Edible flowers give new meaning to salad days

Posted July 17, 2009, at 8:15 p.m.

There is a fuzzy line between edibles and ornamentals in Marjorie’s garden. Take as an example the calendulas growing among the garden peas in a bed that until last year was dedicated to strawberries. We took the old strawberry plants out and planted a few calendulas to flower (and set seed) among rows of sweet basil. Now, as I look out the window, I can see the orange flowers of tall calendulas, volunteers among the peas.

The calendulas do double duty, their flowers adding a spot of color to the garden as well as to our summer meals. When I harvest peas and lettuce, I can gather a few heads of calendula, also called Poor Man’s Saffron, and pepper their petals over our supper salad, adding a subtle flavor ranging from bitter to spicy.

I can also gather flowers from a volunteer trailing nasturtium growing among the onions in a bed by the garden gate. After quick scrutiny for hiding insects, these golden blossoms will be added to the salad whole, providing a sharp peppery taste, much like the flavor of radishes. Nasturtium leaves are also edible, adding a pep-pery tang to salads, and pickled nasturtium seed pods can be used as a less expensive substitute for capers.

On my way to the kitchen, I can snap off a few bright yellow day lily (Hemerocallis) flowers, popping a crisp petal into my mouth to melt on my tongue and release a flavor much like buttery lettuce, but sweeter, a taste often described as a combination of zucchini and asparagus. While some people think that different-colored day lily flowers have different flavors, I’ve sampled the many day lily varieties in Marjorie’s garden and found more differences in texture than flavor.

A porch pot of Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor) provides small flowers with yellow, white and purple petals. Adding a touch of color as well as a mild wintergreen flavor, these flowers are often used in drinks, soups and desserts, as well as salads.

Flowers of pansies, related to Johnny-jump-ups, are also edible. Eaten alone, the petals have a very mild green or grassy flavor, while entire flowers have a much stronger grassy taste. Pansy flowers can be used in desserts and soups, as well as salads.

To our harvest of flowers, lettuce, spring onions, yellow zucchini and young carrots, we add a few leaves from basil scattered in pots about the garden. Marjorie is diligent about keeping the basil plants from flowering — she wants to keep them producing new leaves throughout the summer — and so we seldom see them produce the spikes of white blossoms that are milder but similar in flavor to the leaves.

As gardeners interested in eating the flowers of these and other plants, we follow three important rules. First, we never use pesticides, even organics, on any plants we intend to eat.

Second, we never assume that all parts of a plant with edible flowers are edible. For example, elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, flowers are edible, but all other parts of the plant, including uncooked berries, are poisonous. The cooked berries, however, are harmless and often used in making jams, jellies and elderberry wine.

Third, always use flowers sparingly in salads and other recipes. Large quantities often lead to digestive disorders. For example, we use day lily petals sparingly, knowing that they can act as a laxative when eaten in excess. And Johnny-jump-ups should always be eaten in small amounts, primarily as a garnish, as they contain saponins, which in large quantities can be toxic.

Combining edible flowers with traditional vegetables, gardeners can enjoy colorful and delicious summer salads throughout the gardening year. Each meal will be unique in the novelty of its creation, a combination of whatever is available in both traditional vegetables and edible flowers.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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