Harvest pansies for a hint of sweetness.

Pretty enough to eat.

When it comes to flowers, the good news is that there actually are a number of pretty posies that you can enjoy on your plate, from ornamentals like violas and nasturtiums, to herbs like borage and chives. There’s even a vegetable flower — summertime squash — that’s quite tasty.

Come to think of it, broccoli, cauliflower and artichoke are flower buds as well. But when most people talk about edible flowers, they’re referring to those that are plucked from the ornamental side of the garden, or at least from herbs that are ordinarily harvested for their leaves or stems.

A Step Back in Time

Edible flowers are a slice of cuisine that has never completely gone out of style — although their favor has waxed and waned. They were especially sought after during the Victorian era, when it’s said that Queen Victoria insisted on fresh violets in her tea. As for those “sweet curds” in Shakespeare’s writings? Apparently they were the petals of marigolds or primroses (also known as cowslips), mixed with some semblance of cottage cheese.

But edible flowers date back even further, and have been integral to Roman, Greek, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine for some 2,000 years. Look no further than what’s easily the world’s more expensive edible flower: saffron. Each saffron crocus flower bears three tiny stigmas, which are hand-picked and dried. More than 4,500 flowers are required to produce just one ounce of saffron, which can cost $300 or more.

Ornamentals

But there’s no need to get so exotic. Instead, plenty of garden-variety flowers are tasty and pretty on the plate. You can start by sprinkling a few petals in a salad or stir fry, tucking a pungent sprig into a glass of ice tea or bowl of ice cream, or using a larger, flatter flower, such as nasturtium, as an edible wrap.

Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are sometimes called poor man’s saffron. The yellow or orange petals bear a spicy, peppery, slightly bitter taste.

Nasturtiums are peppery, but sweeter. Carnations are peppery, too, with hints of clove. Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and pinks (Dianthus) taste of cloves as well.

In the sweet range, look for bee balm (Monarda), gardenia, jasmine, pansy, pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), rose, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and violet.

For a spicy to bitter flavor, head for chrysanthemum, English daisy (Bellis perennis) or marigold.

Dandelion buds fried in butter are said to taste like mushrooms, while their flowers offer a sweet, honey-like accent. The lavender flowers of society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) taste, not surprisingly, like garlic. And daylily flowers (Hemerocallis) are crunchy and offer a subtle sweetness. They can be served as an appetizer, stacked with cucumber, sour cream and pesto; or stuffed, fried or added to hot and sour soup.

Herbs

The flowers of most herbs take on the same flavors as their leaves and stems.

Anise hyssop and fennel flowers taste of licorice. Arugula, like its leaves, is nutty, spicy and peppery. Chive flowers taste of mild onion, lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) tastes of lemon, and mint flowers are just plain minty.

Yet for a taste of contrary, angelica tends toward celery, chamomile speaks of sweet apple and the pale blue flowers of borage are a crisp, light cucumber.

Fruits and Vegetables

Apple blossoms bear a delicate, floral taste, while pineapple guava flowers (Feijoa sellowiana) taste much like their sweet, tropical fruit. Radish flowers are a milder, sweeter version of themselves.

Zucchini flowers, along with other summer squash and okra, bear a mild, sweet flavor, and can be stuffed with rice, ground meat, or olives and ricotta, then baked or fried.

Sunflower petals (Helianthus) taste slightly bitter; you can steam the unopened buds like artichokes.

How to Harvest

It’s best to grow your own edible flowers. That way you can be confident that no pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals have come within reach of what you’ll be putting in your mouth.

Gather your flowers in the morning, just after any dew has vanished. Choose buds that are fresh, or flowers that have just opened.

Place long-stemmed flowers in a glass of water. Sandwich smaller flowers between layers of moist paper towel. Either way, store the flowers in your refrigerator until you’re ready to use them, which should be later that day.

A Few Precautions

Be absolutely sure that whatever flowers you pick are not poisonous. The California Poison Control Center (calpoison.org) offers a 121-page online guide to toxic and non-toxic plants.

Wash your flowers before you prepare them, if only to remove dust or bug droppings.

Remove the pistils, stamens and sepals at the base, all of which may be bitter and detract from the flavor. Also remove any pollen, which can trigger allergies.

When serving edible flowers, start with only a few. After all, the blossoms are not the main course. And in large quantities, they may even cause stomach upset. Instead, break apart the pretty heads and scatter the petals throughout the dish as a fun and flavorful accent.

This article was first published in the Summer 2010 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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