My love of gardening and cooking merge when I am able to grow fruit and vegetables to use in the kitchen. An added bonus is when I can use edible flowers to add colour and interest to a dish as a garnish. At one stage in my life, I dabbled in catering as a volunteer fundraiser for my daughter's high school, and I was known for my fondness for garnishes as a final flourish on our platters of canapes, sometimes to disguise my culinary disasters!
Springtime seems to be when many edible flowers are at their peak and many are easily grown in our Sydney gardens. I have always been slightly nervous about writing on this topic, as it has to be remembered that not all flowers are edible: some are quite toxic. So please don't eat flowers unless you are absolutely sure that are edible AND that they have been grown organically, without the use of chemical sprays. For that reason, one should never eat flowers from florists or nurseries or anywhere else where you cannot be sure what has happened to the blooms. Similarly, don't eat flowers picked from the side of the road as these can be contaminated with car emissions. People with allergies should avoid eating flowers, and it is advisable that, in general, only the petals are consumed - remove the pistils and stamens from the blooms before using. Taking all these factors into account, edible flowers remain a fascinating subject!
My first experience with edible flowers was with nasturtiums (Tropaoleum majus). These grew wild in my parents' Blue Mountains garden, and my mother regularly ate nasturtium leaf and flower sandwiches! The flamboyant and richly hued flowers make a superb piquant garnish for salads, and can be included in fresh rice paper rolls to add brilliant colour to these translucent delicacies. Nasturtiums are easily grown from seed planted in autumn - they do better in poorer soil: better soil results in lots of leaves but fewer flowers.
Another hot-coloured edible flower in bloom now is the pot marigold: Calendula officinalis, an annual plant with large, daisy-like flowers in hues of orange and yellow. Note it is not an actual marigold so be sure you have the right plant before you start munching on any of its petals! The petals add bright colour to salads and if chopped up finely in cooked dishes, will impart an orange-yellow colour, sometimes being known as 'poor man's saffron', as it can be used a substitute for this expensive ingredient (itself derived from the stigmas of the flowers of Crocus sativus). Calendula grows well from seed or seedlings planted in a sunny spot in autumn.
Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana and violas (including Viola tricolor) are in full flower at the moment, and these are also edible, with a slightly grassy flavour. The cheerful faces of these blooms make a wonderful garnish in savoury or fruit salads, desserts and soups. Unlike most edible flowers, where only the petals are used, these can be eaten whole. As with most edible flowers, they are best when freshly picked. Pansies and violas grow easily in rich, well-drained soil in a sunny position, or in large bowls. Plant them out in autumn. I find that violas will self-seed from year to year in my garden, adding a delightful informal touch.
Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are in the same plant family as pansies and violas and they too are edible. Their main flowering season is winter and early spring. I find that mine flower best in a sunny position, though they will also do well in part shade. They can spread a lot so make sure they aren't planted near special treasures! I grow pink-, white-, lilac- and purple-flowered forms together to make a groundcovering tapestry. Fresh violet flowers can be strewn over salads and desserts; candied violets (made by brushing the flowers with egg white then dusting them with castor sugar) are cute decorations for cupcakes.
Though I have never had much luck growing lavender, I have used dried lavender flowers (a gift from one of my daughters from the beautiful lavender farm at Bridestowe in Tasmania) in biscuits and desserts; they can also be added to ice creams and sorbets. Lavender flowers can be used fresh or dry, and have a sweet perfumed flavour with a lemon overtone.
Rose petals make a gorgeous scented decoration. Only fragrant roses have flavourful petals. I only have one rose in my garden, 'Sweet Chariot', and I grow it in memory of a dear friend who loved this cultivar. It is a long-flowering miniature with double, purplish-pink, fragrant flowers, the petals of which I scatter over salads, cakes and desserts. One of my greatest triumphs was mixing the petals with chopped, green-hued pistachio nuts and flinging them over a vegan chocolate cake!
The flowers of many herbs are edible as well as being decorative. They usually have a subtler flavour than the leaves. Chive blooms are pretty if broken into individual florets and used in soups, salads and vegetable dishes. Other edible herb flowers include mint, sage, borage, basil, oregano, majoram, coriander, dill, fennel and rosemary. Though not a herb as such, the pretty lilac flowers of (Tulbaghia violacea (pictured above) have an onion-garlic flavour and look attractive in salads or placed on the top of a cooked quiche. The pretty, bright red flowers of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) have a sweet and fruity flavour, and are used in salads, salsas, cakes and biscuits.
Zucchini flowers have become a trendy cooking ingredient in recent years and are delicious filled with stuffings such as ricotta cheese then fried or baked, or used in pasta dishes. The flowers of lemon and orange trees are also edible, with a mild citrus tang, and a useful in salads. It's fun to eat flowers!
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