Everything you ever wanted to know about... edible flowers
Stop flicking them off your plate, they're there for a reason
Have you ever ordered something from a restaurant and it's arrived at your table adorned with flowers? While they might look like they're just there for decoration, the beautiful edible flowers on your plate are likely to have been specifically chosen for that dish. If you're picking them off and leaving them on the side of your plate, you're missing out.
Of course, flowers do add a beautiful touch, but they also each have a distinctive flavour that, just like any other ingredient, adds to the overall balance. They're not just a gimmick designed to get you to post the dish on Instagram – although you almost certainly will.
There is no reason edible flowers should be confined to the lofty heights of fine dining, though. Consider adding a pretty garnish the next time you have people over. Flowers look especially pretty when frozen in ice cubes, or, just as you might add a little slice of fruit to your cocktail, you can choose a specific flavour of flower to set the drink off.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, flowers of fruiting plants and herbs tend to taste roughly similar to their produce. Of course, not all make for great eating, so here are some good ones to start with:
The genus Allium includes things like onions, garlic, shallots, and leek, so you will probably be familiar with it. The flowers of all these plants are edible too, and can bring a similarly tangy taste to salads, garnishes, and other dishes you might expect to find these flavours in.
They come in a number of colours, but are most commonly seen in purple or white. The heads produce a beautiful spiked globe of flowers which can each be removed and added to a meal.
Closely related to watercress, the leaves of this plant are preferred by chefs for bringing the mildly peppery flavour and, with their subtly scalloped edges, a decorative appearance too. The blossoms are fully edible and carry an even milder pepper taste.
These are a great one to grow on your own and, if you get a perennial version, they will flower for you from the beginning of summer through to late autumn. Even then, the seed heads are also edible, so this is a great 'bang for your buck' addition.
Specifically pot marigolds or signet marigolds. Signet marigolds are really small and look great frozen in ice. They are said to have a citrus, spicy flavour, although some varieties are stronger than others. Pot marigolds are larger and the petals have a similar flavour profile, but lean toward a more savoury taste. Each come in a variety of different colours that roughly correspond to their flavours, so you can select them as you would a fruit. The leaves of these plants are not edible, but if you dead head them often, they'll give you flowers for months.
These are small and cute and probably the most frequently seen edible flower. They have a fresh, piney flavour but it's mild enough not to overpower other flavours, so these can go with sweets or savoury dishes. They are also great in drinks, particularly minty ones.
They are really easy to grow, particularly if you don't live in the warmest of areas and the temperature is variable, although they are very unlikely to tolerate frost. Dead head them regularly and you should see them flower from late spring through to autumn. They are very compact so grow well in containers, window boxes, and hanging baskets, as well as in the borders of the garden.
This is otherwise known as star plant, due to the five points the purple petals form. The leaves and stems are edible, if picked early enough, but if you leave them to flower, you will get the prettiest part and the greatest flavour. Borage flowers taste like cucumber, so they are really refreshing in salads and can be brewed to make tea. Bonus points if you float them on a G+T.
There have been a number of claims that these have medicinal values, helping with depression and other mood disorders, and they are said to bring courage, in large doses. None of these have a scientific basis, so just enjoy it and take any coincidental benefits as they come.
These are the big yellow flowers you see on courgette, pumpkin, or squash plants. They have a mild veg taste, much like courgette, so can be enjoyed with just about anything. The plants of course have the benefit of giving you both edible flowers, and vegetables, but they are trailers so do take up a good bit of space. If you are keen to grow these flowers but lack the space needed for a trailing plant, consider daylilies (they are not actually lilies) which give very similar size, colour and flavour of flower, but just grow as cut flowers.
Because these are larger flowers, they are often prepared differently for serving, with the petals being served individually or the whole flower being shredded. They can also be served whole, stuffed with vegetables and cheese and fried. So good.
These are small pretty white flowers, although there is a dark leaved pink variety too. Their flavour is sweet but aromatic and has been described as floral, but isn't as big of a flowery hit as things like lavender. Elderflower is more subtle.
Great for making teas and cordials, but also great to flavour and garnish ice creams and other desserts. Also perfect for adding to a sharing jug at a get together.
If you're looking for impact, these little guys really pack a punch. Anise hyssop is a member of the mint family and is commonly called liquorice mint. If you are big on aniseed, this brings it in spades. As with any herb, this will happily grow in your borders, in a pot, or even on your windowsill, and the flowers carry the scent of their flavour.
The flowers are really small so you can have as much or as little of the flavour as you like. With a flavour as strong as this, that's a good thing. Otherwise, these can go in just about anything you think would suit an aniseed kick.
All species of pinks (Dianthus) are edible and offer a really sweet flavour. These are a beautiful pink colour, but they take their name from the decorative, almost serrated 'pinked' edges of the petals. So as well as bringing a sugary sweet hit to your meal, these can make the dullest of dishes look impressively beautiful.
Be sure to nip the petals away from their bases, which are normally lighter in colour, as these parts are bitter and can completely overpower the sweetness of the petals. You can't have these as the whole flower, but sprinkle the petals on a dessert or drink, like confetti.
The flavour of roses may be familiar from the divisive taste of Turkish Delight, but the petals are a much more subtle fragrance that can be fine tuned to give as much of a floral hit as you need. Roses are closely related to apples, apricots, and peaches, so even if you don't like a heady floral flavour, there is a balance you're sure to love.
Roses can be eaten at almost any stage of growth. Harvest at bud stage and they pack a big rose punch, great for making rose-flavoured teas. Leave roses to bloom and you can use the petals in salads, chopped up in spreads or ice creams, or you can candy them for a sweet, floral, decorative garnish. Leave them a little longer and you can also eat the hips. Slice them open and scrape out the seeds and think of these as a fruit that you can use for jam, toppings or drinks – they taste like a very tangy apricot.
Violets are beautiful wild flowers, so if you are fortunate enough to have a wild flower meadow nearby, there is a good chance you'll find these there. Not to be confused with African violets which are easier to grow indoors, but these are not edible!
Violets are beautifully fragrant so you will smell them on the food long before you taste them. They offer a delicious sweet flavour so are great in jellies and jams and on desserts. They also bring a sweet kick to cordials and cocktails and taste great candied.
...However, not all flowers are edible...
Not only are some flowers not edible, but some of them are pretty toxic, so it's very important to research the flowers you want to use, and make sure they are the exact species. Don't go out foraging for flowers unless you are confident you know what you are looking for.
Not edible: Hydrangeas
These are undeniably beautiful, but each flower contains a small amount of cyanide so they are absolutely not suitable for eating. This is also worth considering if you have pets that are prone to bothering plants, as they are likely to react very badly to these, too.
Not edible: Clematis
These are a really common flower to have growing in the UK as they cope well in our climate and can be trained to climb, but they are toxic. Their toxin is thought to be quite mild but it would certainly put a dampener on a good meal, so one to avoid.
Not edible: Oleander
Oleanders are stunning and it's a real pity they're not edible, because they have a hint of the Hawaiian about them, but their toxicity exerts the greatest effects on the heart. Studies have shown it's unlikely to be fatal in adults, but in children, there is a genuine risk.
Not edible: Rhododendrons
Another plant that's commonly found in gardens. Its beautiful, fragranced flowers however are not edible. Symptoms from ingestion include confusion, dizziness, vomiting and passing out, and following the discovery that even its nectar was toxic, rhododendrons became known as 'mad honey'.
It's not just the nectar that's dangerous though, and, ideally, kids and pets should be kept away from the plant too.
Not edible: Daffodils
Contrary to what we said before about a lot of bulb plants being edible, this isn't one of them. There was an incident fairly recently where someone bought daffodils, believing them to be something else, and cooked them for dinner, hospitalising their entire family.
Everyone was ok, but let's leave them in the borders where they belong!
Not edible: Lilies
Most people know lilies are extremely toxic to cats: at least you should know if you have a cat. All species are also toxic to humans and, although they are all toxic to different levels and for different reasons, you should never eat them, and also avoid touching them, really.
This includes the peace lily. I know these aren't really lilies, but they are also toxic so, for the purposes of categorisation, they are handily named.
Not edible: Foxglove
This is probably the most commonly known poisonous plant, but it is so toxic, it's definitely worth restating. This plant, its species name Digitalis, has been used in medicines designed to reduce your heart rate. So, I'm sure you can imagine, ingesting any of it in an uncontrolled fashion can be fatal .
This is absolutely not an exhaustive list and there are many other flowers it's important you don't bring to the dinner table. Always check first and, if in doubt, leave it out.
You should avoid using flowers grown in garden centres, too, as these can be given all sorts of additives to help them grow faster: not the kind of things you want to be eating.
Growing from seed is safest, that way you know exactly what you are getting. Alternatively, you can buy the flowers from reputable edible flower stores.