Flowers have been used for culinary purposes since ancient times. And their use in cooking is enjoying something of a revival today. Here’s our guide to munching your way through the flower garden…
When contemplating just what it is that makes flowers so naturally lovely, you might perhaps be inclined to say it’s their colours… or perhaps their delicate fragrance.
Tasty doesn’t necessarily spring straight to mind.
And yet throughout history, humans have chomped their way through a veritable floral smorgasbord. Using flowers for everything from from adding extra vibrancy to salads to spicing up soups, to producing delectable sweets and desserts…
Saffron and marigolds
Afghan saffron – Image credit.
You’ll be familiar with the idea of using flowers such as jasmine, rose or hibiscus to make fragrant teas. You might even have sampled stuffed courgette flower, or enjoyed a glass or two of elderflower wine. But perhaps you haven’t quite considered tucking into your pot marigold.
In fact, flowers have served an important medicinal and culinary role over the centuries, with one of the earliest known references to edible flower petals occurring in 140BC, when they were apparently used as a garnish.
The ancient Greeks are known to have used saffron, taken from the inside of the crocus flower, to spice up their medicinal soups, and over time the use of saffron to add flavour to dishes became popular throughout Europe.
However, saffron was (and still is) notoriously expensive. Enter the calendula, or marigold, which became known as ‘poor man’s saffron’,Whose orange petals offer a suitable – and much cheaper – substitute for saffron. While both the flowers and leaves can be used in a variety of dishes, including salads, seafoods and even desserts.
From medieval salads to the Boston Bea Balm Party
In the Middle Ages, the salad was quite a different state of affairs to today. With ingredients commonly including the primrose and sweet violet, as well as herbs such as mint and parsley.
Medieval monks enjoyed steaming flower petals to produce oils, which were then used to create flower waters. They would also use violet flowers to make sweet syrups.
Some edible flowers have even played a key role in our political history.
Take monarda didyma, or bee balm, which was traditionally used by native Americans for its medicinal properties. Following the events of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, English tea was in short supply. Most of it having been thrown into Boston harbour as part of a protest against taxes.
Bee balm was used in its place by the colonial settlers (which is probably why you still can’t get a decent cuppa in the States).
Victorian rose puddings
Victorians tuck into their dinner of popular flowers
As well as being obsessed with the language of flowers, the Victorians loved to chomp on a good bloom.
Roses and violets were among their flowers of choice, with frosted rose petals and candied violets being used to create beautiful cakes and desserts. (Though apparently their recipes used butter rather than Flora – sorry).
But the Victorians weren’t alone in that. Roses are, of course, famous for their delicate scent, and rosewater is used in many cuisines across the world, including sweets like baklava and Turkish delight.
Rose hips can also be used for jams, jellies and syrups, and have a high vitamin C content.
Fancy yourself as a flower chef?
Nasturtium salad. Image credit.
Today, flowers are regaining popularity in the kitchen. With the pansy in particular making regular appearances on Masterchef. Its vibrant petals now adorn many a fine salad in Michelin-starred restaurants around the UK.
Many modern recipe books also now include well-known flowers among their list of ingredients, from baby daffodils, to heather flowers and even fuchsias.
Here are three more flowers you might not have thought of eating:
Nasturtiums – the nasturtium, coming from southern and central America, is fully edible. With its bright flowers not only offering a cheery accompaniment to your salad, but also adding a notable peppery taste. The flowers are also high in vitamin C and lutein, and the seeds can be used as a condiment.
Pinks – the dianthus, or carnation (also known as ‘pinks’). With its characteristic serrated-edged petals, became a particularly popular culinary tool among the French. Having a spicy, clove-like taste – although today it is perhaps appreciated more for its aesthetic than its edible qualities, and is more likely to been seen in a vase than on your dinner plate.
Chrysanthemums – the chrysanthemum is a particularly popular ingredient in Asian cuisine. Where the flowers are used for various purposes, including making sweet drinks and flavouring rice wine. While in China the leaves are steamed or boiled and eaten as greens – offering an interesting alternative for your five a day.
Green Tea with Chrysanthemum. Image credit.
Important! Don’t necessarily try this at home…
It’s worth remembering that some plants and flowers are inedible or even poisonous. And that even edible flowers should be approached with a degree of caution, with some having rather less desirable effects if consumed in sufficient quantities. Including those containing cyanide precursors, and others acting as diuretics (including daylily and borage).
Any flowers that are intended for consumption should also be fresh and organically grown.
At Freddie’s Flowers, we do make delicious arrangements. Though we recommend that you mostly just sit and look at them, perhaps with a nice drop of rosé. Sign up for a delivery box of amazing flowers for just £22 a pop here.