(ad-gifted) Edible flowers are making health news at the moment. Researchers in China analysed some of the flowers used in traditional cooking there and found they have very high levels of phenolic compounds linked to better health and a reduced risk of conditions like heart disease and cancer.
But, if you want to harness these benefits, you need to know how to use edible flowers, and do it safely… so, here’s a guide.
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Are Edible Flowers Healthy?
Well as the Chinese study shows, they definitely have the potential to be.
The reason is simple; the compounds that give any plant – fruit, vegetable or flower – its colour also contain compounds which, we are now discovering, improve health.
This is why blueberries are so good for you – the purple colouring contains compounds called anthocyanins which have antioxidant, and other properties, that act on the body in positive ways. The same benefits come from the pigments that turn flowers purple, blue, pink or yellow.
Edible flowers haven’t been studied as thoroughly as fruit and vegetables so it’s not been determined exactly what positive compounds edible flowers contain but we do know some of the helpful items. These include
Chlorogenic acid: This is one of the compounds that make coffee healthy (yes, in sensible doses coffee is healthy, don’t believe the hype – and that even goes for instant coffee). Clorogenic acid is believed to positively affect insulin levels and blood sugar. It also may help cholesterol.
Gallic acid: This is a powerful antioxidant which also seems to have anti-inflammatory properties. You can find more benefits of it here.
Rutin. This known to help strengthen the walls of the capillaries but it’s another powerful antioxidant and may play a role in protecting brain health. You can read about rutin here.
Which are the Healthiest Edible Flowers?
This also isn’t known yet. As a general rule though, the darker the fruit or vegetable the more helpful compounds it contains… some studies have pinpointed some flowers that might be particularly potent.
One study, for example showed that Damask rose petals were particularly full of antioxidants, compounds that neutralise molecules in the body that cause damage.
Another study pinpointed marigolds, lavender and types of daisy as being particularly rich in helpful compounds.
What do Edible Flowers Taste Like?
Obviously, if I was going to answer this question, I was going to have to try some and I was told that THE people in the UK to buy your edible flowers from was Devon’s Maddocks Farm Organics.
Owner Jan Billington there was all too happy to send me a very pretty punnet to play with. I wasn’t sure what to do with them so I basically nibbled on them neat to start with then popped some in a salad.
The taste surprised me a lot. I was expecting them to be sweet (and some are) but on the whole, in this selection, they were actually peppery, spicy or bitter and very pungent.
Not a criticism but I wasn’t expecting their tastes to be so strong or so discernible. It was amazing. What was also fascinating was how different they all were.
The little white flowers were pungent and bitter, the red ones were a mix of sweet and sour that was like nothing I’d tried before.
I needed to know more so I got on the phone to Jan who was fascinating. So, in four simple questions, here’s your need-to-know guide to edible flowers….
Q: Okay Jan, I’m amazed and surprised at the variety of tastes I just experienced, how can this be?
Jan: If you think about it it makes total sense for the best to be in the blossoms. Flowers compete against each other to tempt bees. They need to show off or the bees won’t come back and so they’re going to load themselves up with goodness and taste. Interestingly, the smaller the flower the stronger the taste.
Q: So I’m guessing nibbling them neat wasn’t the best way to show this off, what can you do with them?
Jan: Traditionally flowers were eaten in all sorts of ways in the UK but using them as an ingredient out of favour; when they did come back it was as a ‘garnish’ usually discarded at the end of the meal. Only in the last year have chefs really started to experiment again.
For example, I was working with a chef the other day on a flower pesto, you can make jams, infusions, cakes and more.
Q: Can we just eat our way around the garden then?
Jan: No, some flowers are poisonous, others are just quite nasty. For example, I wondered why no-one was using a certain type of dianthus as dianthus are quite widely used in cooking, then I tasted one. Most dianthus are sweet and delicious, this one wasn’t.
Q: Which are your favourites?
Jan: There’s so many but I do like vegetable flowers like those from broad beans or runner beans. They’re like intense bursts of the flavour from the vegetable.
Why Do I Keep Banging on About Safety?
Over 30 different types of flower are edible (and by that, I’m talking about plants we think of as flowers, rather than the flowering parts of herbs, trees, fruits etc) – including some varieties of marigold, pansy, sunflower and nasturtium.
You’ll find a trustworthy list of edible flowers here but I can’t say enough that just heading out to the garden to pick a plant is not a good idea. Here’s why…
They might have been sprayed. Some gardeners will use fertilisers, weed killer and pesticides on their flowers which you don’t want to ingest – if you’re buying specific edible flowers they will have been grown without any added nasties.
Some flowers might be edible – but other bits of the plant like the sap, the berries, the stamen, stem or leaves aren’t. You don’t want to get confused or risk cross-contamination. And vice versa, you can eat a tomato – but tomato flowers are not edible.
You can be allergic to edible flowers. Be particularly careful if you are allergic to pollen, or onions, mustard or celery as some flowers are members of these families and you might also be allergic to those. To be safe, if you have any kind of food allergy, ask the seller before trying something.
Some plants look very alike. And their doppelganger is not something you should be eating. Queen Anne’s Lace, for example, looks like hemlock -and anyone whose ever read a book on witches knows that’s not something you want to be munching (seriously guys, it’s incredibly poisonous).
That’s why you should buy your edible flowers from a reputable supplier – or at least educate yourself thoroughly on what’s what – and there are some resources below to help you do just that.
Where to Buy Edible Flowers
As Jan said, simply picking your own flowers isn’t recommended unless you know what you’re doing – there have been some famous cases of folk using poisonous flowers on things like wedding cakes, smoothies and brownies (botanist James Wong has spotted heaps of these) so you really don’t want to mess around.
If you want to give eating flowers a try, therefore, you need to buy them from a reputable supplier. In the UK Maddock’s Farms is one of the best. Order them online at maddocksfarmorganics.co.uk
If you’re reading this in the US, have a look at Cherry Valley Organics.
If you’re in Australia you might want to try Petite Ingredients.
Grow Your Own Edible Flowers
You can also grow your own edible flowers.
Plant Theatre offers a kit which lets you grow a range of edible flowers including Nasturtium, Marigold and a Dianthus (hopefully a nice one!). Click here to see the Plant Theatre Gourmet Flower Kit – 6 Edible Flower Varieties to Grow. They also have a heap of other really fun home gardening kits you might want to check out.
If you use the RHS guide above to check which edible flowers are safe, you can also click on the Royal Horticultural Society Shop to buy plants or bulbs for the varieties they talk about. Or, head to the local garden centre.
Remember, if you’re growing flowers to eat, be careful what fertilisers and other products you use to help them along. For the same reason, don’t just nip to the garden centre and pick up a ready grown plant even if it is an edible variety – they won’t have been grown in a way that’s safe to eat.
Edible Flower Recipe Books
If you like the idea of edible flowers and want to try some more of them – or use them in different ways, you might want to check out one of these books below that give you heaps of ideas…
The Art of Natural Edible Flowers
This book by Rebecca Sullivan, cook and founder of natural beauty company Warndu, helps you find different types of flowers you can eat – and gives plenty of ideas of what do so with them including flower-based sauces, ice creams and drinks. Have a look at it here.
The Edible Flower Garden
If you do like the idea of growing the flowers before you eat them, then try this wonderful book which tells you how to pick, cultivate and cook with a variety of edible flowers. Click to see more about it.
If you’re looking to use edible flowers in cake baking, then this is the book for you as it explains what flowers work – and how to use them to the most beautiful effect.
It teaches you about using fresh flowers, but also how to press or crystalise edible flowers to make them last longer. Have a look at Botanical Baking: Contemporary baking and cake decorating with edible flowers and herbs here
So there you have it, the guide to using edible flowers safely. If you have any further questions, please pop them in the comments and I’ll try and get them answered for you.