Radiating exuberance, sunshine and hope, flowers are a feast for the eyes; but that’s not all. You are likely aware of the fact that every single fruit we enjoy begins with a flower. However, you may be surprised to know that flowers themselves are also packed with vitamin C, antioxidants, minerals, and other beneficial compounds.
Ancient cultures around the world recognized the natural fortifying effects of a variety of flowers, and our ancestors enjoyed edible flowers in countless ways; yet today we’re lucky to find a pansy on the plate of a gourmet eatery. Here we will look at some common edible flowers that you can easily forage or grow, how they have traditionally been used, and when to find them — starting today!
Some of the earliest spring flowers appear on trees, which means a bounty of blossoms all on one plant!
Well-known for their early, annual display enjoyed in parks everywhere, cherry trees (Prunus spp) originated in Japan — where the flowers are commonly eaten. Preserved as pickles, baked in cookies or mochi, cooked in pudding or brewed as tea, cherry blossoms are the highlight of their namesake festival.
Cherry blossoms have a delicate floral flavor that is mildly sweet and slightly astringent — similar to green tea. They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and throughout Asia for centuries, especially for their beautifying effects on the skin.
Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are a member of the olive family native to Southeastern Europe. Emigrants brought the plants with them to America, and they are still a common feature of old homesteads here. One of the most fragrant spring flowers, lilac’s heavenly scent is treasured nearly as much as its beauty.
To capture this lovely aroma, lavender flowers are often preserved in sugar, honey or syrup; which can then be used to flavor various desserts or beverages. Fresh, the delicate flower has a strongly floral, and slightly bitter flavor, making it an excellent choice for garnishing.
Magnolia is a genus including some 300 species of the most ancient flowering trees still in existence. First appearing on Earth around 95 million years ago — even before bees — their primitive flowers are pollinated by beetles.
The large, elegant blossoms can be enjoyed steeped as tea, cooked or pickled; but should not be consumed raw. Magnolia infused cream flavors the delectable “magnolia blossom cream cake.” Different varieties have different flavor profiles, but in general you can expect a sweet, spicy flavor — similar to ginger or cardamom.
Magnolias have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for nearly 2,000 years, with benefits including reduced stress, headache relief, digestive aid, reduction of allergic symptoms, and skin care.
Viola is a big genus of small plants, with upwards of 600 different species — many of which are native to North America. The garden pansy is a hybrid of the same genus, with its smaller leaves and larger flowers sharing many of the same qualities as their diminutive cousins — including edibility.
Violet flowers and leaves are both tender enough for raw consumption, and have a subtle, sometimes wintergreen-y flavor. They are very high in vitamins A and C and were traditionally used by Native Americans to fight colds and coughs, relieve headaches, and even treat cancer.
In many ways, summer is the height of the growing season — with spring flowers already setting fruit; yet there is no shortage of later-blooming plants to satisfy your developing palate for petals.
Calendula officinalis — native to parts of Eurasia and North Africa — is a brightly-scented flowering plant in the family Asteraceae. Because it is commonly called “pot marigold,” it is often confused with the marigold (genus Tagetes) frequently planted to repel pests — which is native to the Americas. As members of the family Asteraceae, Calendula and Tagetes both have round flowers with petals radiating from the center, but only calendula is edible.
The petals have a mildly sweet, slightly bitter flavor that becomes stronger with drying. Eaten raw in salads, sprinkled as garnish, baked into casseroles or frozen in ice cubes, these flower petals offer more than just pizazz. Sunshine-colored calendula is also packed with antioxidants.
The species name officinalis refers to the plant’s traditional use as a medicinal herb. Highly prized for its ability to heal and soothe, it has many internal and external applications. Calendula has been recognized for its ability to stimulate the production of connective tissue (wound-healing), reduce swelling (anti-inflammatory), and fight infection (antimicrobial, antibacterial, antiviral).
Dahlias (Dahlia pinnata), also a member of the Asteraceae family, are native to Central America. They are recognized as the national flower of Mexico, although the plant is named after a Swedish botanist — Anders Dhal. Dahlias were valued in Pre-columbian Mesoamerica as both a food and a medicine.
While the root (tuber) was eaten much like a potato, the flowers were often used to relieve skin irritation, including insect stings and rashes; and the Aztecs used the flower to treat epilepsy. The colorful petals can be eaten fresh in salad, added to salsa, or used to garnish other dishes. The flavor varies widely from cultivar to cultivar.
Daylilies, (genus Hemerocallis) are native to Asia, but have naturalized around the world. These plants have been cultivated for thousands of years in China, where they are used for food, medicine, and horticultural aesthetics. Yellow flowering species — like H. citrina and H. fulva are considered the best for consumption.
Daylilies produce many flowers, but each one only opens for one day. The flowers can be eaten fresh in bloom, but are more often used as unopened buds. These can be cooked like a fresh vegetable in stir-frys or alone; though they are more commonly dried and later cooked in soups or stews. Daylily buds have an earthy, floral aroma and a crunchy texture.
Daylilies are considered an herbal remedy for congestion, fever, inflammation and rheumatism. In traditional Chinese medicine, the plant is used to treat heart and liver diseases.
The genus Hibiscus includes several hundred species native to various areas and climates around the world. Both the hardy perennial shrub Rose of Sharon and the herbaceous, tropical hibiscuses have large, edible flowers. Their tart flavor is commonly enjoyed as tea in West Africa and Central and South America; while in Senegal it is used as a culinary spice.
Hibiscus flowers have been traditionally used to promote liver health and treat dysentery. Their high concentration of vitamin C can boost immunity and help reduce the risk of developing serious illness.
Native to South America, nasturtiums are another source of confusion in the botanical world. The plant commonly known as “nasturtium” belongs to the genus Tropaeolum, which includes around 60 different species; while the genus Nasturtium includes a smaller number of species commonly known as “cress.” Both genera belong to the family Brassica (cabbages), which are all edible, from flower to root and everything in between.
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum), are easy to grow, and have brilliantly-colored, funnel-shaped flowers that stand out on long stems over their disc-shaped leaves. Both the leaves and flowers have a fresh, peppery sweetness that is best enjoyed raw. Salads, pesto, sandwich stuffers and garnish are all good applications for fresh nasturtium flowers.
The spicy flowers are naturally antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and expectorant; and were traditionally used as a topical disinfectant, or to treat respiratory and digestive conditions.
The genus Rosa includes about 100 species of shrubs that produce some of the most popular flowers in the world — roses. Rose petals were used in the kitchens of ancient Rome and Greece, and they continue to be enjoyed regularly in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Rose petals can be enjoyed fresh in salads and as garnish, made into sweet preserves, or brewed for a flavorful and nutritious tea. Rose water is a common ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern desserts and pastries — lending a soft sweetness, aroma, and color to these delicacies.
Roses are a good source of Calcium, Iron, and Vitamins A, C and E, and are believed to rejuvenate and restore healthy skin. Traditional Chinese medicine favors roses for regulating the “qi,” or life energy, prescribing the flower for fatigue, irritability, and digestive issues.
Autumn brings a welcome harvest of the season’s bounty, but it also features some nutritious, lingering flowers.
Coneflowers are a stunning wildflower, native to the Eastern United States. The genus Echinacea includes about 10 separate species, with Echinacea purpurea being the most well-known for its immune-boosting properties.
Herbal Echinacea preparations are commonly taken against colds or flu, and Native Americans traditionally used coneflower to treat respiratory ailments and to rejuvenate, heal and soothe the skin. High in antioxidants, coneflower petals have a slightly bitter, earthy flavor. The petals can be collected and dried, since they are most frequently enjoyed as tea.
Most mums are native to China, where they have long been cultivated as food. Another member of the Asteraceae family, the genus Chrysanthemum includes 14 species of herbaceous plants — some of which are hardy perennials. Come October, mums adorn many a stoop with their vibrant fall flowers which, if they were grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, you might consider eating.
All chrysanthemums are edible. While the base of the flower is bitter, the petals can range from sweet and peppery to tangy. They can be added to soups and other dishes for color. Like many flowers, mums are loaded with antioxidants and have been used in herbal remedies to fight colds and inflammation.
Traditional Chinese medicine regards chrysanthemums for their ability to “clear heat” and promote lung and liver function. It is often prescribed for headache, hypertension, and sore throat. Chrysanthemum tea is the most common way to use the flower medicinally. To make it, steep four or five dried flowers in eight ounces of boiled water for up to five minutes. Strain off the flowers and enjoy straight or sweetened.
Yarrow has a broad natural distribution — native to Asia, Europe and North America, and cultivated in the Southern Hemisphere as well. There are about 115 species of yarrow (genus Achilles), all bearing edible flowers.
Yarrow is considered a bitter herb, and has a strong flavor that is slightly sweet, astringent, and somewhat licorice-like. Yarrow has historically been used in making beer and mead, and to help curdle milk for cheese-making. The flowers and leaves can be used fresh in a variety of dishes, or dried as a spice.
Yarrow’s medicinal uses are so numerous that many herbalists consider yarrow to be a panacea. A rich source of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins A and C, yarrow has been traditionally used to treat skin problems, heal wounds, fight infections, stop bleeding, and reduce swelling. A fragrant and soothing tea can be made from fresh or dried yarrow, and is said to be very effective against flu, colds, congestion and other respiratory and digestive issues.
Not all flowers are edible
It is very important to remember that there are also many flowers that should not be consumed. Some tempting, yet poisonous flowers include:
- Digitalis (foxglove)
- Lily of the valley
- Lily (see above photo)
- Black-eyed-susans (the seeds in particular)
- Bleeding heart
- Marigold (Tagetes)
- Morning glory
Also, it is not advisable to eat your gifted bouquets, as the florist industry regularly uses chemical pesticides to keep their crops picture-perfect.