if you have a history of allergies, asthma or hayfever.
• Eat only the petals, removing pistils and stamens (except those of tiny flowers such as lilac, basil
and thyme).
• Don't assume that a flower is edible just because it is garnishing a dinner plate.
• Taste flowers before you use them in a recipe, as they can vary according to variety and cultural
• Rinse flowers in running water before tasting.


Borage & Cucumbers in Sour Cream Dressing
3 long cucumbers
1 cup sour cream or fresh plain yogurt
2 Tbls. Chive blossom vinegar
½ tsp. celery seed
¼ cup chopped scallions
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup finely chopped young borage flowers
Salt & pepper to taste
Borage or chive flowers for garnish

Wash, score and very thinly slice the cucumbers.  Salt lightly and let stand in a colander for 30 minutes to drain.  Rinse off the salt and pat dry with paper towels.

In a bowl, mix remaining ingredients, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Add cucumbers and toss lightly.  Garnish with borage flowers or chive blossoms.  Refrigerate 1 hour before serving. 
Rose & Hibiscus Lemonade
Serves 8

4 tsp. dried Hibiscus flowers
4 tsp. dried rose petals
about 8 cups cold water
8 ounces frozen lemonade concentrate
fresh lime wedge, to serve

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Take water off the heat and add the tea.  Steep 5-10 minutes.  Strain out the flowers.  Pour tea into a large pitcher. Add about 2/3 of the can (or 8 ounces) of frozen lemonade concentrate. Stir to dissolve and let cool a bit before refrigerating until completely chilled. Pour over ice in a glass decorated with a fresh lime wedge. Enjoy!

Flower Spread
8 oz. package light cream cheese
¼ cup butter
1 ½ tsp. lemon juice
3 to 4 tsp fresh minced flowers
1 tsp fresh thyme or savory

Blend butter and cream cheese together with a fork in a medum bowl.  Add the lemon juice and herbs.  Allow to meld in refrigerator at least 1 hour before serving.  Spead of toasted French bread, crackers, cut vegetables or fruit wedges.

Check out my previous post on calendula and flavored marigolds for more edible flowers.

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