A few days ago, my friend Cyndee asked me to do a piece on edible flowers. So here it is, just for you.
Beauty and fragrance have always affected the human senses. Flowers draw us with their color and scent. It was only a matter of time before it was necessary to also taste them. Curiosity and creativity ran rampant in our ancestors and birthed the use of flowers as food. Past cooks also thought of the medicinal benefits as well as the culinary ones when using flowers in food preparation. People have been eating all types of flowers as far back as Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. The first recorded use of edible flowers was in 140 B.C. Edible flowers are still eaten worldwide, but the focus today is more on aesthetics rather than on nutritional value.
Historically, flower petals were eaten most often fresh in salads or as garnishes. The petals of carnation, bee balm, borage, sage, violet, nasturtium, daylily and calendula were commonly eaten. They were thought to be cleansing for the body as well as attractive. It was common to dry the petals and include them in tea blends. Popular tea flowers were hibiscus, rose, jasmine and bee balm. Bee balm was used as a tea substitute when black tea became unavailable during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. To preserve violets, medieval monks would make a sweet syrup from the petals. The Victorians, who associated edible flowers with elegance, candied the flowers of violet and borage to decorate cakes and desserts.
There are similarities among edible flowers that likely helped our ancestors decide on their safety. The majority of edible flowers are also butterfly staples, as the larvae eat the petals as a major food source. If they had contained dangerous compounds, the larvae would have likely succumbed. Our ancestors also knew that the flowers of culinary herbs like sage, lavender and oregano contained lower levels of the same constituents as the foliage. Their brave experimentation allows us to eat these edible flowers today without concern. Unfortunately, the poisons present in such flowers as monkshood (Aconite) were discovered in the same manner.
Here are some historical uses for edible flowers from other countries and cultures.
- Victorians candied violets to decorate desserts.
- During the Renaissance, audiences of plays enjoyed rose-petal water and stewed primroses.
- Carnation petals were a key ingredient in Chartreuse, a liquor created by French monks during the 1600s.
- Bee balm was used a substitute for black tea during the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when tea was unavailable.
Floral arrangements can really add something special to an otherwise ordinary dish. Their fun colors and elegant features can make any dessert or meal really pop.
Here are some more great ideas for edible flowers:
- Use petals to garnish cupcakes or cocktails.
- Mince flowers and add to butter or spreads.
- Dried flowers can be used to flavor teas.
- Squash blossoms can be stuffed with cheese.
Other countries appear to use flowers for culinary uses more often than we do. For example, in China and Japan chrysanthemum petals are stirred into soup or included with tea. Edible flowers are however making a slow comeback in America, primarily as garnishes for desserts.
In addition to being utilized in cooking, flowers have long been recognized for their medicinal qualities. Red clover, for instance, has been known to help with coughs, colds, and as a blood cleanser.
There is a safety factor when experimenting with edible flowers as well – they have to be grown organically, preferably from your own garden. Flowers cultivated for commercial use have pesticides, and flowers you pick from near a road could have been exposed to pollution. Again, growing your own is best. If you are interested in growing your own edible flowers, there are plenty of books available to help you grow your garden. Here are a few suggestions to help get you started.
I don’t really care for edible flowers much. I’ve eaten them plenty of times, but I don’t really find them adding much to my meals, other than pure aesthetics. They do look pretty, but that’s about it for me, although this being said, I did just make some lilac sugar that I am excited to use. Gail’s Lilac Sugar I don’t really care for their taste much, but every rule has its exception though. Now I love decorating with flowers, and of course, I use fresh herbs all the time, but actual flowers in my food, only on rare occasions.
Enjoy the flowers whether you eat them or appreciate them for their beauty. Stay safe, stay well and carry on. ‘Til next time.