REESER MANLEY

Include edible flowers in the vegetable garden

A volunteer pansy, the seed dropped from a potted plant on the porch rail.
A volunteer pansy, the seed dropped from a potted plant on the porch rail.
Posted April 13, 2012, at 4:33 p.m.
Last modified April 17, 2012, at 10:29 a.m.

There is a fuzzy line between edibles and ornamentals in Marjorie’s garden. Take as an example the self-sown calendulas that pop up each year among the garden peas. They 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 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 cut flowers from a trailing nasturtium growing in a pot by the garden gate, its stems snaking through the onion bed, and add them to the same salad. After quick scrutiny for hiding insects, the golden blossoms are tossed in whole, providing a sharp peppery taste, much like the flavor of radishes. Nasturtium leaves are also edible and the seed pods can be pickled as an inexpensive substitute for capers.

On my way to the kitchen, I snap off a few bright yellow daylily (Hemerocallis sp.) flowers, popping a crisp petal in my mouth to melt on my tongue and release a flavor much like buttery lettuce but sweeter, a combination of zucchini and asparagus. While some people detect unique flavors among daylily flowers of different colors, I’ve sampled the several varieties in our garden and find differences mainly in texture.

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.

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. Once cooked, however, the berries are harmless and often used in making jams, jellies and elderberry wine.

Third, we use flowers sparingly in salads and other recipes. Large quantities often lead to digestive disorders. For example, you should use daylily petals sparingly as 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 blossoms.

Many edible flowers are self-sowers

Many plants with edible flowers are self-sowers, returning every year from seed produced the previous year.

Calendulas

This self-sowing annual grows in drifts and patches throughout our vegetable garden, its orange and yellow flowers serving as magnets for native bees. Every few years, when the seedling populations seem sparse, we scatter a few fresh seeds along bed edges, but in most years there are more than enough volunteers popping up everywhere. Calendulas are easy to transplant if you need them somewhere else in the garden.

Violas (pansies)

We always grow pansies in pots on the porch railings. Despite efforts to keep them floriferous by snipping off fading blooms, a few seed pods ripen on these plants, the seeds winding up in the beds beneath the porch. Each May, new seedlings appear in these beds beneath the spreading arms of elderberry shrubs and, as the season progresses, these self-sown pansies bloom in colors totally unlike their parents. Volunteer pansies also populate the vegetable garden, introduced from the compost pile.

Nasturtiums

One year I placed pots of nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) among the vegetables to create a moveable feast for bumblebees. The following year, nasturtium seedlings were popping up in beds where the pots had rested, evidence that their seeds can survive the winter. Yet there are years when there are no self-sown nasturtiums and we have to start with pots again. Perhaps winter survival of seeds is dependent on depth of snow cover.

This article came from my forthcoming book, “The New England Gardener’s Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, to be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.

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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