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Just as many of the formal European landscapes were initially designed with food production in mind, it should come as no surprise that many of the flowers we grow today were chosen for the garden long ago not for their beauty but for their flavor and aroma.
Some of the most popular flowers, for ease of growing and culinary value, are: roses, calendulas, marigolds, chrysanthemums, violas, pansies, nasturtiums, sunflowers and shade loving wax and tuberous begonias.
The flowers of many common herbs like basil, rosemary and lavender are also edible. Apple, lemon and squash blossoms are safe to eat. Even the blossoms of snap, sugar and snow peas (Pisum sativum) can be eaten. However, do not eat the blossoms of sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) — these can be toxic.
It’s important to note that not all parts of edible flowering plants should be eaten or are tasty. Pollen in some flowers can cause allergic reactions. Thus, it is best to remove all stems, sepals (the small, green leaf-like parts below the petals), pistils and stamens (plant reproductive parts found in the center of the blossom) from the flowers and use only the petals.
The exceptions are violas and pansies — the entire flower is edible. If the base of the petal is white, cut this part off because it is often very bitter.
Always taste the flowers before adding them to any recipe. Growing conditions including soil type, fertilization levels and climate factor into the flowers’ flavors and you will want to make sure they are tasty.
Growing requirements for edibles are much like many ornamental flowers. They thrive in well draining soil amended with organic matter. They must receive at least six hours of full sun daily. Mulch the flower beds to keep the weeds down and maintain soil moisture.
During the warm spring and summer months the beds will need to be irrigated. A drip system is preferred so that the flowers and foliage remain dry. This lessens the incidence of fungal or bacterial diseases.
Do not use pesticides on any flowers you plan to consume or use as a garnish. The residue from pesticides can last a long time.
As a further precaution, avoid eating flowers from florists or nurseries as these plants may have been treated with preservatives or pesticides, since they are not labeled for food crops.
Harvest the flowers on the day you plan to use them. Pick them early in the morning when the outdoor temperatures are cooler. Place the cut flowers in water in a cool spot, or place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Do not wash the flowers until just before you are ready to use them.
Give the blossoms a little shake to dislodge any insects hidden among the petals. Remove the stamens before gently swishing them in a bowl of water. Drain and let them dry on paper towels.
The flowers will retain their color and fragrance if they dry quickly and are not exposed to direct sunlight.
Edible flowers on the plate make a visual delight, so garnish salads and soups with a few petals. Some flowers like lavender and bee balm (Monarda didyma) can be steeped in a solution of sugar and boiling water to make syrup to flavor drinks like lemonade.
Use moderation when adding flowers to foods as some of them have a diuretic or laxative effect if eaten in large quantities.
In the quest to add edible flowers to meals make sure that you have correctly identified the flower as one that is edible. Taste it before adding it to your dish — flower flavors can be affected by growing and environmental factors. Again, do not eat flowers that have been treated with pesticides. Enjoy.
On Saturday, May 4, the annual Master Gardener Plant Sale is in the Veterans Memorial Building parking lot on Placerville Drive in Placerville from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Plenty of tomatoes, vegetables, spring and summer annuals, perennials are being sold at reasonable prices. Cash or checks only, please.
Master Gardeners are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling 530-621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at the office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville.
For more information about the public education classes and activities go to the Master Gardener’s Website at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners/. Sign up to receive the online notices and e-newsletter at ucanr.edu/mgenews/. You can also find Master Gardeners on Facebook.