What You Need To Know About Edible Flowers

Lisa Bendall | August 23rd, 2017

Ever tasted a tulip or munched a marigold? Try these edible flowers to broaden your palate and discover the health benefits of blooms.

Think you’ve missed out? You’ve actually already eaten flowers—you just don’t realize it. Broccoli and artichokes are buds of flowers, as are cloves. Saffron comes from part of a crocus flower.

“Flowers have been a big part of the plant-based diets of a number of different cultures,” says Christopher Bale, a herbalist and horticulturist at the University of British Columbia’s Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research. Yet until recently, flower eating was out of, er, flavour with North Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in part to globalization—we’ve become more curious about the foods of other cultures—plus a demand for novelty in dishes and flavours. “There’s also been a movement back to the land, toward whole foods,” Bale points out.

Flowers appeal to our senses because they’re fragrant, and the colourful petals are esthetically pleasing on a plate. In many dishes, flowers aren’t the main ingredient but are added as an attractive edible garnish or used as a herb for seasoning.

“There are really interesting floral flavours that people haven’t experienced,” notes Bale.

“Nasturtium has an interesting peppery finish. Lavender is quite clean and refreshing.” Other fine-tasting flowers include day lilies, chrysanthemums, roses and violets. Edible flowers can come from trees, like magnolia and cherry, and from plants we traditionally think of as vegetables, like peas and zucchinis. We can even eat weed flowers—bitter dandelion, sweet red clover and chickweed.”

Next: The health benefits of blooms

We’re still discovering the health benefits of blooms. Research in the Journal of Food Science finds that many of the flowers used in traditional Chinese practices are rich in natural phenolics (compounds found to be antioxidative and anticarcinogenic) and may provide protection against diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke and cancers. A 2012 Czech study found high levels of essential minerals, particularly potassium and phosphorus, in flowers like chrysanthemums and pansies. Many species are also sources of vitamins C or A.

If you’re keen to broaden your palate, keep in mind that not all flowers are edible. In fact, many are poisonous, like iris and daffodil. Even within flower families, certain species are safer than others.

“You may think something is okay because it’s a type of clover or nasturtium,” Bale says. “Just be sure you have the right species.” An expert at your local garden centre or nursery can help or go to Cornell University’s flower database (www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening). And check out Cooking with Flowers (Quirk Books) for more than 100 recipes and Natural Beauty (DK) for beauty-boosting blooms.

Once you’re informed on the right species, make sure the plants have been raised without pesticides. They should be disease- and bug-free. Don’t eat florist bouquets or flowers harvested from the roadside (they’re exposed to car exhaust, and you never know if Fido’s been by!).

Flowers are best after the bud has opened but before they wilt. And to rule out any allergies or sensitivities, try a small portion first.

There are almost endless ways to prepare edible flowers. Try marigold petals for a splash of colour in tabbouleh, add nasturtiums and canned pineapple to salsa or serve pansy syrup (made with lemon juice, sugar and water) over ice cream. It’s your choice of just desserts.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue with the headline, “Blooming Delicious,” p. 52.