How To Use Edible Flowers

How To Use Edible Flowers

Edible flowers can add a touch of colour to a plain green salad

There’s no easier way to perk up a boring looking salad than by scattering on a few brightly coloured flower petals, or just freeze some into an ice cube and drop into a long cool drink. If all you have in your salad drawer are a few leaves and some cucumber and celery just add some nasturtium flowers, they contrast really well with the green, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, some sea salt and fresh ground black pepper and you have a tasty inviting looking salad in minutes.

Borage flowers

Flowers as food were first used by the Chinese about 3,000 BC with the Romans using roses, violets and dianthus. They were also used by the Ancient Greeks, who liked to put violet petals in wine. Flowers featured in the ancient cuisine of South America, India, the Middle East where saffron, from the stigmas of Crocus sativus, has been used for centuries and the Ottoman Empire who came up with Turkish Delight. English dishes from about 1,000 years ago were decorated with calendulas and orange blossom. The Victorians were particularly fond of crystallised violets; but this use of flowers gradually faded out until a few years ago when fine restaurants started using blossoms to add colour to a dish.

Flowers are most commonly used fresh as a garnish, think borage flowers in your Pimm’s, but they can be used as a meal; stuffed and deep fried courgette flowers. They can be preserved by drying, infusing in vinegar or oil, crystallising or freezing in ice cubes. Some petals are toxic in large amounts, but a few scattered over a salad are perfectly harmless. Apple petals contain a cyanide-like substance, hemerocallis and borage can act as a diuretic and Viola tricolour contains saponins which are soapy compounds. They can be infused into desserts, lavender shortbread or ice-cream, used to decorate cakes or set into jellies to make a lovely pattern around the outside. Don’t serve petals to anyone who suffers from hay fever, asthma or severe allergies.

calendula flower

A small amount of petals go a long way so if you are just wanting a few for garnish picking from the garden is the most cost effective option as trays of flower heads from the supermarket can work out quite expensive. Pick the flowers just as they have opened fully and keep them cool and damp. Just use the petals and discard the stamens and pistils. When watering your home grown flowers water at the base of the plant in summer as water droplets can scorch the leaves in the heat of the midday sun. Growing them at home ensures that they are at their freshest when you use them and you know that they have not been contaminated with pesticides and growth hormones. If you have to use a pesticide at home use an environmentally friendly option or one specifically formulated for fruit and vegetables; make sure that you observe the withdrawal period before consuming. If you are foraging in the countryside try and gather the flowers from areas away from a main road as they can absorb high amounts of microscopic particles from besides a busy thoroughfare. Make sure you wash and dry the flowers well.

Make sure you can clearly identify any foraged flowers as some are poisonous and should be avoided. So steer clear of anemone, celandine, aquilegia, hellebores, clematis, cyclamen, daffodil, delphinium, foxglove, fritillaria, globe flower, hydrangea, iris, laburnum, doronicum, lily of the valley, lupin, marsh marigold, monkshood, morning glory, pulsatilla, periwinkle, adonis, hypericum, euphorbia tobacco plant. If you are unclear always check with a reputable identifier. 

blue primulas

Slight cucumber taste. Decorate cakes, add to salads, freeze in ice cubes to add to drinks, add to Pimm’s.

Slight peppery taste. Add to bread, salad and soups.

Mild onion flavour. Use in salads, soups, pasta and sauces.

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
Sweetish spicy flavour. Gives colour to salads and omelettes.

Courgette, squash, marrow and pumpkin
Slightly sweet taste. Serve stuffed, battered and deep fried. Try soft cheese mixed with fresh herbs and a little finely chopped chilli. Remove the stamens before stuffing.

Carnations, dianthus and pinks
Spicy taste, remove the white base of the petal as this is quite bitter. Use as a garnish.

Mild anise flavour. Decorate savoury dishes, especially good looking on a bowl of soup.

Can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Add to the sauce of fatty meats like duck and lamb. Can be baked in biscuits or made into ice-cream.

Marigold (Tagetes patula)
Citrus flavour. Ideal for incorporating into fish dishes. Only eat a few occasionally as they can be toxic in large amounts.

Peppery taste. Add to salads or any savoury dish as a garnish.

Pansy and viola
Tastes a little bit like lettuce. Use as a garnish or crystallise to decorate cakes.

Polyanthus and primrose
Use as a garnish for salads or crystallise to use as cake decorations.

Incorporate into a sauce to accompany pork or lamb.

Crystallise to use as cake decorations, freeze in ice cubes to add to drinks and arrange around the edge of jellies.

To crystallise flowers, gently beat the white of an egg until frothy but not stiff then paint the flower with the egg. Gently cover the flower in caster sugar then lay on a piece of greaseproof paper at room temperature until dry. Store in an airtight container. Make sure the flowers are washed and thoroughly dried before crystallising. 

Rose Thomas a Beckett

Thomas a Becket

Rose Petal Sorbet (courtesy Thompson & Morgan)

  • 115g (4oz) caster sugar
  • 300ml (½pt) boiling water
  • 3 large scented red or pink roses; petals separated and the white base of the petal removed
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 300ml (½pt) rose wine

Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water, add the rose petals and leave to cool.
When cool blend in a food processor and strain through a sieve.
Stir in the lemon juice and the wine and pour into a freezer container.
Freeze until frozen around the edges, turn out into a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth.
Re-freeze until frozen around the edges then whisk again.
Repeat this twice more until the sorbet is pale and smooth then freeze until firm.
Decorate with crystallised rose petals.

For more information, hints and tips on gardening just get in touch with our team in the Outdoor Plant department here in store.

Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.