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Taste Buds Bloom for Edible Flowers

In Teresa O’Connor’s flower garden in Boise, Idaho, one can find a variety of brilliant flowers, including aromatic English lavenders, bright pink apothecary roses and a sunburst of calendulas.

These flowers will be great additions to the dinner table. Not as centerpieces. As dinner.

Fried, sautéed or baked inside a cake, edible flowers are moving from the center of the table to the middle of the plate as more people introduce these colorful treats as ingredients in their kitchens. They come in a variety of flavors, from sweet dandelions to citrusy marigolds, and are convenient to grow.

“The whole idea that you can eat flowers just like vegetables and fruits is appealing,” says O’Connor, author of “Grocery Gardening” and creator of the blog “Seasonal Wisdom.”

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Apothecary Rose and English Lavender grow in Teresa O’Connor’s cottage-style garden in Boise, Idaho. (Photo Courtesy of Teresa O’Connor)

Not all flowers are edible, however, and diners should consume only those that have been grown with the intention of being eaten, experts caution.

The practice of eating flowers has been in and out of style for centuries. The Romans ate rose and violet petals, and the British added violets, primroses and nasturtiums to their salads during the Victorian era. Nowadays, Koreans make sweet pancakes called “hwajeon” with nontoxic varieties of azaleas or chrysanthemums, whereas the Chinese cook with day lilies and mums in stir-fries and soups. Edible flowers come in different tastes and flavors.

Nasturtiums have a peppery taste and are mostly tossed in salads and on top of pizzas. Roses, which have a sweet, floral taste, can be candied, made into jellies or strained to bake inside cookies, cakes and sweet breads. Calendulas, often known as “the poor man’s saffron,” can be chopped and added to soups and stews to enhance their slightly bitter taste.

Part of edible flowers’ appeal is their convenience. Nasturtiums, calendulas and borages are popular because they are cheap and can be easily grown in backyards, says O’Connor. Once seeded, the flowers tolerate most soil types and can bloom again the following year.

“Many vegetable and fruits are not worth the trials to grow at home, but edible flowers are easy,” says Amy Suardi, a mom of four from Washington, D.C., who blogs on her website “Frugal Mama.” “Animals and bugs don’t seem to be interested in them, so they’re one of the few plants we can grow and keep all to ourselves.”

Suardi and her children started growing their edible garden filled with nasturtiums and borages last year. The kids were delighted by the idea of eating flowers after they found a robust vine with pumpkin flowers growing from the seeds they planted around Halloween. They became addicted to fried pumpkin flowers, but have experimented with putting flowers in risottos, on top of pastas and in salads.

As edible flowers gain more followers, local farms are seeing a rise in seeds sales. Kitazawa Seed Co. in Oakland, Calif., recently added an edible flower seed mixture to its inventory because of customer demand, says Maya Shiroyama, co-owner of the company.

“More gardeners are discovering how beauty and food can go together,” says Tom Stearns, the president of High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vt., which produces and sells flower seeds such as calendula and German chamomile.

Younger people, in particular, are interested in growing their own produce, having been raised in a generation that cares about organic food, says Maree Gaetani, who works in community relations at Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington, Vt.

“Younger people are interested in cocktail gardening, growing flowers like peonies and hibiscus to mix in spirits and other drinks,” says Gaetani.

Kacie Saulters, a medical resident at the University of Virginia, was introduced to edible flowers last July after finding a package of squash blossoms in her “bounty basket,” a container full of handpicked fresh produce from local farms.

“It’s not every day that I eat flowers, so I had no idea what to do with them,” says Saulters.

After a bit of online research, Saulters, a native of Alabama, fried the flowers after stuffing them with ricotta cheese and served them to her friends. They were surprised to find the squash blossoms to be a great appetizer.

Chefs have also taken note by incorporating flowers with haute cuisine. Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.,  created various recipes using nasturtiums, including garden squash and nasturtium butter pasta, while Yannick Alléno, the Michelin three-star rated chef who runs Le 1947 in Courchevel, France, incorporates flowers such as borage in his creations. Ferran Adrià of the now-shuttered Michelin three-star restaurant El Bulli in Spain served a dish called “Nenúfars” or “Water Lillies,” a soup based in elderflower syrup with a nasturtium leaf and assorted flowers preserved in sugar.

“Good chefs are always concerned about their ingredients,” says O’Connor. “It’s that same feeling with flowers. How can you make the food experience more enjoyable, more innovative, more of an adventure?”

Still, edible flowers must be eaten with caution, says O’Connor. Some are poisonous or are sprayed with toxic pesticides.

Rosalind Creasy, the author of “The Edible Flower Garden,” from Los Altos, Calif., started what she calls “her religion” with edible flowers in the ’80s when her husband got an allergic reaction from eating a salad with primroses.

“All of the books said primroses are edible, but they didn’t say the Latin name,” says Creasy. “The edible kinds were not grown in the U.S., and I said, ‘OK, this is not something we should be playing with.’”

People should also never consume flowers from florists, since they’ve been sprayed with tremendous amount of pesticides not labeled for food crops, says Creasy. Flowers from nurseries should be bought with caution because most are not grown with the intention of being eaten.

The best way to grow edible flowers is to start from the seeds, she says. People can find list of edible flowers by calling their local University Extension Service.

“Flowers are a beautiful way to dress up salads or to add decorations on cakes,” says Creasy. “But it is important to not only know what you are eating, but where it is grown.”

Teresa O’Connor’s Calendula-Orange Biscuit

Makes approximately 10 biscuits

Time Required: 15 min

2 cups unbleached flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

petals from 8 calendula flowers (2 tablespoons)

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup organic milk

1/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice

1 teaspoon freshly grated orange rind

Step 1: Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Step 2: Combine dry ingredients, making sure calendula petals are mixed throughout.

Step 3: Using two knives, cut in butter until flour mixture looks like coarse crumbs.

Step 4: Stir in milk, orange juice and orange rind until well blended.

Step 5: Drop by spoonfuls onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake about 10 minutes until golden; brush butter on tops of biscuits a minute or two before taking out of oven. Let biscuits cool a few minutes before eating.

 

E-mail: ss4303@columbia.edu

March 10, 2013