Guide to Edible Flowers
There’s something about flowers and food that really inspires the tastebuds and the imagination. Undeniable beautiful placed onto cakes, they make everything look like a true celebration. However there is a lot more to edible flowers than just a garnish or cake decoration.
Edible flowers have a rich history and a plethora of uses in the kitchen. Whether you want to grow them in containers or go out foraging for wild flowers, everybody can enjoy the beauty and flavour of these gorgeous blossoms in many ways from sweet to savoury.
Personally Im currently reading every book I can lay my hands on, researching old material on the subject and learning more about edible flower gardening but my journey is still a very new one. However it has completely captivated my imagination and my palate and in this episode Im really excited to share with you some of the things I’ve learnt, as well as my five favourite edible flowers for summer as well as some brilliant resources to enable you on your journey with edible flowers.
Quick history of edible flowers
Although it seems as though edible flowers have only just become a thing, the tradition of using edible flowers and petals in our food has a long standing history. In the 16th and 17th centuries using flowers was incredibly popular. We know that jams, jullies, flower infused vinegars, syrups, sugared flower pastes, flavoured drinks and crystallised flowers were all common place in the kitchens of that time.
Salads were particular en vogue too, the more elaborate ingredients the better! Leaves, roots, buds and of course flowers were all used in these salads and served as a centre piece on the table. In fact they even decorated the table itself with flowers, strewn across the tablecloth to add colour and interest.
Although the more elaborate and detailed recipes of the 16 and 17 C faded from popularity, using flowers in flavour wines and cordials carried on. Cowslip wine and elderflower cordial in particular kept its favour but a lot of the incredible uses for edible flowers were lost over time.
Nowadays there has been a real resurgence in the interest of edible flowers. Suddenly ground breaking chefs like Alice Waters have pioneered the way we approach our food and seasonal eating has brought the flower back onto our plates.
Which Flowers are Edible?
So where to start with edible flowers. Well first of all you’ll need to know what flowers are safe to eat. This is where it can get a little confusing. There’s just so many varieties and names that it can be a little off-putting when it comes to selecting flowers for use in the kitchen. I know that when I began it actually took quite a lot of reading in order to figure things out in this area. But now I can happily share a list of flowers that are edible and readily available. Im keeping the list relatively short because otherwise Id be here a long time but it does include the main flowers and ones that are happy enough to grow within Ireland and the UK. For the full list head over to my blog!
List of Edible Flowers (not exhaustive!)
- Alpine Pinks/Dianthus
- Apple Blossom
- Bee Balm
- Bitter Vetch
- Blackberry Blossom
- Cherry Blossom
- Chive flowers and buds
- Courgette flower
- Day Lily
- Evening Primrose
- Forget me not
- Lady’s Smock
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Verbena
- Lime Tree
- Rocket flowers
- Pea (not sweet peas!!)
- Pineapple Guava
- Runner Beans
- Sweet Cicely
- Sweet Rocket
- Sweet Woodruff
- Sweet Violet
- Tuberous Begonia
- Three Cornered Leek
- Tiger Lily
- Wild Garlic
- White Dead Nettle
How to Gather & Harvest Edible Flowers
When it comes to gathering some edible flowers for the kitchen there is a certain protocol to follow in order to get the best flavour and longevity from the blossom.
In general the best time to pick edible flowers in on a dry, morning-this is going to ensure that the flowers will taste and look at their best. Dont pick on rainy days as this will dilute flavour.
Shake off any bugs and insects but don’t wash the flowers which leads me to say that make sure you pick from unsprayed areas and away from roads for this very reason! If you’re growing your own flowers make sure you only use organic fertilisers too! And don’t eat shop bought flowers are they are almost certainly treated. Of course only harvest flowers that you are 100% sure of their identity and safety.
On larger flowers remove any pollen heavy parts such as the stamen and pistil, it’s also worth noting that some people can have allergies to pollen so do be careful! Now remove the calyx and green parts as this are usually bitter. This is easy enough on some flowers like borage but others like the rose is easier to just pluck the petals off unless you are crystallising the entire flower for appearances sake.
You can store edible flowers in the fridge for at least 3 days, sometimes more depending on the flower!
Ways of Using edible flowers
There are so many ways in which to use edible flowers including; Decoration, crystalilised, sugars, Honey, jellies, jams, stuffed, icecream, butters, Syrups, Oils, cordials, infusions cold and hot, Ice cubes, Salads, vinegars, in curd, sorbets, pickles, wines, gin,
How to Crystallise Flowers
Crystallising flowers is a wonderful and old fashioned way to preserve flowers and retain their shape and colour for longer than if using fresh. There are two main ways to do this. The more professional way would be with gum arabic which will give you a longer shelf life, otherwise using egg white and sugar is the classic method. This should preserve your flowers for a handful of days beautifully. Use crystallised flowers on top of cakes and biscuits or sprinkled over puddings.
1 egg white
50g superfine white sugar
To crystallise the flowers, prep the harvested flowers as above (ie. remove pollen parts, green stems and calyx as well as shaking off any unwanted guests!). Beat the egg white and place in a separate container to the sugar. Using a clean, fine paintbrush carefully brush each petal with a coating of egg white. Sprinkle with the sugar and place the flower or petal on a piece of baking parchment. Place this somewhere warm and dry like an airing cupboard until dry and crisp. This is will take around 12 hours.
Flower Sugar Recipe
Flower sugars are another lovely sweet way of preserving the flavour of edible flowers but of course you lose the appearance of the flower itself. Flower sugars can be used in baking, sprinkled over puddings or stirred into teas.
To make a flower sugar combine prepped edible flowers with sugar in a food processor and blitz well. Place in a kilner jar for around a week to let it infuse. Then blitz again and sift out any large plant pieces. Quantites will vary according to which plant you use. For example lavender can be pretty strong so you’d want to use less than with rose. In general though a good starting point would be 2 cups of caster sugar to 1/2 cup of flowers. For a better texture I would also advise drying the flowers before making the sugar. I haven’t done this every time but the moisture in the flowers can make the sugar stick together so bare that in mind!
Making Flower Vinegars
Flower vinegars are a brilliant way of keeping the flavour of edible flowers for a decent length of time. For a flower vinegar you want to use a strongly scented flower, so violet, elderflower, honeysuckle or herb flowers would be good choices. You can use whatever kind of vinegar you like best baring in mind vinegars have their own flavours too, rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar and balsamic are all good choices depending on what flower you are using. Flower vinegars can be used in dressings or in drinks or as a base for a pickle.
Edible flowers of choice
Good quality vinegar
Making a flower vinegar is so easy. Simply fill your jar with the flower and pour over the vinegar until the flowers are covered and there is a little gap between the vinegar and top of the lid. Place a round of parchment paper over the jar opening and then seal the jar as usual with the lid. Label with the flower, vinegar type and date and store for at least 2 weeks or up to 6weeks. Now that your vinegar has infused strain the flower material from the vinegar with a muslin cloth. Pour the strained vinegar into a clean jar, re-label and enjoy!
My Favourite 5 Edible Flowers for Summer
- Pelargonium- Scented geraniums are definitely one of my favourite edible flowers. They come in a huge array of varieties, many scented differently such as the Turkish delight Attar of Roses, zingy Orange Fizz or pepperminty tomentosum. It’s the leaves you will be using to impart those gorgeous scents although the flowers can be used too for decoration and crystallise really well. The leaves can be infused into icecream and custard. You can also use the leaves in cakes-line the base of a cake tin with the leaves and pour the cake batter on top and bake as usual. Peel off the leaves before eating. As a bonus pelargoniums are relatively easy to grow. Keep them in a sunny spot and they should keep you in flowers until autumn.
- Rose- Probably the most popular edible flower and for excellent reason. Rose with it’s fragrant petals has such an array of uses including crystallising, infused into honey, syrup, jam, sorbet, icecream, rose water, vinegar, butters, sugar, gin…The list is pretty endless! Not all varieties are ideal for edible use however, although they are all safe. Look for varieties that are heavily scented for the best syrups and sweet treats. I particularly like using the wild rose varieties such as Rosa Rugosa and Rosa Canina, these are easily cultivated in the garden too and while not as blousey as other roses they are heavily scented and lovely to cook with.
- Nasturtium- Moving to a more savoury edible flower, the stunning nasturtium is a must have in any garden and will grow happily in containers and windowsills too. It has spicy, peppery flavours that work brilliantly in butters, soft cheese, oils, dressings, vinegar, as a garnish, stuffing, pickled and in pestos. Nasturtium leaves and seeds are also edible making it a really versatile plant to have.
- Lavender- Lavender is one seriously strong edible flower so use sparingly! Enjoyable in both savoury and sweet dishes you can use lavender in sugar, sweets, jellies, sorbet, custards, oils, icecream, syrup, lemonade, vinegars, tea, in a provencal herb mix to go on meat. Lavender will grow best in warm, sunny positions and makes a lovely border plant.
- Borage- With small pretty blue flowers and a cucumber flavour borage is a handy edible flower to have in the garden. It’s wonderful frozen into icecubes, sprinkled through salads and used as a garnish, crystallised, on top of biscuits and you can also try the stems battered and the leaves chopped into yoghurt or as a tea with mint! Borage is a vigorous self seeder so once it’s in your garden you’ll see it pop up everywhere!
To wrap up this piece on Edible Flowers and ways to use them I want to share a few resources, from books to garden shops that will help kick start your own journey into the world of edible flowers.
Books- The Edible Flower Garden by Kathy Brown, The Creative Kitchen by Stephanie Hafferty, Petal, Leaf and Seed by Lia Leendertz, The Garden Forager by Adele Nozedar,
Garden Shops- Sarah Raven, Victoraina Nursery, Fibrex Nursery