Flowers are not just for looking at, or even just for smelling. You can eat them too. Culinary use of flowers experiences periodic revivals, but has been know since ancient times. The last surge in flower-as-ingredient was probably in the 1980s with the rise of nouvelle cuisine. At that time they were also used extensively as a garnish.
One of the more lampooned features of nouvelle cuisine during its initial phase was the enormous size of the plates and the relatively small portions. There were huge expanses of plates that positively cried out for decoration, at least to some. That period actually saw the bridging of two arts: flower arranging and cooking. The flowers were in the food and next to it too.
Before bringing flowers into the kitchen, though, some reading, even research is in order. There are many caveats to including flowers in cooking. One, flowers may include pollen (if they are male or “perfect” flowers) and many people are allergic to pollen. For example, ragweed is hay-fever-inducing whether it is eaten or inhaled.
If you consider yourself to be an allergy-prone person, then eating flowers may not be for you at all. A safe course for anyone may be to remove the anthers and other parts of the plant that may be heavily coated with pollen grains.
Two, some flowers are poisonous. These include some very attractive and very common flowers like those of rhododendrons, azaleas, daffodils, crocuses, foxglove, cardinal flower and clematis. There are lists of poisonous flowers all over the Web. In some cases – rose, tulip, yucca and lavender – only the petals are edible.
One writer, Ann Lovejoy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was startled to look through cooking magazines and see very toxic flowers placed as ornamentation on various dishes. These included Datura stramonium (devil’s trumpet), which is wildly hallucinogenic and will stop your heart if a sufficient quantity is consumed. The active ingredient is strychnine.
Three, some flowers are poisonous because they have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Do not eat flowers purchased at florists or collected along the roadside. The decay periods for chemicals sprayed onto crops are well studied. Those for chemicals sprayed onto plants not usually thought of as food are not, so it isn’t safe to eat this vegetation regardless of how long ago it was sprayed.
The safest course of action is to grow your own flowers to eat. Sherry Rindels at the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University recommends picking only fully open flowers, not those either still partially closed or past their prime and wilting. Also, she commends picking them during a cooler part of the day.
“After harvest, place long-stemmed flowers in water and then in a cool location,” counsels Rindels. “Short stemmed flowers should be placed between layers of damp paper toweling or in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Immediately before using, gently wash the flowers to remove dirt and check for insects.”
People around the world have been eating flowers for centuries. One of the more detailed articles about the historical dimension of the topic is by Lynn Smythe at Associated Content. In short it is one of those things that the Chinese and the Romans both did, introducing the idea to various other cultures during imperialist expansions.
According to Smythe, flowers were a popular addition to salads during the Victorian Era, but they were also pickled so that they could be used during the months when no flowers were available for harvest.
There are a number of sites with lists of edible plants, but all of them suggest that you learn your plants really well before including them in your diet.
Some sites with lengthy lists of edible (and inedible) plants:
And for recipes that use flowers: The Seeds of Knowledge