By Dr. Mercola
Flowers have a special place in gardeners’ hearts because they bring a profusion of color, contrasting patterns and fragrances to living spaces. But several varieties are not only visually appealing but have culinary value, as well.
Soups, casseroles, salads, roasts, desserts, jellies and cold drinks all gain additional flair when a well-placed arrangement or subtly flavored bloom is part of the dishes’ overall appeal.
Edible flowers range from those you may have already known you could eat — such as chives and mustard blooms — to exotic blooms once thought to be purely ornamental.
It’s almost always recommended that you trim away the white base of flower petals, which can be bitter, but entire Johnny-jump-ups, honeysuckle, violets and clover can be consumed. Gladiolus flowers, tasting a little like lettuce, can be tossed in salads. Hibiscus evokes a citrus-like cranberry essence good for salads or dried to make tea.
Tulips, roses and dahlias, for instance, besides being used by bees making honey, are once again gaining popularity in the kitchen, as they have at intervals over the last 100 years, and even in ancient Roman and Middle Eastern and Chinese cultures.
Roses are traditionally known as an ornamental, but Romans used them for creamy purée dishes, often with fruits and vegetables. Marigolds (Calendula officinalis L.) were used in sweet omelettes called tansies and also in salads and with cheese.
Tinting foods a lavender hue using cowslips was also popular in Renaissance Europe. Peony roots were set aside for the exclusive enjoyment of kings in the 14th century, and carnation petals served as the secret ingredient for Chartreuse, a French liqueur, in the 17th century. Epicurean says:
“During Queen Victoria's reign there was a Primrose Day. A fanciful recipe for fairy cups called for a peck of flowers pounded with ladyfingers,  pints of cream, sixteen eggs and a little rosewater, buttered and baked with sugar on top.”1
Flowers and Their Uses in Food
Just as flowers were used as a garnish and part of the flavor essence on top of cheeses, they’re used today for a number of delicately flavored foods, from soups to salads. It’s best to collect them in the cooler morning hours. A very small sampling of flowers used in food includes:
Marigolds can be spicy, bitter, tangy or peppery, with a taste reminiscent of saffron (aka poor man’s saffron).
The petals are the only edible part, range from yellow to orange and can be used in soups, salad, herb butters and more.
Clover (trifolium) has a sweet, anise-like taste, always best picked fresh with no signs of browning.
Folklore held that clover blossom tea improved nail growth, gout and rheumatism.
Native Americans used whole plants in salads and a tea for colds and coughs.
Pansy petals impart a vaguely sweet, grassy essence, while using the entire flower introduces a more wintergreen flavor, useful in fruit salads, desserts, soups and salads.
Dame’s Rocket (not rocket, a leafy green) has white, lavender and purple flowers.
Resembling phlox, it grows in such profusion it’s considered invasive.2
Related to mustard plants with radishes, cabbage and broccoli, it’s somewhat bitter, which adds punch to salad.
Queen Anne’s Lace has a flavor similar to carrots, because that’s its heritage.
The flat-topped cluster of miniscule white blooms is lovely in soups.
Note: It has a hairy stem, but similar plants with smooth stems are known as hemlock, one of the most poisonous plants in the U.S.
Begonia leaves, flowers and stems of the tuberous version impart a sour citrusy flavor.
The stems can even be stand-ins for rhubarb.
Due to the presence of oxalic acid, they’re not recommended for people with gout, inflammatory diseases or kidney stones.
Day Lilies have a flavor ranging between sweet lettuce or melon and asparagus or zucchini, with a slight sweetness.
They’re beautiful as a garnish, in desserts or in spring salads.
The shoots can be used as an asparagus substitute. Note: Day lilies may act as a laxative.
Honeysuckle flowers have a sweet, honey flavor, edible in various dishes, but don’t eat the toxic leaves!
Bachelor Buttons, aka cornflowers, are vibrantly blue flowers with a sweet, clove-like essence.
They’re usually used as a garnish, as well as a food dye.
Chrysanthemums come in shades of white, yellow, orange and red, with a faint spicy flavor like that of cauliflower.
After blanching (dousing with boiling water for just a few second) use them in salad, stir fries or to flavor vinegar.
Carnations, aka dianthus, are surprisingly sweet and work well added to desserts or as a fragrant garnish.
The flavor may put you in mind of nutmeg or clove.
Hollyhocks, or alcea rosea, are well-known for their vibrantly colored flowers that range from pink to deep purple. These flowers may be added to salads or brewed as tea for a refreshing beverage.3
Studies on Nutritional Flower Power
New information concerning the composition and nutritional value of edible flowers offers even more of a sufficient basis for including them in recipes.
One study tested 12 flower species and found antioxidants, phenolics and flavonoids, with mineral content found in chrysanthemum, dianthus and viola, with high amounts of potassium, as well.4
A study5 at the Polytechnic Institute of Braganca in Portugal examined the nutritional aspects of flowers. Scientists used infusions and petals of roses, centaurea, marigolds (calendula) and dahlias, already known in the scientific world as having carotenoid content.
Marigolds netted high concentrations of polyunsaturated fats, like linolenic acid and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). Rose petals contained the highest amounts of total proteins and organic acids, while centaurea, with about 450 subspecies of annuals, biennials and perennials, had the lowest percentage of saturated fat.
According to the National Gardening Association, roses, especially the rose hips, are high in vitamin C, as are marigolds and nasturtium. Dandelion blossoms contain both vitamins C and A.6
Flowers We Know as Vegetables
Artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower are actually flowers. Artichokes, of course, look very much like a flower with green petals and are a popular salad and soup ingredient. Primrose, aka cowslip, can be cooked like a vegetable, and the flower buds can be pickled.
Broccoli and cauliflower florets have bunches of tightly grouped buds, which are both eaten either cooked or raw in numerous dishes. If left in the garden longer, those buds would open into miniscule flowers with a mildly spicy flavor, making a surprising and tasty addition to salads.
Squash blossoms grow on the ends of zucchini in loosely twisted swirls topped with bright yellow. Arugula, a frilly, leafy green that’s also called rocket, bears small white flowers that work well in tossed salads or on sandwiches.
Generally speaking, the flowers of most vegetables and herbs are edible, but it’s always a good idea to do your research first, because occasionally exceptions to the rule could make you sick, such as eggplant, peppers, tomato, potato and asparagus blossoms.
Saffron, a costly spice, is the stamen from the crocus flower. The unopened flowers of native Mediterranean and Asian plants called Capparis spinosa and Capparis inermis, which we know as capers, are popular buds that are salted and pickled for tartar sauce or other seasonings.
Radish flowers and shoots in salad taste a little like radishes themselves. Squash blossoms remind you of the flavor of the vegetable and can be stuffed like bell peppers.
Warning: Not All Flowers Are Edible
As delicious and nutritious as flowers may be, caution is advised because some of them can cause headaches, rashes, nausea or worse.
• Lily of the Valley — The flower with the botanical name of Convallaria majalis is nearly universal, with its pure white, bell-shaped flowers and red berries. But if it should be ingested, it can cause vomiting and stomach cramps.
• Monkshood — With the botanical name Aconitum (aka devil’s helmet and blue rocket), monkshood is found in western Europe and makes at least honorable mention because this vibrant purple blossom is one of the most poisonous flowers on the planet. One article explains of the plant:
“Containing large quantities of the deadly poison pseudaconitine, ingestion of monkshood leads to almost instant death, while even merely touching the plant with bare hands can lead to numbness, cardiovascular hypotension and asphyxia.”7
• Ageratina altissima — From North America, this snowy white, delicate plant called white snakeroot contains tremetol, which is so toxic that all it takes to kill someone is to drink the milk from a cow that ate the plant. Trivia: “Milk sickness” may have caused the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother.
• Foxgloves — A favorite in old-fashioned gardens, with a beautiful profusion of bell-like flowers on tall, slender stalks, foxglove causes a wide range of symptoms, such as tremors, an irregular heartbeat, nausea, convulsions and delirium. The entire plant — roots, flowers and even seeds — is so poisonous it can be deadly.
• Autumn crocus — Originally from England, this lovely and familiar low-growing flower contains a toxic chemical called colchicine, which causes a burning sensation in your mouth and throat, diarrhea and, in worst-case scenarios, heart attack, kidney failure and even death.
Tips for Using Flowers in Your Culinary Endeavors
If you want to serve a dish that rarely fails to impress, flowers do bring added panache and elegance. But knowing a few key tips might help deliver the success you’re looking for.
- Keep the dish simple. An overabundance of flowers might introduce flavors that are too intense, overwhelming the flavor of the food, when your goal is to enhance. Further, certain flowers can cause digestive problems in some people, which is another reason to use flowers sparingly in your dishes.
- Never use flowers you find on the side of the road, because those are more likely to have been sprayed with chemicals.
- Only use flowers you can positively identify. It’s not a good idea to “hope” you have the right species — safe is always better than sorry.
- To clean edible flowers, shake them to rid them of insects. Remove the stamen, the tiny, dusty-looking and pollen-producing anthers at the top of the delicate filament, as some people are allergic, then wash the blooms in a bowl of water, drain using a colander and place them on a paper towel.
Allow them to dry quickly (but out of direct sunlight or heat) to retain their flavor and fragrance. If they look a little wilted, let them float on ice water for a few minutes or place the whole flower in the refrigerator overnight.
Rose Petal Tea, Blossom Ice Cubes and Flower Butter Recipes
Rose Petal Tea
- 2 cups of fragrant rose petals from about 15 large roses
- 3 cups of distilled water
- 1 tsp. honey or stevia for each cup
Make sure the roses are free of pesticides, but keep in mind that if they come from a florist, garden center or nursery, they’ve most likely been exposed to pesticides. Clip the bitter white bases from each petal and discard. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Place the rose petals in a small saucepan with the water over medium-high heat. Simmer for five minutes or until the petals become darker. Remove the petals and strain the water into four teacups, then add the honey or stevia.
Blossom Ice Cubes
Gently rinse your blooms. Boil water for two minutes for all the air to escape. Set aside to cool to room temperature to ensure they’ll be crystal clear. Place a small blossom in the bottom of individual ice cube tray cells, then fill each cell halfway to the top and freeze. When the water in the tray is frozen solid, fill each cell to the top with water and refreeze until they’re ready to use.
- ½ to 1 cup of washed and dried flower petals
- 1 pound of sweet, unsalted butter, room temperature
Chop the petals finely, and mix with the butter in a medium-sized bowl. Allow to stand at room temperature overnight, covered, for the flavors to meld together. Chill for a few weeks or freeze for a few months.