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Flower power — edibles are full of antioxidants

  • Barbara Robertson
  • With Summer of Love celebrations winding down, a phrase from the ’60s popped into my head: “You are what you eat.”

    It’s harvest time. I thought, “I should eat something beautiful.”

    I’ve often tossed bright orange nasturtium flowers into salads for bites of bling. What else might I try?

    Lots, I discovered.

    After attending a UC Marin Master Gardeners workshop on edible flowers by Jenine Stilson and Keri Pon, I left with a list of 77 edibles — ornamental flowers, herb flowers, and fruit and vegetable flowers — drawn from research by Linda Stradley and the organization What’s Cooking America.

    They, and others interested in blending flower gardening with cookery, always offer cautions: before munching a flower, do your research. If a flower is from a plant with any parts listed as poisonous, don’t eat it. Some common flowers are toxic. For example, anemone (anemone tuberosa and other spp.), azalea and rhododendron (rhododendron), buckeye (horse chestnut), clematis (clematis), hydrangea (hydrangea), lantana (lantana), larkspur (delphinium), oleander (nerium oleander), sweet pea (lathyrus), and wisteria (wisteria floribunda and w. sinensis), and this is but a partial list. Vegetable flowers in the solanum family, which includes deadly nightshade, are also poisonous to humans: tomato, eggplant, chili peppers and potato.

    So, unless you see a flower on a list of edibles, don’t pop it in your mouth or garnish food with it.

    Know that “edible” doesn’t necessarily mean tasty. And be aware that flowers from unknown sources might have been treated with pesticides.

    That said, you can choose from an orgy of tasty ornamentals to brighten your garden and tease your palate, from lemony tasting begonia (begonia x tuberosa and cucullata) to sweet violets (viola odorata). Most herb flowers are edible, with the same, but subtler flavor as the leaves. And you might already be eating vegetable flowers: cauliflowers and artichokes. 

    Is your broccoli bolting? Savor the flowers rather than buds. Similarly, if you’re willing to sacrifice potential fruit or know that a fruit tree will become overloaded, eat the flowers. Stilson’s most surprising “edible” discovery was a blueberry blossom.

    “You get a tiny, delicate blueberry flavor,” she says. “And citrus blossoms are loaded with flavor.”

    For additional inspiration, gardeners might turn to Rosalind Creasy, author of the seminal “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping.” In her book “The Edible Flower Garden,” Creasy provides an encyclopedia of more than 40 varieties of taste-tested edible flowers, growing advice, and some mouth-watering recipes, including, tulip and endive appetizers, wild-violet salad, stir-fried beef with anise hyssop, rose petal butter and lavender ice cream.

    Stilson’s favorite recipes include lemonade with blue borage blossoms frozen in ice cubes, and herb-seasoned cream cheese piped into squash blossoms.

    Creasy advises refrigerating picked flowers between layers of damp paper towels or in a plastic bag. Only the petals on most flowers are edible, and the bitter white parts should be removed along with stamens, styles, and sepals of large flowers, but Johnny-jump-ups, violets, pea and runner bean blossoms can be eaten whole. Wash, dry and taste before using. 

    In our Mediterranean climate, we can grow edible flowers nearly year around. But would that mean sacrificing food space for flowers?

    Turns out that flowers are nutritious. Researchers in the Czech Republic determined that chrysanthemums and violas are a promising source of potassium. Chive flowers provide vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, potassium, calcium and folic acid, according to Polish scientists. Italian researchers discovered that antioxidant activity in flowers is higher than in common fruits and leafy vegetables, and singled out the most palatable: Viola × wittrockiana and nasturtium (tropaeolum majus). Similarly, scientists working together from Italy, Germany and China report findings in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that “support the consumption of edible flowers as functional food and their use as sources of natural antioxidants by the food industry.” 

    So, go ahead. Gobble up a flower garden and plant a new meaning for “flower power.” It’s a sensible act of beauty.