Adding edible landscaping to your home doesn't mean giving up flowers, to the contrary, it's a great opportunity to add flowers to your diet. You may not realize it, but you do eat flowers already—broccoli heads are flower buds, as are cauliflowers. An artichoke is one big flower bud, chamomile tea is flowers, and you might have tried a rose-flavored Indian dessert.
There are lots of other flowers that are a beautiful way to add zest to many meals and snacks. They look great in your garden, and what could be more lovely than to go out to your back yard to “shop,” bring your produce in and store it as a pretty bouquet on your kitchen counter or window sill?
Edible flowers are usually eaten fresh as a garnish. They're fun sprinkled as petals or whole small flowers on a green salad or to decorate cakes and cupcakes. Not all flowers are edible, so don't eat what you don't know.
The edible flower season begins with violets and pansies, which have a lovely fragrance. Violets grow wild in beautiful colors ranging from deep purple to white. A favorite Victorian garnish was candied violets, made by tediously coating each petal with egg white, then extra-fine sugar. But the naked blossoms and leaves are delicious in spring salads, as are pansy flowers.
Another delicious spring flower is the chive blossom—a tiny roman candle of a flower that creates a miniature fireworks display in your garden. This one has a green-oniony punch, so use it in savories only. Try blending or processing the flowerets of 10 young flowers with 4 oz. of butter or cream cheese for a pretty cracker spread. Add other herbs, a spritz of lemon, citrus zest, etc. as your imagination takes you. Garnish with more sprinkled flowerets.
A favorite edible flower of summer is the nasturtium. It's got a peppery zing and beautiful edible leaves. There is a wonderful variety from which to choose: you can grow it in a bush form or types that will trail or climb from its roots. They're quite happy in a large pot. The colors range from cream to orange to pink to deep red and maroon and there's even a type with leaves striated like green marble.
Also in summer is borage (illustrated above), a kind of creepy, hairy, medieval plant with a disarmingly pretty blue asterisk-shaped flower that has a cucumber flavor. The leaves are flavored and edible, too, but that bristly hair is pretty weird.
Squash flowers are large and lily-like, and these are one of the few flowers eaten cooked. They have a nice, delicate squash flavor and a juicy, pleasantly chewy texture. You take the base off, including the chunky pistil. Then just dip these frowsy orange-yellow blossoms in beaten egg (with salt and pepper and herbs, if you like), and simply fry them in a little butter. If you want to play with your food, you can stuff them first with anything from pilaf to chicken mousse to cooked vegetables, then saute in butter, with or without a dip in egg first. They're great for breakfast, or an appetizer, or a light meal, with bread and a salad.
Day lilies are eaten in the bug stage, and they can also cooked, traditionally used in stir-fries, tempura or in hot and sour soup. The raw flower petals can be sliced and added to salads and soups, or, like squash flowers, the whole flower can be stuffed and sauteed. Taste these first because different varieties have different flavors. Both the common wild version and cultivated versions are edible.
All herb blossoms are edible, and fennel pollen is said to be a secret flavoring ingredient of Tuscan cooks for fish, poultry and pork, according to the great Faith Willinger. (I haven't tried this yet, but I will, later in the summer!) Rose petals, the flowers of arugula, kale, green beans, mustard, marigolds, and calendula are great, too.
So have fun this summer, but, don't experiment without knowledge—sweet peas, lily of the valley, buttercups, daffodils and narcissus are all among the poisonous species, though there are plenty of flowers to try that are delicious and great for you!
Edible flower resources:
Hudson Valley Seed Library, http://www.seedlibrary.org/
Catskill Native Nursery, Kerhonkson, http://www.catskillnativenursery.com/
Victoria Gardens, Rosendale, http://www.victoriagardens.biz/
Faith Willinger: Red, White and Greens: The Italian Way with Vegetables, William Morrow, 1999
Rosalind Creasy: The Edible Flower Garden, Periplus, 1999