‘Dear Garden Doctor,
I had never really thought of flowers as food until I recently came across the culinary delight of Italian stuffed zucchini flowers and thought it would be great if I could grow my own edible flowers. Is it possible to grow zucchini flowers in the tropical climate? Do you have any ideas for other types of easy flowers to grow that could be used in this way?
Thanks in advance, Kerry.’
Growing edible flowers is an efficient way to garden – producing colourful plants that attract the bees whilst also providing colour and unique flavour to your culinary creations at the same time. Flowers can taste sweet, spicy, bitter or subtle and some seem to have no taste at all. Flowers are a fabulous fragrant addition to both savoury and sweet dishes. It’s common to see flower petals used in salads, teas, as a garnish for meals, or more creatively as a flavouring for desserts or even flower infused ice-cubes. Try sprinkling flower petals over ice-cream. There are so many possibilities…
Stuffed zucchini flowers have made many a mouth water over the years and are indeed a favourite of the Italians – the word zucchini is in fact derived from the Italian word zucchine. The flowers are typically stuffed with cheese, meat, vegetables and herbs, served fresh, baked or even fried in batter. Mozzarella, ricotta, spinach, prosciutto and anchovy are common ingredients. There are numerous ways to do it, the only limit being your imagination – but this isn’t a cooking show, it’s a gardening column! On second thoughts though gardening and cooking are inextricably linked, for many edible gardeners like myself also fancy themselves as quasi chefs. It’s natural for the edible gardener to cook, and likewise for the chef to grow their own produce. The problem is though that I can’t cook anywhere near as good as I grow, and most chefs don’t have the time to look after a garden. That’s why the chefs go to farmers markets and I eat out…. I digress.
So where were we now? That’s right, a garden of edible flowers. It is a creation that looks great and tastes good too. A brilliant idea!
The best place to start producing and eating flowers is obviously to choose the easiest ones to grow that have a palatable flavour. You may also consider the variety of colours and additional health benefits. Growing zucchini flowers is a great idea, likewise pumpkin flowers which can be grown and used interchangeably. These plants won’t do well in the high humidity of the tropical wet season, mildew will become too big a problem. To grow zucchini or pumpkin flowers, sow seeds as the wet season is trailing off in March, and grow right through the tropical dry season up until November.
Try dandelion! It’s no secret that I am in love with dandelion. A weed to the uninitiated, all parts of this wonderful plant are useful. The leaves can be used in salads, or steamed like spinach – by the way the Italian’s love this too! The roots can be dried, roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute – a well-known liver tonic that has many health benefits. And then there’s the flowers, which can be picked off and eaten fresh if you please. Otherwise fry them and enjoy crunchy dandelion chips. I just can’t get my head around the fact that this simple little versatile flower really could be my favourite of all within the botanical world.
Maybe they were onto something when they said that the simple things in life are often the best, or is that just a cornflakes commercial I recall from the halcyon days of the 1980s? Either way, I have seen the way that the bees hover around them and I have no doubt that they love them just as much as I do. In fact, bees quite literally do see dandelion flowers differently. Bees perceive UV light invisible to us, meaning that a dandelion spied from a bee’s eye view uncovers colours and patterns both unknown and unseen by us simple homo sapiens. Whoever said that beauty is in the eye of the beeholder was right!
Nasturtium is next on my list. They come in a variety of colours from cream to bright yellow, orange, peach, and even pinks. They are tossed into salads to add a sweet peppery flavour, and a splash colour. They can be eaten whole, or as a garnish and are also a good source of vitamin C. The fresh buds can be picked prior to blooming and prepared like capers. Nasturtium make for a colourful groundcover, are drought tolerant, and will easily take over a patch of the garden if left to their own devices. I’ve even seen them sprawling across the salty dry sand dunes by the beach. Now if they can grow there that tells me they will grow almost anywhere!
Lavender is another versatile flower used in both sweet or savoury. It will add a pleasant flavour and aroma to cakes and desserts. It’s best to use English lavender for culinary applications. It will also attract an abundance of bees and infuse the garden with a pleasant calming scent.
Marigold has a peppery zing and comes in a range of bright sunny tones from yellow to orange which will brighten up any meal. The petals can be used in salads or sprinkled over rice, soup and pasta.
For roses remove the bitter base and use the remaining petals. They have a subtle perfumed flavour perfect for floating in beverages or scattering across desserts. The flavour is usually more pronounced in darker varieties.
Borage blooms are a lovely blue with a taste reminiscent of cucumber. Sunflowers are well known for their edible seeds but have petals that can also be eaten. Allium blooms (leeks, chives, onions, scallions) are all edible and flavourful! These flowers taste just like the plant that they come from.
All of the flowers mentioned above can be used in creative ways – as a garnish, in rice-paper rolls, cakes, desserts, jams, salads, dressings, infused in teas, cocktails, lemonade or sparkling waters. Freeze them in ice-cubes and give them to the kids for a fun, colourful healthy alternative to sugary ice-blocks. They will just love to eat a flower!
To keep flowers fresh, place them on moist paper towels and refrigerate in an airtight container. Some will last up to a week like this. To revitalise limp flowers dunk them in iced water.
WARNING Some flowers can be fatally toxic. Before eating any flowers from the garden ensure that you have positively identified the plant using the botanical or scientific name and verify that it is safe for human consumption. Remember that common names are not specific so some flowers within the same family may be safe whilst others could be toxic. Further to this, flowers from different families may have the same common name, so always refer to the botanical name written in Latin for confirmation.
That reminds me, a few years ago an Italian grandmother made global headlines when she mistook angels trumpet (datura metel) for a wild broccoli variant. She picked the plant and sprinkled it over her home cooked spaghetti. After dinner they all fell ill (husband, daughter and grandson) and were found collapsed on the floor soon afterwards, vomiting and paralysed. Thankfully they were all rushed to hospital and placed in a medically induced coma, where they recovered but were extremely lucky that the dose wasn’t fatal.
What was it again that I said about gardeners fancying themselves as chefs?
Copyright © 2017 Dr. Kris
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