The colorful flowers of roses, lavender, daylilies and bee balm grace our gardens. In addition to being a feast for our eyes, their flowers can enhance the flavor of baked goods, meat dishes, salads, beverages, jams and jellies. Some flowers are as versatile in the kitchen as they are in the garden.
You may already have edible flowers in your garden. Shrubs, herbs, annuals, perennials and even weeds like wild violets and dandelions have parts that are edible. Trees, too. Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are classic ornamental plants used by Native Americans as a food source. The buds can be pickled and used like capers; the flowers have a sour taste and are rich in vitamin C.
Don't believe it? Learn more and actually taste foods made with flowers at the 13th annual Edible Flowers Food Fest, which begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Buffalo Inn, Corrigan Drive and McConkey Road, South Park.
Shrubs with edible petals include lilacs, roses and elderberries, and perennials include bee balm, daylilies and bachelor buttons. Nasturtiums and pot marigolds are annuals you can eat. In addition to lavender, herbs include anise hyssop, chamomile and chives. Add bulbs such as onions and tulips and these annual vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, radish, arugula and squash blossoms.
Where space is limited, lemon or orange trees can be grown in containers and overwintered indoors. Orange blossoms steeped in distilled water have been used in Moroccan cooking for centuries.
If you'd like to experiment with adding flowers to your cooking repertoire, you must follow several guidelines:
First and foremost, know what flowers are edible versus those unpalatable or poisonous. It is a pre-requisite to correctly identify the plants you plan to ingest and know their botanical names (you'll dazzle your non-gardening friends). For instance, daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are edible, but belladonna lily (Amaryllis belladonna), gloriosa lily (Gloriosa spp.), and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) are poisonous. The flowers from common garden peas (Pisum sativum) are edible, but flowers from sweet peas (Lathyrus spp.) are not. Simply knowing that a plant is a lily or a pea will not suffice if you intend to eat the flowers!
Know and trust the source of the flower; it must be organically grown. It is best to eat what you have grown yourself or have purchased from a trusted source. It is possible to find some flowers in the market -- dried culinary lavender can be found in specialty spice stores. Do not eat flowers from garden centers or florists. They may have been sprayed with pesticides. Do not eat flowers harvested from the side of the road or a neighbor's front path -- dogs may have "watered" them.
Introduce this new food category into your diet judiciously. Like any food, flowers can be allergens. Individuals with asthma, allergies or hay fever should avoid flowers from the daisy family.
Within a genus, cultivars may have different flavors and some may be more appealing than others. The deep red varieties of bee balm such as Monarda 'Jacob Kline' have large delicate petals with a spicy but sweet flavor.
Freshly harvested edible flowers can be used in a myriad of sweet or savory recipes. Start by adding a mixture of petals (nasturtiums, borage, violets) into a salad of mixed greens. Top a hot vegetable dish with chive or onion blossoms.
The best time to harvest edible flowers is, as with herbs, in the morning after the dew has dried but before the blooms are wilted by the heat of the day. Remove the stamen and pistil. It is the flower petal that you want to eat. Gently rinse the petals in cool water and drain. A few flowers require extra effort. Roses and tulips have a lovely flavor, but the white base tends to be bitter, so it must be removed. Pinch or cut it off.
While many recipes call for fresh flowers, petals can also be preserved for later use. There are many methods of preserving. It is critical to know which methods are safe and to implement them correctly. Drying is a safe, simple method, although some flowers lose their delicate flavor when dried. Store dried flowers in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place for up to one year.
"Candy" rose petals and violets to embellish your favorite dessert. Even the most skilled baker would be hard-pressed to improve on a glistening, natural flower. Candying is accomplished by painting frothed, pasteurized egg whites onto the entire flower or petal. Next, superfine sugar is gently dusted on the flowers. Air-drying, on a rack, is the final step. Sugared petals can be stored in single layers in an airtight container for up to one year.
Many flowers freeze well: violets in ice cubes are an elegant addition to lemonade. You can safely infuse the flavor of edible flowers in water, sugar, sugar syrups and butter (refrigerate and use within a few days). Do not infuse edible flowers in oil or honey as this method poses a risk of botulism. If you want to preserve flowers in jams or jellies, use a reputable source for instructions and recipes. For more on cooking, eating or preserving edible flowers, check out the books, publications and websites.
"Eat Your Roses: Pansies, Lavender and 49 Other Delicious Edible Flowers" by Denise Schreiber (a Pittsburgher!).
"Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate" by Cathy Wilkinson Barash.
"The Edible Flower Garden" by Rosalind Creasy.
"Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving" by the USDA.
"Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving."
"Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving."
"So Easy to Preserve" by the Cooperative Extension of the University of Georgia.
"Let's Preserve," a series of brochures issued by Penn State University: http://extension.psu.edu/food/preservation/safe-methods/lets-preserve.garden
Susan Marquesen is a Penn State Master Gardener and a Penn State Master Food Preserver. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.