Asking For A Friend: Can I smell my flowers and eat them too?

Geraniums, honeysuckle, marigolds, and lilacs are just a few of the flowers that are not only beautiful to look at, but also can be a tasty addition to a salad.

Karen Hawthorne 5 minute read May 27, 2022
Edible flowers, field pansies, violets on white plate. Grey background. Top view.

Flowers are so much more than just pretty to look at and nice to sniff. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I have a beautiful garden with a ton of flowers that are apparently edible. I am curious about which ones I should try first… Pansies? Lavender? Rose petals?

Signed, Feel Like Eating Some Flowers

Dear Feel Like Eating Some Flowers,

Let’s start with geraniums, honeysuckle, marigolds, and lilacs. Those beautiful blooms in your garden can be tossed into a fresh, spring salad to elevate your lunch or even impress your guests.

Flowers are so much more than just pretty to look at and nice to sniff. With the right know-how to identify, source and use them, flowers can be used in many dishes, from baking and brewed teas to other thirst-quenching beverages: consider a sprig of mint for a tall mint julep or adding pansies to ice cubes to add a kick to your sparkling water.

There’s a long tradition of using orange blossoms and rose petals in health-promoting Mediterranean and Indian cuisines, for example, and harnessing flower power is reputed for impressive nutritional benefits, too. Researchers from the University of Pisa, Italy recently reviewed a number of scientific studies for the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, pointing to the high antioxidant activity found not only in the floral tissues before ingesting, but also after the digestive processes, suggesting a “prolonged bioactive effect of the various phytochemicals.”

Chrysanthemum flowers, for one, have been proven to have anticancer properties, the researchers highlight. And antioxidant activity, in general, is ideal because it slows down cellular aging to help stave off serious problems like heart disease and diabetes.

Flowers could be the new vegetable

So the idea that flowers are a “new vegetable” in the food chain — and in your daily or periodic diet — is something to get excited about.

Desiree Nielsen is a registered dietitian in Vancouver and author of plant-based health guides and recipe books, Eat More Plants, and the new Good for Your Gut Cookbook. She is on a mission to help people eat to improve digestive health (Check out the peanut ginger macaroons for a pick-me-up snack or simple dessert, they’re one of her favourites).

“Living a healthy life and eating food that you love are not mutually exclusive,” she says of the plant-based diet she recommends and swears by for herself. “For a healthier body, we need to have a really strong and robust gut microbiome, which is the collection of bacteria that live in the digestive tract.”

She refers to the American Gut Project — a study that is looking at the gut microbiomes of people around the world. “It tells us that people who eat more than 30 different plant foods a week have healthier, more diverse gut microbiomes than people who eat fewer than 10. What I love about exploring things like edible flowers is that it’s one more way to bring variety into your plant-based diet.”

Nielsen also says that about 70 per cent of our immune activity is centred along our digestive tract, so adding some petals to your salad or savoury pizza is a way to boost your body’s natural defences.

Discover the deliciousness of the humble dandelion

And while pansies, lavender and rose petals are all good choices, her go-to favourite is the one that many consider a scourge: the humble dandelion. Every part of the dandelion is edible raw or cooked, including the flower and the roots, and dandelions have a longstanding history of use in traditional medicines. The leaves in particular, have lots of folate, potassium and vitamins, she says. “The blossoms are really versatile. So actually on my counter right now, I have dandelion flowers steeping in apple cider vinegar to create an infused vinegar for summer salads.”

There can also be some really bitter flavours in flowers that are great to add to your diet. Use the more bitter dandelion leaves, for example, and add a milder leaf like spinach to whip up a quick pesto with olive oil, garlic and a nut or seed. Pine nuts are classic, but also try walnuts or hemp hearts, Nielsen recommends.

“One of my biggest tips for people in the kitchen is to taste your ingredients before incorporating them,” she says. “So if you take a bite of a petal and if that tastes nice to you, then you can incorporate it more freely into your dish.”

Safe flower eating

There are important considerations with flowers for safe eating — you wouldn’t take the blooms from a florist’s bouquet for your meal prep, for example. Shop for edible flowers in the produce section of the supermarket or market stand, and be careful when you’re foraging outdoors.

“The number one thing is to take care where you’re gathering any of these flowers,” advises Nielsen. “Make sure that it’s free of garden chemicals or animal waste. And don’t gather flowers by the side of the curb, even if they’re growing there because they’re likely very dirty and there may be some runoffs from cars.”

Even if you’re harvesting from your own backyard, always make sure to wash them well. And, “If you’re not absolutely sure of what a plant is,” she says, “don’t pick it because not everything is edible.”

 

Karen Hawthorne is a Toronto-based writer.
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