Grow: brighten up your diet with edible flowers

Roses, violets and dahlias all have a place at the tables, whether in salads or atop cakes

I’ve spent the summer eating flowers. Sweet William, aquilegia, cornflowers, elderflowers, scarlet broad bean and runner bean blooms, peppery nasturtiums, the yellow trumpets of courgettes, sunflowers, crunchy sea kale, jewel-coloured dahlias, juicy day-lilies, sweet dame’s rocket, pot marigolds, umbelliferous dill and fennel, sky-blue borage, fragrant rose petals, perfumed lavender . . . if it’s considered edible, then you name it, I reckon I’ve eaten it.

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting both Ballymaloe House and the nearby Ballymaloe cookery school in Co Cork where I ate even more flowers.

Who could have guessed that a sprinkle of coral-coloured dahlia petals and sky-blue cornflowers would make the perfect accompaniment to a goat’s cheese and home-grown peach salad, as used in the kitchens of Ballymaloe House? But I swear they do.

Or that the process of crystallising rose petals (these look wonderful when used to decorate a cake or garnish a pudding) is a surprisingly simple one that involves using a pastry brush to lightly paint each petal with a barely-there coating of fresh egg-white before gently dipping it in castor sugar and then allowing it to dry?


Easy peasy, as it turns out. Or at least, Ballymaloe’s heady pastry chef, JR Ryall, made it look so when he kindly gave us a practical demonstration.

Similarly, in the nearby cookery school, I saw chef Rory O' Connell showing students how to use handfuls of freshly-picked, edible roses to decorate the edges of an ice bowl filled with lemon verbena granita, and listened as his sister Darina Allen explained how fresh rose petals could also be used to make a delicately-flavoured syrup.

As at Ballymaloe House, all of the seasonal flowers used in the cookery school’s kitchens come from its organically managed gardens, freshly handpicked each day for maximum flavour and scent. This includes its ornamental potager garden, herb garden and double herbaceous border, where many edible flowers including pot marigolds, starry borage and pale lilac/golden heartsease grow en-masse.

An easy-to-cultivate low-growing hardy perennial in bloom from late spring until September, the latter is a cousin of the wild violet (Viola odorata), which along with the native primrose, Primula vulgaris, is a favourite edible wild flower in the kitchens of Ballymaloe.

Commonly known as ‘Johnny Jump Up’, its smiling, fragrant, bi-coloured flowers look and taste delicious, whether added to a salad, or used crystallised and used to embellish a cake. The plant also has a long history of use in herbal medicine where it’s valued as a purifying herb.

The same goes for the pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), an easy-to-grow, floriferous hardy annual with vivid, daisy-like blooms that can be single or double and which come in shades of lemon, yellow, burnt-orange and antique rose-gold. And don't get me started on the annual nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), which will grow like a weed in any garden where it's given berth, generously self-seeding every year to produce an abundance of fiery-coloured edible flowers that have a sweet, peppery taste reminiscent of watercress.

The flowers of its perennial relative, the tuberous Tropaeolum 'Ken Aslet' are also edible. Another Ballymaloe favourite is the lemon-scented flowers (and leaves) of the scented-leaf geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), a plant happiest when grown indoors on a sunny windowsill.

Not all flowers are edible, and some are poisonous, so make absolutely sure that you've correctly identified it before eating. Many edible annuals such as nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), annual cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), will do just fine in container as long as you give them a good-quality growing medium and keep them well-watered, as will any of the more compact biennials and perennials such as lavender (Lavandula officinalis), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), tulips and heartsease violet (Viola tricolor).

Other plants are happier with their roots growing in the ground, including roses, dahlias, day lilies, aquilegia, dill and fennel. Most are sun lovers but a few – primroses, violas, nasturtiums – will grow in light shade. Unless you're certain that they were grown organically, never eat flowers that have been bought in a florist or garden centre as they'll almost certainly have been treated with preservatives and cultivated with the use of potentially harmful chemicals. Similarly, only eat flowers from the garden or from the wild where you know that they haven't been exposed to poisonous chemicals or pollutants.

Some edible flowers (eg roses, lavender, primroses) are best suited to a sweet dish, and others (eg, oregano, nasturtiums) to a savoury course. Rather than using the whole flower (often a bit of a mouthful), it's often best to use individual petals separately. Always taste a sample flower before using it in a dish, as flavour can vary greatly according to the individual variety, the flower's maturity, colour, or even the time of year, while some flowers (for example those of Jasmine (Jasminum officinale) may be classed as edible but don't taste very nice.

This week in the garden
To get the pick of the best tulip varieties (also edible), place your bulb orders now. Stand-out varieties at Chelsea Flower Show earlier this year included 'Professor Röntgen' (apricot-orange), 'Paul Schoerer (near-black, with a silver sheen) and 'National Velvet' (burgundy-red). Recommended Irish online suppliers include Mr Middleton ( and Beechill Bulbs (; good UK-based suppliers include Peter Nyssen (

Flopping, yellowing foliage on onion plants is a sign that it's time to harvest. Wait for a sunny day to do this before placing the bulbs under cover (in a shed, polytunnel, glasshouse, sunny porch or conservatory) for a few weeks to dry.

Spread them out as a single layer to allow for good air circulation. Once dried, onions can be plaited into bunches and stored somewhere cool but frost-free to use as required.

Sow some hardy annuals this month to flower next summer. Autumn-sown plants will be larger, more vigorous, floriferous, earlier into flower and longer flowering than their spring-sown equivalents. Suitable candidates include Love-in-a mist (Nigella), the annual cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), Sweet scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea), White lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora), Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica), honeywort (Cerinthe purpurascens), opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) Ammi majus and Ammi visnaga.