Do Edible Flowers Actually Taste Good?
A new book proves that these beauties are way more than just a garnish.
The edible flower trend has been cruising around for quite some time now, bringing us everything from pansy-topped salads to rose-covered chocolate bars. But while these treats provide all the benefits that come along with consuming flowers—nutrients, antioxidants, and the joy of eating something beautiful—there’s not much going on in terms of flavor.
Monica Nelson’s upcoming book, Edible Flowers: How, Why, and When We Eat Flowers, explores the cultural history of flower consumption. Not only will you find an index of more than 100 flowers and their culinary uses, but also a collection of simple recipes created by various chefs and creatives—from marigold bread pudding to nasturtium pesto.
Nelson, the founding creative and photo director of nature magazine Wilder Quarterly, says the idea for the book was borne out of personal curiosity, while completing a design research master’s program in New York City. As much of her research focused on the South, Nelson found herself in Savannah, Georgia, digging into the indigenous stories of flowers. “When you’re in this world, when you’re able to just go to a farm and look at flowers, or have somebody lead you around a garden, there’s so much oral history,” she says.
During her research, Nelson became particularly attached to the okra flower. “In the introduction, I write about the nuances of each growing cycle, because they’re all a little different,” she says. While the blossoming of an herb like basil might signal its end, the blossoming of an okra flower signals its beginning. “An okra flower blooms in the same strange way that a strawberry flower does. It falls off and then the fruit kind of comes in its place.”
One of the themes Nelson chases in Edible Flowers is the idea that something could be so beautiful, you want to eat it. She believes we all have an impulse to get up close and personal with flowers, and she wanted the design of the book to reflect that. “Flowers are decorative, and they’re beautiful in food, but I wanted to convey this more guttural feeling,” she says.
There’s also a literary element, with short essays by chefs, artists, and writers that recall the use of edible flowers in their most creative moments. In one excerpt, Nelson references the 1954 cookbook of avant-gardist Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s partner. “It’s a book I’m obsessed with,” she explains. “It’s notorious for having a recipe for the first pot brownies, but then there are also a lot of flower salads.”
While it might seem like flowers have only recently made their way into our meals, this is certainly not a new phenomenon. “Flowers have been incorporated into food and extracted for their flavors for thousands of years,” Nelson explains. The Aztecs, for example, used marigolds to flavor cacao. “Flowers function similarly to fresh herbs. One might say that an herb is just a garnish, but herbs are very nuanced,” she says. “Parsley has a very different flavor than basil.”
And while eating the flower in its natural form can allow you to experience those different notes, pressing the flower leads to a stronger taste. “There’s a lot more flavor that can come from that kind of condensing of the plant,” Nelson says. And some edible flowers can even be grown at home. Nelson cites pansies, cornflower, nasturtium, and chamomiles as flowers that grow exceptionally well in simple, controlled environments.
One of Nelson’s favorite, end-of-summer flowers to use in the kitchen is the squash blossom, which you traditionally see as a deep-fried dish. “You can do so many different things with them,” she explains. “I stuffed them with risotto earlier this summer, but you can also add them to pizzas.”
Nelson shares some of her other favorite edible flowers below, along with a Hopping Clover Kombucha recipe, created by chef Tara Thomas.
The flavors of edible flowers
Daylily is one of the oldest flowers, listed in early Chinese records. It’s the only type of lily that is edible. Once you know what it looks like, you’ll see them everywhere in late summer. They grow wild in large patches, and are easy to grow in home gardens. It’s used in Chinese cooking a lot, either dried, or stuffed similarly to a squash blossom.
Hops are not often thought of as a flower, as they resemble small green pine cones. But the flowers are a powerful ingredient for fermenting. They can also be used like bay leaves to flavor soups or rice with a bitter finish.
Borage is easily accessible, used in drinks, or frozen in ice cubes for teas or cocktails. It has a cucumber-like texture, and its bright blue color and star-like shape can be used in any number of decorative ways. It has a medieval look to it, as it was often floating in a goblet in a toast for courage (which is what its name means).
Cilantro flowers look like lace and have a slightly milder taste than the leaf of the herb, but can be used in the same way as cilantro—as a fresh seasoning in salads or garnish. They are easy to grow.
Cherry blossom is perhaps not as easy to grow, but easy to find and see in spring! It’s often sold on branches at farmers’ markets (which, if grown organically, are edible!). The flavor of cherry blossom has become a popular addition to sweets, but can also be used in savory dishes.
Tara Thomas’ Hopping Clover Kombucha Recipe
- ½ ounce each clover and hops flowers
- 2 cups beet or cane sugar
- kombucha SCOBY
- kombucha starter
1. Shake the clover and hops flowers to rid their petals of any dirt, then rinse them lightly without washing off too much of the flavors locked inside.
2. Fill a large pot with just over 2 liters of water (this will account for evaporation) and bring to a boil. Remove it from the heat and add the flowers.
3. Steep the flowers for 30 minutes, then remove them from the pot. Add 2 cups of beet sugar or cane sugar, then stir the liquid to dissolve. Allow the tea to cool to room temperature.
4. Place the kombucha scoby and a bit of kombucha starter into a clean 2-liter jar, then fill with the new tea! Cover with a cloth tightly secured with a rubber band or string. Label the jar with the date, contents, and name. Store in a cool, dark place. Feel free to taste once a week; for me, at twenty days it was superb! Floral, bright, and transcendent, with intense carbonation.