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A Feast of Flowers - An Epicure's Guide to Edible Flowers

by Kathy Corey and Lynne Blackman
Flowers have held an eminent place in our art, religions, pharmacopoeia, and kitchens since ancient times. Tangled pea vines and primitive roses are depicted on Bronze Age artifacts. Mustard flowers were included in Roman love potions for their aphrodisiac powers.

The Renaissance cook did not confine flowers to vases. In the fourteenth century, peony roots were deemed a food fit exclusively for kings. Carnations and dianthus were so important that an entire book was written about them. Tansie, a type of sweet omelet, could be colored purple with violets or yellow with cowslips and marigolds.

The herbalist Gerard suggested in 1597 that "oregano is very good against the wambling of the stomacke." Daisies steeped in wine with sage and southernwood were considered a cure for insanity if the patient drank this mixture for fifteen days. In medieval times a bath of aromatic thyme was thought to cure hangovers and restore bravery and vigor to exhausted soldiers.

Edible Flowers

Flowers add romantic history to our food. They lend a charming, healthy, and unusual dimension to our tables. During Queen Victoria's reign there was a Primrose Day. A fanciful recipe for fairy cups called for a peck of flowers pounded with ladyfingers, three pints of cream, sixteen eggs and a little rosewater, buttered and baked with sugar on top.

Edible petals are easy to grow at home. They have become readily available at produce stores and farmers markets. Their flavors range from sweet to snappy and they compliment everything from artichokes to zabaglione.

Our simple glossary describes their taste and appearance, and how to prepare them. When trying other varieties refer to a horticultural guide to be sure they are safe to eat. Edible flowers should be grown without the use of pesticides. Check with your source before using.

Flowers are affordable trend setters; they can be used in unexpected ways.

Edible Petals Glossary

Anise Hyssop - These fuzzy, finger-sized mauve flowers add an anise undertone (think licorice) to green leaf or fruit salads. Easily grown as a pot herb.

Basil - This valuable kitchen herb produces bracts of tiny white flowers on green or purple stems which you'll want to snip immediately to avert the plant's setting seed and the loss of aromatic oils in its leaves. Toss basil blossoms in your salads or plunge them into herb vinegar.

Borage - Carefree azure flowers with a star-shaped black center and a clear white eye. Grow in a cool season garden. Leaves and flowers lend a faint cucumber essence to iced drinks and salads.

Calendula or Pot Marigold - Use the mild orange and yellow petals when you want a sliver of sunshine in a salad. Cooked, they acquire a strong, somewhat acrid flavor. They may be used as a saffron substitute. Available in markets and rewarding in flower borders.

Carnation, Clove-Pink, and Dianthus - As fragrant as their names suggest Clip away the bitter white ends at the base of the fringed petals and use them in fruit salads, vinegar, or in syrups.

Chervil - If you are lucky enough to have this feathery herb in flower, toss the mild anise scented umbrellas with field greens. Fine baked with fish or in any bean dish. Well worth growing as a shade herb.

Chives - These rosy, onion flavored pompoms, a little larger than a pea, flowered in Charlemagne's garden. Cultivate on a sunny windowsill or in a permanent planter.

Cornflower or Bachelor's Button - A wreath of cornflowers found beside an alabaster drinking cup in King Tut's tomb had retained its blue for thousands of years. Add these cartwheels of color to a picnic salad or steam as a mild vegetable.

Cowslip or Primrose - The legendary sleeping place of fairies and an integral part of ancient May Day ceremonies. In the northern United States their round yellow faces are a welcome sight in lowlands as the last snow melts. Add them to salads, pickle the flower buds, cook as a vegetable, or ferment into a tangy old-fashioned wine.

Daisy - Small, whole flowers of wild daisies are perky and tasty in salads. Their buds may be pickled like capers. Use only the tender petals.

Dandelion - Or course! All parts of this common yard-flower are zesty and edible. Use the butter-colored flowers in salads or cook with their leaves.

Day Lily - A tradition in the cuisine of Central Mexico. Use as a daytime garnish (they close their petals at sunset). For the novice gardener, they require very little time and care.

Geranium or Pelargonium - Scented leaf varieties can be used to flavor teas, pastries, cakes, and jellies. Add petals to salads for a splash of color.

Ginger - A taste of the tropics. The white variety is heavily fragrant and gingery on the tongue. Petals may be eaten raw, or you can cook the tender young shoots.

Gladiolus - This tall garden favorite is an overlooked addition to salads. It may also be cooked like day lily. Gratifying to grow and widely available.

Hibiscus - Vibrant, semi-tropical flowers which may flavor and color a beverage, be eaten raw, steamed, or made into pickles. Lemony, tart flavor. Dried red blossoms are available in oriental and Mexican markets.

Lavender - Resiny flower heads are at home in cooked meats, outstanding in homemade vinegars, or distinctive in a mixed green salad.

Lilac - These feminine flowers may be eaten raw, folded into batter, or crystallized with beaten egg whites and granulated sugar to top a dessert.

Lotus or Water Lily - Float some petals in a soup. A succulent vegetable choice in the Far East. They may be found pickled or fresh in oriental markets.

Malva - All of the malva family (hibiscus, lavatera, mallow, okra) are a bright garnish. Powdered marsh mallow root was the original thickening agent in the popular confection. Today the name remains, but the root has been removed.

Marigold - A present day and ancient substitute for saffron; the spicy leaves and rich golden petals may be chopped and used in salads. Cultivars with lemon or tangerine in their names have a citrus flavor.

Mustard - Yellow and pungent as the name implies. A wild favorite for the gourmet kitchen.

Nasturtium - From the Latin for "twist the nosetÓ Its peppery flavor is as exciting as its circus of colors: a parade of red, yellow, orange, and maroon. Pickled buds are a classic caper substitute. The novice gardener's dream flower.

Orange Bergamot - This mint has a small pink-white flower and an intense citrus-mint flavor. An adventurous addition to salads, vinegars, herb mustard, or cooked vegetables.

Oregano and Marjoram - Use prudently; the tiny rose or white blossoms contain the same oils as the leaves. They flourish rampantly in a sunny garden.

Pansies and Violas - Decorate salads, table settings, and desserts with their smiling faces. They contribute a guileless charm to your presentation.

Peony - In China the fallen petals are parboiled and sweetened as a tea-time delicacy. Blown petals add haunting perfume to a summer salad.

Plumeria or Frangipani - Toss these pristine, honey-sweet flowers in your salad, cook them in candy, or dry them for an exotic tea.

Rose - Deservedly the queen of flowers, her taste is pure fragrance. Clip the bitter white end from the base. Toss all colors in salads, steep them in vinegar, or dry for tea. They can be crystallized, candied, minced for conserves and red rose sauce, or made into your own exotic rosewater.

Sage - The colorful blooms of the garden varieties are as pungent as the leaves.

Savory - These tiny purple flowers are evocatively named. The flavor of both summer and winter savory is intense and similar to thyme.

Squash, Pumpkin, and Zucchini - Young flowers of all the table varieties of this large and useful family are delicious boiled, stuffed, baked, grilled, or batter-fried. A legacy of pre-Columbian culture in Latin America, reappearing in nouvelle cuisine.

Sunflower - Immature flower receptacles can be steamed and served like artichokes. Grill the young petioles with olive oil and salt. Boiled petals are a source of yellow dye for the weaver and paper maker. Watch farm stands and specialty markets for new varieties.

Tagetes lucida - This relatively recent introduction to our global pantry is also called Mexican tarragon. The aromatic leaves and zippy, yellow-gold blossoms are infused with an anise-licorice scent that is a joy to crush or brush against. It grows like the weed it is, filling patio pots with year around color.

Thyme - Snip the tender flowering tips of this culinary staple and mince them into your green salad or serve judiciously with fruit.

Tuberose - Individual florets are used by the Chinese in vegetable soup. It is primarily appealing for its redolent nectar scent.

Violets - So lovely and appealing they need no description. Both flower and leaf are edible. Candied flowers brushed with egg white are elegant enough for a bride's cake.

Yucca - Known as Navajo bananas, the fleshy, ivory white blossoms of most species can be braised, batter-dipped, or roasted. To avoid bitterness trim stamens and cook. A southwestern delicacy used in Native American cooking.

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