We may grow ornamental flowers for their fragrance, their beauty or their ability to attract beneficial insects. But as for eating the blossoms we grow? Well, technically we already do consume certain edible flowers.
“Broccoli and cauliflower are just buds of flowers, so what’s the difference between eating buds and [eating flowers] once they open?” Brad Biren asks. Educated at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Biren has worked as a landscape architect and botanist.
Over the years, he’s also become a self-described flower eater. “I grow them and love to eat them, because it makes me feel like I am eating summertime itself,” he says.
Spicy nasturtiums and versatile daylilies aside, roses are one of Biren’s go-to recommendations for the uninitiated. “They’re a great beginner [edible] flower plant, because the petals are not fibrous and they kind of taste like you are eating perfume,” he says.
“It’s like a lettuce that almost dissolves in your mouth.”
When harvesting rose petals, be sure to separate them from the rose hips. “The rose hip—in that little globe at the bottom [of the bud]—can break your teeth,” Biren warns.
Ideally, you should pick roses to eat before their blooms fully open. Also, more fragrant rose species will pack a bigger culinary punch. Add rose petals to salads, candy them for dessert, or use them to make rose water or a simple rose syrup.
While plenty of flowers are edible, some varieties taste better than others. In her work, The Edible Flower Garden, Author Rosalind Creasy recalls, “I collected a number of modern lists of edible flowers and cautiously began my taste testing. Some were absolutely horrible!”
She continues, “For example, some marigolds have a slightly lemony taste, others are tasteless, but the taste of most falls somewhere between skunk and quinine.”
(Her early encounters with edible carnation petals were equally unpleasant.)
Nevertheless, both marigolds and dianthus (carnations) are among Biren’s favorite edibles. “Dianthus and marigold should be consumed [similarly],” he says. “Much like popping the cap off of a mushroom stalk, you break the petals off of the fibrous base of the flower that houses the seeds.” (That fibrous base section is where very bitter or astringent flavors can hide.)
Sunflowers are also edible, but stick to the ray flowers—the colorful petals arranged around the flowers’ central discs. “Sunflowers are not one single flower but rather an entire flower stalk [made up] of thousands of individual flowers spun around themselves,” Biren explains.
“The flowers in the central disc, which make seeds, are not typically pleasant to eat. The petalous flowers on the outside are ray flowers and they can be plucked and consumed.”
Borage flowers are Biren’s go-to for something light and refreshing. “They are the most beautiful azure flowers,” he says. “You put them in water with a couple of slices of cucumber peel, and it is heavenly.”
Whatever edible flowers you choose to grow, you should think carefully about your containers and pest management practices. “If you’re going to use a wooden, raised bed, make sure it doesn’t contain the preservative chromated copper arsenic,” Biren says.
“The other thing is not using galvanized steel for the [raised bed] brackets. Galvanized metal is a heavy metal that can harm people.”
He adds, “Even though plants do an excellent job of fixing—rendering the heavy metals inert—part of that is being taken up into their cells. So, let’s leave that in their cells and not eat those plants.”
Ideally, you should forgo pesticides, too. “The number one thing people do for integrated pest management for edible flowers is grow them in a contained system like a greenhouse,” he says. “And, so, those little packets you might see at the grocery store—those are all grown inside of greenhouses where they can control what animals are not there.”
Depending on when you harvest, you could end up with more than just pretty blossoms. Flowers that remain open outside for longer than a day or two could be contaminated by pathogens from birds and other animals. If you’re able, harvest flowers at the bud stage and then bring them indoors.
This may reduce your potential exposure to pathogens.
Picking short-lived flowers is another good option. “Pansies and violets … open up every morning, so, really how much contamination can they get in an hour or two outside?” Biren says.
“So, harvest them [right away.] Put them on a slightly moistened wet paper towel, lock it in a gallon-sized bag, and put it in the refrigerator. They’ll last about two days. Or you can always freeze them.”