Flowers have been used in cooking for centuries and have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in haute cuisine. Edible flowers are visually interesting and unique additions to dishes; they add diverse flavor, texture and color.
Edible flowers can be used fresh in salads, soups or as a garnish; they can also be used in stuffing, stir-fry, added to drinks, frozen in ice cubes, used in jams, jellies, and desserts. The options for use in cooking are limited only by your imagination. Combining your passion for gardening and cooking can be a very enjoyable and rewarding activity– and you don’t have to be a world-class chef to reap the benefits!
A word of caution in regards to flowers
Of course, not all flowers are edible; some taste terrible but, more importantly, some are poisonous. Before you experiment with using flowers in cooking, you must be certain they are safe for consumption. There are reliable reference books you can consult (see resources at end) to ensure you are consuming flowers that are safe to eat.
It is also a good idea to have a reliable source for those flowers and plants that are poisonous.
You should not eat flowers that have been purchased from a garden center, flower shop or nursery because they have usually been sprayed with chemicals. Think twice before eating roadside flowers because they have probably been exposed to exhaust fumes and animal waste.
When we talk about edible flowers, usually it is the petals we are referring to; everything else is typically discarded, including the stem, stamen, pistols, and sepals. Most edible flowers should be eaten in moderation; some can have un-pleasurable side effects (such as abdominal distress) if eaten in excess.
The taste of edible flowers will vary depending on the time of the year, the region, and the soil they are grown in. Once you have decided to grow edible flowers, you have a long list of plants to experiment with.
Growing and caring for edible flowers is as individual and specific as the flowers you are planting; they each have their own cultural and growing requirements. Most edible flowers produce vibrant blooms and require full sun, well-drained soil and a fertile environment with frequent watering.
Consult the care guide upon purchasing for specific plant information. When growing flowers for consumption, do not spray with any harmful chemicals including pesticides, insecticides or fungicides. It is important to garden organically when growing an edible flower garden.
Popular edible flowers
* Pansy is one of the more well-known edible flowers that are often used in appetizers, on top of dips, cheeses, pastries and desserts such as cake. The entire flower petal can be consumed, including the sepals.
* Roses have a perfumed flavor and look beautiful and sophisticated on many types of dishes, especially desserts. Cut off the bitter white part of the flower petal prior to consumption.
* Sweet woodruff has a combination of nutty, sweet and vanilla flavor. Consume this flower in moderation.
* Violet has a sweet, perfume-type flavor. Good used candied or fresh.
* Tulip has a vegetative flavor and are good stuffed.
* Bee balm: has a minty, sweet and hot flavor. A unique addition to many culinary dishes.
* Bachelor’s button (also called Cornflower) has a slightly sweet to spicy, clove-like flavor. Their blooms are a natural food dye. These are frequently used as a garnish.
* Chrysanthemum flowers have a tangy, slightly bitter taste. Colors come in red, white, yellow and orange. They range in taste from faint peppery to mild cauliflower. They should be blanched first and then scatter the petals on a salad. The leaves can also be used to flavor vinegar. Always remove the bitter flower base and use petals only. Young leaves and stems of the Crown Daisy, also known as Chop Suey Greens or Shinjuku in Japan, are widely used in oriental stir-fries and as salad seasoning [1.1].
* Calendula, also called Marigold, is a wonderful edible flower. Flavors range from spicy to bitter, tangy to peppery. Their sharp taste resembles saffron (also known as Poor Man’s Saffron). Calendula has pretty petals in golden-orange hues. Sprinkle them on soups, pasta or rice dishes, herb butters, and salads. Petals add a yellow tint to soups, spreads, and scrambled eggs [1,2]
Harvesting flowers for consumption is easy; simply snip the flower/s off the plant, shake to remove any dirt or insects and discard the portions you are not eating, such as the stamen, pistol, the stem and sepals. Flowers should be washed prior to consumption.
You can place them under a stream of water or use a strainer. Place them on a paper towel for drying. For best flavor, use the flowers right away. If you are not using them right away, place them in an airtight container or plastic bag with a moist (not wet) paper towel and put in the refrigerator; they will keep for up to ten days stored this way.
Annuals, herbaceous perennials, woody plants and bulbs can all be used as cut flowers. Annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season. Herbaceous perennials and bulbs are those that usually die back to the ground at the end of the growing season and resume growth in the spring. Most hardy, woody plants survive the winter season in the dormant state but do not die back to the ground like herbaceous perennials.
A Bit of Planning
When planning to grow flowers for cutting you may want to consider a dedicated area just for your cutting garden; flowers will be easier to access, care for, and harvest if located in one common area. Like a vegetable garden, consider easy access when planning the site; close to a water source and your home will make taking care of them more convenient and less likely to be neglected.
Growing annuals for cut flowers has the advantages of quick maturity (you will be able to grow, cut and enjoy within weeks) a large variety to choose from with many bold colors, sizes and shapes. Another benefit to growing annuals is that they typically have a longer blooming season than perennials; with proper care many will stay in bloom all season long.
Annual plants are usually less expensive than perennials short-term, but because they only last one season and need to be replanted each spring, they become more expensive long-term. Annuals can be grown from seed indoors (this will keep the cost down) and transplanted to the garden, sown directly into the garden after the last frost, or transplanted from seedlings. All methods can be equally successful.
Most annuals require full sun (6-8 hours a day) and well-drained, fertile soil. Often shade flowers have less showy blooms but can make nice subtle additions and greenery to arrangements.
There are hundreds of annuals to grow for cut flowers, but these are some of the more popular, versatile, and easy-to-grow:
Snapdragons come in a variety of colors and are a garden favorite. Be sure to select the taller variety for cutting. They are ready to cut in early summer. Harvest them when about half of the flowers are open and the rest are buds. They will last about 6-7 days after being cut.
Sunflowers come in both larger and smaller types. The smaller variety work best for cutting and come in many unexpected colors. Grow in full sun and well-drained soil. Harvest as soon as the blooms open. Cut the bottom of the stem in water to increase longevity.
Bachelor’s button is one of the most popular cut flowers (sometimes called cornflower) to grow. You can easily start from seed in the spring. It is an annual but if left to “go t o seed” you will get new plants each spring.
You may need to control how many you let go to seed to control the growth. Bachelors button is primarily a blue colored flower, but you will also get some pink and white that pop up. This is also a popular edible flower.
Stock has a wonderful sweet and spicy fragrance. Stock flowers have long stems (about two to two and a half feet) with a multitude of flowers that bloom vertically on the stem. It also comes in a dwarf variety.
You can find stock in many colors including snow white, red, purple, pink, lavender, yellow and crimson. Stock prefers full sun, well-drained rich soil and cooler weather. If you live in a warm climate, try growing stock in the winter or very early spring. You can sow seeds directly into your garden or start earlier indoors and transplant after the last frost.
Zinnias are very easy to grow flowers that come in a huge variety of colors. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. If soil conditions become too dry, zinnias will wilt. You can plant directly by seed into the garden in the spring or buy seedlings and transplant after danger of frost is gone. Thin to about 6-12 inches apart if growing from seed. Harvest the blooms often to promote new growth.
Always place cut flowers in water immediately after harvesting. Using a preservative is an individual preference.
Perennials generally cost more to purchase up front, but do not need to be planted each year, which keeps costs down over the long-term. New plants can be propagated from old ones during division, which also cuts down on the cost of growing perennials for cut flowers.
Perennials do have a shorter bloom period than most annuals, which is one disadvantage. Most perennials will be planted directly into the garden in the spring, although you can also start from seed and transplant.
Like annuals, perennials that have showy flowers usually require full sun and well-drained fertile soil. There are many shade-loving perennials that have less showy flowers or are used as filler in bouquets (ferns, Hosta leaves, goats beard).
Common perennials for a cutting garden
Delphiniums (also called larkspur) are garden classics that come in beautiful shades of blue, purple white and mixtures. These are a classic “cottage flower”. They grow as tall spikes that can range from six to eight feet (they do come in smaller dwarf varieties) and usually need to be staked to prevent damage from the winds.
They display bold upright flowers atop green foliage. Grow delphiniums in full sun (at least 6 hours), well-drained, organically rich soil and keep well watered. Space them about three feet apart. They prefer cooler temperatures and begin blooming in late spring. Thin the flowers in the fall for renewed growth the next spring. You can harvest the flowers at any point and at any length desired.
Baby’s Breath (also called Gypsophilia) is a mainstay as a cut flower; it is often used as a filler flower with roses or other brightly colored blooms. They are also wonderful to use as dried flower. Baby’s breath grows as airy sprays of tiny white blooms atop small green-blue leaves. There is also a variety that has pale pink flowers. Baby’s breath blooms in June and July.
Baby’s Breath requires full sun and well-drained, humus-rich soil. They will need to be kept well watered. Tall plants will do well with staking. You can start from seed or seedlings that can be transplanted to the garden after the last frost. Harvest at any time the flowers are in bloom. Cutting often encourages new growth.
Garden Phlox have a mass of tiny blossoms that grow closely together to form a dense cluster. Some plants have individual blossoms that are found in a star pattern. Most Phlox grows in an upright manner but there are some that grow more horizontal. Phlox comes in a myriad of colors both solid and bi-colored and has a very sweet fragrance that is enjoyed in cut flower arrangements in the home.
Phlox can be grown from seed started indoors (this can be tricky), sown directly in the ground or transplanted from seedlings. Garden phlox prefers full sun but will tolerate part-shade. The soil should be moist, well drained and organically rich.
You can harvest the flowers at any time after they bloom. They will often re-bloom soon after.
Pin cushion flower, also known as Scabiosa, is a perennial that has flowers that look like miniature pincushions with pointed petals. It will grow between 12 inches to nearly three feet depending on the variety. There are pink, blue/violet and white blossoms. It is perfect to use as a cut flower because it blooms all season long. Plant pincushion in full sun and very well drained soil. Compost can be added to compact soils.
You can start the seeds indoors about ten weeks prior to planting in the garden. If you decide to direct sow in the garden, the germination period will be very long. You can also plant seedlings directly into the garden after all signs of frost are gone in the spring. You can harvest the flowers any time they are in bloom. The flowers will continue to bloom all season long if harvesting (or deadheading) is performed.
Purple Coneflower, also known as Echinacea, is a very hardy drought-tolerant perennial that is native to the United States. Flowers are a light purple/pink color with centers that are a combination of orange, red and black. The flowers grow on individual sturdy upright stems that grow to an average of two to three feet.
Purple coneflower prefers full sun and well-drained soil. They will tolerate dry conditions. Their blooms are long lasting, often from June until October. As a cut flower, purple coneflowers will last between 7-10 days. There are newer varieties of coneflower that come in shades of yellow and sunset orange. Once established, you can cut the flowers at any time and they will continue to grow profusely.
Bulbs and bulb-type flowers include bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes. These types of plants do not usually branch excessively and can be planted more closely together, giving you more plants per square footage than other flowers. This means more flowers or cutting. Bulbous plants come in some very unique flower forms that you cannot find in other types of plants.
If you use bulbs as cutting flowers, you should expect to re-plant every year which is different than in a traditional garden setting where they would be left in the same spot for more than a year.
Some disadvantages in growing bulbous plants are having to plant each season, higher cost than seed, and more intensive clean-up in the fall. All of the flowers listed below should last for at least a week in a cut flower arrangement.
Here are some common bulbous plants to try for cutting:
Alliums are flowering/ornamental onions that come in a variety of colors and sizes and begin blooming in the spring. The flowers are usually ball shaped (but do come in other shapes such as stars) and the stems straight tubes. These make a unique, fun statement in arrangements. The dried flowers can also be used in arrangements.
Gladioli are summer blooming flowers that come in a large array of colors. The flowers grow and bloom vertically along tall strong stems. Gladiolus is a cut flower favorite.
Lilies (hybrid) come as oriental or Asiatic varieties. The oriental varieties have large flowers (six inches) with an intense fragrance and colors of white, purple, pink or red. Asiatic varieties are smaller (around three inches) with no fragrance and come in bright colors of orange, red, gold, yellow, rose and pink. These make wonderfully attractive flower arrangements.
Daffodils are a very easy to grow bulb. Daffodils emerge in the early spring and can stay in bloom from weeks to months, depending on the area you live in. Traditional colors are a cheery yellow, white and white with yellow centers.
Tulips come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes, strong petals that last well inside. Tulips are an early and late spring blooming flower, depending on the variety.
Crocuses are one of the earliest blooming bulbs; they often emerge right through the snow in late winter. Common colors are purple, white and yellow. Use in a shorter cut flower arrangement.
Irises are found in many colors including bi-colors. The flower blooms off of tall upright stems that are perfect for vase arrangements. These are a classic cut flower.
Calla Lilly is a very sophisticated flower with a beautiful fragrance. Traditionally found in solid white, but does come in other colors including near black. These can stand alone in an arrangement or mix well with many other flowers.
Double duty, or Companion planting
If you choose to grow cut flowers you can also utilize them in ways that perform double-duty in your garden. This mutual benefit is sometimes called companion planting. Some flowers, like herbs, deter a variety of garden pests. Marigolds have a long history of being used to keep pests away due to their strong odor; plant them in your cutting garden and throughout other areas.
Chrysanthemums are another wonderful choice to use as a cut flower and to deter pests. They come in a variety of vibrant colors, and help to repel nematodes, Japanese beetles and moths.
Of course, just as flowers can deter pests, they can attract beneficial insects to your garden, such as bees and ladybugs. Try these flowers not only for cutting, but also for attracting beneficial “bugs” to your garden:
* Common yarrow
* English lavender
* Marigold (attracts bees and butterflies)
You can find both annuals and perennials that you can plant in your cutting garden that deter pests and help to minimize the use of pesticides as well as attracting the beneficial insects that help keep your garden healthy and vibrant.
This huge list of edible flowers will be sure to help clear a few things up for you.
Purdue features a list of common poisonous flowers and other plants.
If you’re looking for recipie ideas for edible flowers, Allegheny County has got you covered.