Gorgeous flowers that are good enough to eat


URBAN FARMER:By far the most important thing is knowing which flowers are safe to eat and which, most definitely, aren’t, writes FIONNUALA FALLON.

I’M NEVER sure why, but eating flowers is generally seen as a slightly odd thing to want to do. Maybe it’s because it seems like an act of wanton vandalism (they look so pretty), or because, despite assurances to the contrary, there’s still that worry about edibility.

Overcoming some of these reservations is as simple as popping a nasturtium in your mouth – but by far the most important thing is in knowing which flowers are safe to eat and which, most definitely, aren’t.

You’ll be surprised by how many are, including those of wild plants, herbs and vegetables, such as the cuckoo flower, elderflower, bergamot, chives, and the blossoms of the courgette and runner bean.

In the OPW’s organic walled garden in the Phoenix Park there are also plenty of other edible blossoms to choose from, including carnations, lavender, chervil, chives and hemerocallis.

OPW gardener Meeda Downey admits that she hasn’t tried eating any of them yet. “But there’s always a first time,” she says cheerfully.

Some flowers, like nasturtiums, can be eaten straight from the plant without any further to do, or crystallised in sugar solution (primroses, violets, scented geraniums) while others will need to be cooked (tansy, milk thistles) or used to make an infusion (elderflowers, dried lime blossoms).

You can even use flowers to make jam (dog rose), wine (gorse, red clover, elderflowers) or champagne (elderflowers again), although the art of home-brewing does require a light touch.

Many years ago, I and some friends endured the self-induced misery of a night of mild hallucinations (I thought the family cat was talking to me) followed by a week-long hangover brought on by drinking some very mature, home-made elderflower wine. In the interests of fairness, I should point out that it was entirely our own fault, as we were warned not to touch the stuff, which was long past its “best by” date.

Perhaps the easiest way to begin eating flowers is to use them as a colourful addition to a salad. The fiery colours of the nasturtium look particularly pretty when used this way, as do purple violets, the star-shaped, sky-blue flowers of borage and the pale-yellow blossoms of salad rocket. But with bigger flowers – like scarlet bergamot, dahlias and those of French and English marigolds – it’s important to use only the petals, as the rest of the flowerhead can often be bitter or tough.

This is also true of carnations, tuberous begonias and roses. Removing the stamens and styles of flowers is also a good idea if you or your fellow-diners suffer from hay-fever or allergies.

Many people prefer to wash flowers before use, although this isn’t strictly necessary if you’ve harvested them from your own garden, and are confident that they’re free of herbicides, pesticides and insect life.

When picking them elsewhere, avoid obviously or potentially polluted areas, such as roadsides or public spaces.

In the wild, remember to always pick only very small amounts, as flowers and any subsequent seed are vital to the plant’s reproduction. Wrap the stems in damp tissue paper until you get the flowers home, and then put them in a small vase of water until needed.

Just as for harvesting vegetables, you should, ideally, keep the time between picking and eating to a minimum. If you prefer to wash flowers, do so very gently and pat them dry with kitchen paper. Always, always carefully examine each flower for garden pests and creepy-crawlies like aphids, spiders and slugs before serving – there’s nothing more appetite-killing than discovering a half-eaten earwig.

Finally, only add flowers and petals to salads at the last minute (after you’ve tossed in the salad dressing) so that the vividly-coloured petals don’t get bruised.

Once you’ve become accustomed to the general idea of edible flowers, it’s very tempting to try something more unusual. Try making an “ice-bowl”, using wine and plum-coloured rose petals, lavender and borage flowers, and the dainty white umbellifers of ground elder. Or you could use the brightly coloured petals of snapdragons, English marigolds and dahlias.

You’ll need two bowls (glass pyrex, ideally, so that you can see through them), one of which should fit quite snugly within the other, and an adequate-sized freezer.

Fill the larger bowl with water and a couple of handfuls of flowers, and then place the smaller bowl on top. Partially fill this with water also, to keep it stable and then tape it with duct tape to make sure it’s centred.

The idea is to sandwich the flowers in water between the two bowls, although you’ll find that they’ll try and float to the surface. Put the bowls in the freezer and wait a couple of hours. When partially frozen, gently poke the flowers further down into the water so that they’re more evenly spread out – you’re aiming for something that displays the individual flowers but also has a transparent quality. Leave the water to freeze solidly, which will take at least six hours.

When you’re ready to use it, take the bowls out and run them very, very quickly under a hot tap, which should be just enough to loosen them. You should be left with a perfectly formed ice-bowl, ideal for serving sorbets, ice-cream or freshly-picked berries from the garden. The only downside, if it is one, is that you’ll have to eat up – otherwise you’ll end up with a rather decorative puddle of water in the middle of your dinner table.

- While all the flowers mentioned above are considered safe to eat, correct identification is crucial and is the responsibility of the reader. Never eat a flower if you’re in any way unsure. Some readers may also discover that they’re allergic to a particular flower, so only ever eat very small quantities to begin with. For a more complete list, including all-important Latin names, consult The Edible Flower Garden by Rosalind Creasy,Wild Food by Roger Phillips or herbalist Jekka McVicar’sGood Enough to Eat: Growing Edible Flowers and Cooking with Them .

What to plant and sow this week

Sow outdoors

Broccoli (raab&Chinese); Beetroot; Dwarf French Beans; Dwarf Peas; Spring Cabbage; Raddichio (module-raised); Carrots; Cauliflower (autumn&Mini); Red & Sugar Loaf Chicories; Endive; Komatsuna; Mibuna &Mitsuna Greens; Kohl Rabi; Lettuce; Kale; Spring Onions; Swiss Chard; Pak Choi; Turnip; Radishes; Spinach; Winter Purslane; Many cut-and-come-again (CCA) seedlings (salad rocket, orache, salad rape, oriental saladini, saladisi,&tree spinach)

Plant outdoors

Broccoli (hybrid&sprouting); Calabrese; Brussels sprouts; Cabbage (summer, autumn & winter types); Cauliflower (Mini, autumn, winter & spring types); Lettuce; Leeks; Courgettes; Kale; Oriental Greens; Swiss Chard; Oriental Greens; Second-Cropping Potatoes

Next week, Urban Farmer will cover successional sowing in the vegetable garden

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer