Learning To Eat Wildflowers

Not all flowers are edible. Hunt and gather the right knowledge to make a wild salad.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Karen Lanier

I just ate my first wild salad of the year. It was a miniature salad, just enough to get a taste of the wild plants that are sharing their flowers with us this spring. My mini salad included a handful of dandelion and violet greens, along with a few flowers of each. I sprinkled on top a few tiny redbud and wild plum blossoms. Mixed with spinach greens and a light oil-and-vinegar dressing, the salad offered the freshest of fresh flavors.

Which Wildflowers Can You Eat?

As I ventured out to a local nature preserve, the wildflowers in bloom were less familiar. With some help from knowledgeable naturalists, I am learning to identify and appreciate the diversity of spring flowers that have been growing naturally for many centuries. I wondered which of these wild, native plants were offering up edible flowers to our ancestors and could be enjoyed (in moderation) today. In modern times, the hunting and gathering we humans do for food is more about researching than foraging. I’ve realized that rather than listing what’s edible and what’s not, it’s more important to teach the ways to figure this out for yourself.

Recognize What You Know

Learning to eat wildflowers usually starts with recognition. In a new situation, we instinctively look for what is similar to something we’ve already encountered. The first plant on the trail was Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Bluebells are in the borage family, and borage is a winner for many reasons in the permaculture world. Because I’ve eaten a borage flower before, I wondered if bluebell flowers are edible, too.

Hunt For Knowledge

This process is generally what I go through when determining if a wildflower is edible:

  1. Seek out a knowledgeable naturalist or wild foods expert.
  2. Consult edible wild plants field guides for additional information.
  3. Search online for reputable websites about wild edibles that cite their sources.
  4. Check out the sources cited for confirmation.

None of my sources knew for sure if bluebells flowers are edible, but Cherokee and Iroquois peoples use other parts of the plant medicinally for tuberculosis, to remedy poisoning and for venereal diseases. Only one cooking blog I found said the flowers are edible raw, so in my book, that’s not enough information to go on.

Tried & True

Part of the challenge for me is learning plants in an environment that is very different than where I grew up. I live in the Southeast now, but I am more familiar with Southwestern plants. On a recent visit to a botanical garden, I recognized one of my favorite treats: a yucca blossom (Yucca glauca spp.). The flower petals hold a moist, crunchy relief on a hot summer day. I’ve snacked on them while hiking, taking only one petal from a plant. Gourmet chefs sprinkle yucca blossoms into southwestern salads, along with squash blossoms.

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Yucca belongs in the Asparagaceae family, which includes our spring garden favorite: asparagus. One of the best things about learning plants in a new place is finding their associations. Wild asparagus is an example of an escaped cultivar, and I can see the resemblance to the budding stalk of yucca in its tender, delicious shoots.

Harvest Sparingly

My wild spring salad at home was small for two reasons: I didn’t take much, and I didn’t need much. I didn’t need much because the potent compounds in spring plants are strongly flavored and my digestive system is not yet attuned to their powers. I didn’t take much because there are so many reasons to leave the flowers untouched.

Enthralled with watching the busy little bees foraging alongside me, and pausing to notice many unidentified insects, I recognized that hungry pollinators need all the food they can get. Also, I want to see the flowers bear fruit and/or seeds, which won’t happen if I eat every blooming thing—a lesson to remember in our consumer-driven culture. If want to enjoy the heavenly perfume of the wild plum flowers, I’d generally rather go out and smell them than eat them. Plus, just seeing the vibrant floral arrangements filling treetop canopies and spreading ground covers brightens up my day. I can love them from a distance and I can sample them intimately; it’s a nice way to connect with my surroundings, tasting spring wildflowers as I ponder what will bear fruit.

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