Flowers have been eaten for thousands of years. The Romans, the Chinese, the Elizabethans, and the Victorians- all used blossoms in their cooking. Even a regular supermarket has flowers for cooking- capers are flower buds, Herbes de Provence contains lavender flowers and saffron the stigma of a type of crocus. For awhile in the 1980s there was a brief resurgence in the popularity of blowers as food; now, as more people are growing and cooking their own food, we’re seeing the trend again.
First, a warning: Only use flowers that you are SURE haven’t been sprayed with toxic chemicals or given systemic insecticides (as many roses are). Do NOT use flowers from the florist; a lot of their flowers come from all over the world and they have no way of knowing how they were grown. Unless a grower can assure you that the flowers were grown organically, use only flowers that you have grown yourself. Also, do not put the stamens in food; pollen is bitter and can be allergenic.
A lot of people know that rose petals are edible, having seen rose jams or tea, and possibly that you can put pansies and nasturtiums in salads. But there is a very large selection of edible flowers out there. In most cases, only the petals are eaten, although a few, like those in the pansy family and nasturtiums can be eaten whole.
Edible flowers need little in the way of prep; pick in the morning after the dew has dried but before the day is hot. Rinse gently in cold water and drain in a sieve, then place in the refrigerator. If the flowers have long stems, you can put the stems in water.
Most blossoms are not actually cooked into hot foods. The most popular use since Victorian times is to garnish salads – scatter the flowers on the salad after tossing, and let the diners put dressing on themselves so it looks nice when you serve it. Other popular modern uses include freezing blossoms in ice cubes to garnish drinks and add a little flavor, working the flowers into softened butter or cheese, or putting on or in baked goods. Lavender shortbread is especially tasty.
Here are some of the most popular edible flowers used today:
Herb flowers: The flowers of herb plants usually taste like the leaves that are normally used in cooking, but milder. Pretty much any of the common culinary herb flowers can be used; chives, oregano, thyme, basil and dill. These are good in salads, butter and cheeses as well as garnish for cooked dishes with the herb leaf in them, as a flavor echo.
Vegetable flowers: A number of vegetable flowers are edible. Pea flowers (NOT sweet peas, but edible peas), scarlet runner beans, arugula, broccoli, radish and of course squash blossoms can all be eaten.
Roses: All rose petals are edible, but the flavor varies with the variety and scent. Cut the white bit at the bottom of the petals off, as it’s bitter tasting. Roses have a long history of use in food; rose syrup has long been used in sweets, and rose jam shows up at high tea sometimes. They are also nice tossed over a salad or used in baked goods.
Pansies: The entire violet family is edible. Pansies, violas, sweet violets and Johnny-Jump-Ups can all be used in salads or be candied for ornaments on cakes. I like the look of pansies laid flat on the frosting of cakes. The sweet violet tastes sweet and perfumey; the rest of the family just tastes ‘green’. But they’re pretty.
All the fragrant plants in the dianthus family- carnations and pinks- have a long use in food. In Elizabethan times, pinks were soaked in wine to lend their clove taste to it. Spices like cloves were very expensive and hard to come by back then, so dianthus flowers were used as a stand in often.
Lavender flowers are most often used in baked goods, like the aforementioned shortbread, but it’s also used in ice cream and white sauces. The African spice mix Ras el Hanout uses lavender and roses along with hot chili peppers and a host of spices!
Nasturtium flowers and leaves are hot and spicy. The leaves make a good stand in for watercress in sandwiches, and the flowers are beautiful in salad. If they seem to hot for you, avoid the very back of the flower where it joins the stem. That’s the hottest part.
Most people are aware that dandelion greens are eaten, but fewer know that the flowers, if picked young enough (as buds, ideally) are sweet and taste vaguely like honey. They can be eaten raw or steamed.
Those are the most commonly used edible blossoms, but there are lots of others. Calendula petals add color to salads and even to things like pilafs; clover is sweet and edible but hard to digest, so it makes a better tea; annual bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus) is slightly clove tasting; lilac flowers can be sweet and make a lovely syrup but taste test before adding to things as the taste varies between varieties (the most fragrant ones are the best); chrysanthemums are used in salad (blanch the petals first) and to flavor vinegar but this is another one to taste test as the flavor varies; English daisies (those little guys that grow in the lawn) are edible but bitter so I don’t know why they’re used; begonia flowers of both the wax and tuberous types are edible and gorgeous in salads; and daylily petals are edible and can be stuffed with cheese or pate. Leave the base of the petals on the plate, though, as it’s bitter. They have a chewy texture that’s not for everyone, but they make a great presentation.
This list only touches the tip of the iceberg. For more information, there are pages on the web on the subject, and there is a new book out, ‘Eat Your Roses’ by Denise Schreiber, that lists 50 edible flowers, their flavors, and how to use them.