Blooming gorgeous: The farm that sells flowers you can eat
Bumblebee Flower Farm supplies edible blooms for creative chefs across Ireland
Bumblebee Farm’s collaboration with chef Eddie Attwell has been a match made in heaven. Photograph: John Daly/Inspire Group
It was to be one of the stand-out events at this year’s Taste of West Cork Food Festival: a group of 30 people sitting around a long table set up in a polytunnel to have an eight-course tasting menu created by Eddie Attwell, the award-winning head chef at the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff.
But before the exquisite experimental food feast begins, guests are given a tour of Bumblebee Flower Farm by its founder and resident gardener, Mags Riordan. As we wander between polytunnels filled with marigolds, dahlias, roses and several varieties of mint, basil, borage and other herbs, Riordan offers us petals from nasturtiums, marigolds and dahlia petals, ornamental basil and mint leaves to taste.
“Seventy per cent of what I grow you can eat, but you can’t eat flowers such as sweet pea and hydrangeas. And some of the flowers, such as Peruvian lilies, that I use for cake decorations are edible but not very tasty,” she says.
Flower farming in what are often rain-soaked uplands of west Cork is not for the faint-hearted, but Riordan speaks nonchalantly about what must have been a mammoth task to create this flower farm from a blank four-acre plot on the side of a hill near Drimoleague.
“That was over 17 years ago. When we first arrived there weren’t any birds here, but when we started growing flowers, the birds and insects returned. Over the years, we’ve given over an acre back to nature,” says Riordan.
“It’s all about the pollinators. We will have beautiful pink moths here next summer,” she says, as she points out an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar on the underside of a willow herb plant. She also praises the work of slugs in the soil and sees insects as fodder for the birds and bees she welcomes on to her flower farm.
Visitors comment on how the outdoor flower beds have a mattress of grasses (aka weeds) underneath and there is a general sense of natural abandon amid the flower beds. Magnificent hydrangea bushes grow beside supported stands of delicately scented sweet peas that Riordan uses both for bouquets and edible flower orders from chefs in Cork and beyond.
“Not everything has to be pretty and regimented. I embrace the mess. I see the beauty in it,” says Riordan, who tells her visitors they are welcome to take seeds from any flowers already gone to seed on the farm.
A self-taught flower gardener, Riordan converted to growing and selling Irish flowers when, more than 20 years ago, she developed a severe form of dermatitis while working as a florist in Skibbereen. The skin condition has since cleared, and Riordan relishes the contact with nature. “I like my hands being in the soil. I need that connection but it’s tough when it’s rainy, windy and cold,” she says.
Bumblebee Flower Farm now supplies year-round flowers and foliage from her farm for weddings and other ceremonial events. Riordan began growing organic edible flowers as a commercial crop in 2015. She now uses about two-thirds of what she grows for bouquets, while the other third are sold as edible flowers. Edible flowers have to be harvested in dry weather, while flowers for bouquets can be cut in wet conditions.
Bumblebee Flower Farm won a Euro-Toques award in 2019 for sustainable growing practices and biodiversity. The farm also hosts flower-arranging workshops.
The farm’s collaboration with chef Eddie Attwell has been a match made in heaven. Attwell delights in creating new tastes flavoured with everything from nasturtium, dahlia and marigold petals to radish seeds, meadowsweet, lemon balm and mint.
“I’ve never met a chef before to have such an understanding of plants,” says Riordan. Attwell adds: “My grandfather grew vegetables and my father grew flowers and I guess I’ve been inspired by them both.”
Irish-grown snails (from the Gaelic Escargot farm in Co Carlow) were served in nasturtium petals and onion powder before Attwell’s exquisite taster menu. A gin cocktail with blackcurrants and lemon verbena and Bumblebee Farm floral Champagne were among the drinks served throughout the meal. If you’re enticed by what you’ve read, I’d advise you to book your spot for next year’s event soon.