Eating flowers is not so very strange an idea at all. In fact, if you’ve ever eaten cauliflower, broccoli, or artichokes, you’ve already had the pleasure of a floral meal.
Looked at with this knowledge, the word “floret” makes a lot more sense when considering the ordinary crucifer. Broccoli has florets; so does cauliflower. Artichokes are nothing but a long-stemmed flower, and, when allowed into bloom, produce a gorgeous purple center halo that anyone would instantly recognize as being there to attract pollinators.
Because attracting pollinators, after all, is a flower’s main job. Removing stamens and pistils, the pollinating parts, is generally essential to any good flower-eating experience as they tend to be bitter, and so best avoided. The petals of an astonishing variety of plants, however, offer sophisticated gastronomic notes ranging from grassy to sweet to citrus-mimicking to a new sort of herbaceous heaven you might never have yet encountered.
Nasturtiums are often called “Indian cress” for their high peppery bite, while pansies and their kin — violas and jonny jump-ups — taste of mint and lemon. Fennel fronds offer licorice, tulip petals harken young lettuce, peonies and hibiscus are for tea, and lavender can move across the menu like a chess Queen, as long as one’s hand is enough restrained that everything doesn’t end up tasting like soap.
Marigolds can substitute for that other pricey flower product, saffron, and day lilies can be dipped in a light batter and fried tempura style. Like squash blossoms? Yes! Carnations have been infusing the French liqueur Chartreuse for centuries, and begonia stems can substitute for rhubarb in a pinch. Never had a strawberry-begonia pie? Perhaps now is the day to try it.
At SHED, we love to use flowers in our dishes. Our nasturtium butter is a colorful infusion that adds a nice peppery note when melted on grilled salmon. We use rose geranium leaves and lavender to flavor our ice cream and creme anglaise and violas, bachelor buttons (also known as corn flowers), calendula, chive blossoms, and society garlic to pep up salads.
We stuff our squash blossoms with house-made ricotta cheese sprinkled with fennel seed and bee pollen, batter them lightly, and fry them, drizzling just a touch of honey atop.
Our pea salad features borage and wild onion flowers, carefully harvested from the banks of Foss Creek.
Our Shrub and Shim drinks always feature flowers when they’re in bloom, either as garnish or to enhance the flavor of the drink. Some of our favorites? Angelica, anise hyssop, roses, and fennel.
Writing for What’s Cooking America, Linda Stradley has a great list of edible flower do’s and don’ts, as well as recipes for containing petals in cloud-free ice cubes and crystalizing them for desserts. Want to have them delivered, already cleaned and pesticide-free? Marx Foods specializes in culinary flowers and includes recipes and tips for preparation.
When readying to use flowers in your food, bear some considerations in mind. Most experts discourage foraging near roadsides due to possible pesticide and herbicide applications. Consider that also when gathering flowers to eat from your own backyard or the home of a friend.
Use the same caution you would when sourcing any food from the wild: don’t take what you don’t know, leave the bugs behind if you can, and strive to educate yourself before, oh, just grabbing a gorgeous, savage, handful of pink rose petals, chopping them roughly and sprinkling them upon a piece of baked chicken napped with a honey wine sauce and topped with toasted almonds.
Or, just go for it.