Borage flowers are known for their supposed mood-improving qualities.
Not Just Good Looks
By Benjamin Harrison
Spring is poised to rush in with full floral regalia: dainty blue borage garnishing cocktails, nasturtium petals lending their colorful pop to salad mixes, fresh lavender and more. Edible flowers add style and flavor to dishes and are increasing in popularity among chefs and eaters alike.
Eating flowers may seem like a zany modern concept for fancier food photography, but it’s been around for a while. During the Great Depression, the children of struggling families were dispatched to public parks across New York City to pick dandelion greens, a nutrient-dense wildflower that is more and more a luxury item in today’s food economy.
Many growers are focused on decorative flowers, so acquiring these delicate edible florets is no easy task. The buds do better in the cool spring weather and can suffer in the heat of a farmers market stand. Restaurants are the best source. “Chefs use them as garnishes mainly, for desserts and cocktails and some on salads, too,” says Kim Doughty-McCannon of Bell Urban Farm in Conway. “They are more of a luxury item for restaurants to buy, I think.”
Jay Fulbright, of Arkansas Natural Produce (ANP) in Malvern, grows a variety of edible flowers: nasturtiums, borage, Bachelor’s Buttons, marigolds, dianthus and snapdragons. “It’s a niche, small market,” Fulbright says. “It’s not economical unless it’s part of a mix.” Find their flowers at the Arkansas Local Food Network in Little Rock or the Spa City Market in Hot Springs. ANP’s primary focus is greens, and that’s the economical mix Fulbright refers to and a tactic shared by Bell Urban Farm, whose salad greens are known to pop with the color of edible flowers in spring.
Nasturtiums are perhaps the easiest and tastiest edible to find, and they come in a variety of colors that begin with a juicy flavor—something like a bell pepper—and taper off with a peppery zip. The whole flower can embellish a beverage just as well as a steak, or the petals may be applied individually in a colorful spring salad mix. And chefs can be very creative with them, whipping up anything from a nasturtium butter served with fish or ice cream made with nasturtium leaves.
Borage is another great edible blossom, reportedly capable of elevating the mood. These small blue flowers—about the size of a nickel—have a slightly sweet flavor often compared to melons or, more specifically, cucumbers. They provide an attractive garnish for summer drinks, smoothie bowls, salads and more. The plants grow up to 3 feet tall, are beloved by pollinators, and easily produce a hundred flowers each in a season.
Perhaps the most famous of all medicinal herbs is lavender. The best use is likely in a fresh tea infusion. The flowers may also be dried and stored as a seasoning. A bit more of a challenge to grow in the South, lavender should be planted in partial shade and kept consistently watered. Propagate with cuttings in the second year of growth.
Pea blossoms, which taste much like the peas they eventually bear, give any dish they’re applied to a charming appearance. The flavor, however, may best be suited to savory dishes. These might be found at local farmers markets but are more commonly sold to chefs.
German Chamomile, a very productive and somewhat invasive plant, will reseed itself year after year and practically grows with no involvement from the gardener. A handful of pretty little chamomile flowers puts off an invigorating scent that is strikingly similar to fresh-cut green apples. The flavor, however, is, surprisingly, rather bitter. Most commonly used in teas, some do add the flowers to salads. Pairs well with lavender for a relaxing evening brew.
The purple conical clusters of hyssop flowers smell sweet and syrupy and are somewhat astringent (they’ll numb the tongue a bit) with a flavor like that of licorice. It is not unheard of for these flowers to be boiled and lightly sweetened into a palatable cough syrup. As a dried tea, hyssop works well during cold season to coat a sore throat and ease coughing. The plants are low-maintenance, perennial and provide up to three harvests each year.
All of the edible flowers not mentioned here could—and have— fill volumes. Rose petals have not been mentioned, nor peonies, saffron, elderflowers, passionflower, apple blossoms and so many others. To continue the conversation in an online community focused on edible flowers and recipes, like Flower Ice Pops and Spiked Blackberry Lilac Lemonade, seek out the group, “Edible Flowers,” on Facebook. For more specific recipes, there are a great number of recipe books focused on edible flowers and an infinite variety of ways to brighten any dish this spring.