Cultures as diverse as Asia, Victorian England, Greece, and India are known to have used flowers in their food. A renewed interest in their use is prompting cooks of all experience levels to grow flowers for use in their dishes. Whereas growing flowers for food is similar to growing them for beauty, there are some important differences.
Of course, there are rules about eating flowers. Not all flowers are edible, (some are quite toxic, in fact) and even those that are edible must have been grown without pesticides and the chemicals that are often used on conventionally raised ornamental flowers. This is why it's a good idea to grow edible flowers in vegetable and herb gardens where they have the same growing conditions as the other food plants.
Choosing the Flower to Grow
When choosing which flowers to grow for food, remember that some are poisonous. A good flower or herbal reference book is a valuable tool. If in doubt, find an herbalist or horticulturist who has experience with edible flowers.
Common edible flowers include nasturtiums, pansies, calendula, roses, and the flowers of many herbs, such as chives. Squash blossoms are traditionally used in Mediterranean cuisine and are delicious stuffed with cheese and sautéed. If you are not 100 percent certain that a flower variety is edible, do not use it until you have asked a reputable horticultural expert.
Choose plants from a local nursery that does not use pesticides, or grow from seeds. Transplanting flowers from the roadside or a friend’s garden should only be done if the plants have not been exposed to pesticides or other chemicals.
Planting and Watering
Whether planting flowers for food or their intrinsic beauty, they can be planted either in pots or the ground. In either case, use well-drained soil. Plant a variety of edible flowers together for aid in pest control. Make sure the flowerbed or pots are not located near any vegetation, garden, or lawn which will be sprayed with chemical pesticides.
Add an inch or two of mulch to keep down weed growth, aid in retaining moisture during the warmth of summer, and help prevent soil from splashing on the leaves and flowers during heavy rainfalls. To further minimize soil splashing and improve moisture retention, water the plants on ground level with irrigation or a soaker hose. This also reduces the potential of disease because water that sits on top of the leaves has the potential to weaken the plant, which in turn makes it more susceptible to different diseases.
Since these flowers are intended for consumption, avoid chemical pesticides. Use organic methods whenever possible. Pest populations can be reduced by encouraging the presence of helpful insects such as ladybugs and green lacewings. Planting a variety of flowers together will encourage different helpful bug species, resulting in the reduction of harmful pests. If chemicals are considered necessary, only use pesticides labeled for use on edible crops.
Harvesting the Fowers
Pick flowers in the morning after the dew has evaporated. For the best flavor, pick flowers that are fully open. Ideally, flowers should be used immediately after picking, but they can be kept fresh if put in a sealed container with a damp towel and placed in the refrigerator.
The petal contains the most flavor, and for some flowers, such as roses, lavender, and chrysanthemum, the petal is the only edible part. Remove the stamen and pistil unless they are known to be mild since these are most likely to cause an allergic reaction. Remove the sepal from all flowers other than violas and pansies. The white base of some edible flowers, such as marigolds and dianthus, is bitter and should be removed before using.