Edible Flowers

Mar 21, 2013

I bet that if you are reading this column you have already eaten edible flowers. Artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower—all common California-grown vegetables—are actually immature flowers. Perhaps you have tasted nasturtiums, a spicy addition to salads, or a favorite cook has prepared stuffed squash blossoms for you.

Many common flowers are edible. Growing some in your vegetable patch can brighten your meals as well as your garden.

Many plants produce edible flowers. I discovered a comprehensive list on Colorado State University Extension's web site (www.ext.colostate.edu). A short list of edible flowers includes roses, daylilies, most perennial herb blossoms and chrysanthemums.  As these plants are not generally grown in the vegetable patch, I am going to suggest some easy-to-grow edible flowers that you can include among your vegetable.

Before eating any flower, be sure you know what it is. A number of common garden plants have toxic flowers that should not be eaten. When eating a flower for the first time, you may not know if you or your guests will have an allergic reaction to the new food. Introduce new flowers in small doses.

Note that a flower may be edible but not tasty. This is especially true of plants that have many varieties, such as roses. All rose petals are edible, but some taste better than others.

March is a great time to add cool-season flowers to the vegetable patch. Nasturtiums are annuals that grow best from seed and flourish in our spring weather. Sow them now in average soil; if the soil is too rich they won't bloom. Keep them well-watered. When the weather gets hot, they do better in some shade and may stop growing. Both leaves and flowers are edible. The types with variegated leaves are particularly attractive in salads.

Calendulas are also easy to start from seed and have done well in my garden with little attention.  Even during summer, some plants usually survive and bloom. Because this plant self-sows readily, I have had continuous plants in my garden for several years. Only the petals are edible. Use them as a confetti-like garnish for salads, frittatas and rice dishes.

Violas, pansies and Johnny-jump-ups are wonderful cool-weather edible flowers. They come in a large variety of colors and color combinations, and nurseries carry many types for transplanting in early spring. Plant them in moist, rich soil and partial shade. They will tolerate light frosts; I have had good luck growing them in winter.  When the weather gets hot they will fade away. Their flavor is mild, but they add great visual appeal to desserts and salads.

When the weather turns warm, try some flowers that can take the heat. Marigolds are edible but many do not taste very good. However, the Signet marigold (Tagetes signata), also known as Gem marigold, has tasty, citrus-flavored flowers. Some named varieties are ‘Lemon Gem,' ‘Tangerine Gem' and ‘Red Gem.'

You will likely need to start these marigolds from seed, as transplants are not always available. Start seeds now in a pot for transplanting in late April or May, or wait until the soil is warm and start them directly in the ground. The plant grows into a one-foot-tall mound covered with half-inch to one-inch flowers. Give it ordinary garden soil, full sun and adequate water, and it will bloom well into fall. I think the lemony flavor of the blossoms complements fish dishes, and I have used the flowers to garnish tomato platters and lemon cookies.

Another summer plant to try in the cooler parts of the Napa Valley is runner beans. A relative of snap beans, runner beans have much showier blossoms with a mild beany taste. Most varieties are vining types and should be grown on some kind of trellis. Plant from seed in full sun after the soil warms. The plants will produce flowers and beans in a couple of months. As long the temperatures stay in the 80s, they will thrive. Because of their crunchy texture, the blossoms are great to top soups and as a garnish for bean dishes.

Once you start using flowers in your food, don't be surprised if your guests start taking pictures. Your edible flowers will turn an ordinary dish into an extraordinarily beautiful one.

Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on top navigation - Garden Questions?