Flowers have to work hard to earn their keep in my garden. I expect them to draw in beneficial insects, suppress weeds, look attractive and ideally be edible too. That might seem like a big ask but, perhaps surprisingly, there are more than a few flowers that meet my needs. Here are my favourites.
Top 5 Edible Flowers
Nasturtiums. Nasturtiums were the first flowers I ever ate. They continue to be one of my must-grow flowers because they perform so many valuable garden functions. They pull in pollinators, act as a sacrificial crop to help protect my brassicas, beautify my plot and even provide a useful windbreak as they twine through the low fence surrounding my vegetable garden.
On top of all this, their peppery flowers and leaves add variety to salads and sandwiches. Even the freely generated seed pods can be pickled and eaten, if you like that sort of thing. (I don’t, unfortunately!)
Calendula. Calendula petals have many uses, but I love them most for their vivid colour. They’ll give some zing to a simple syrup that can be used to make exciting cocktails, or you can make oils, vinegars and butter with them. They can even be used as a saffron substitute.
Hemerocallis. You have to be quick for Hemerocallis – the clue’s in their common name of ‘daylily’ – but the opportunistic gardener can use the buds and flowers in stir fries, soups and salads.
Sunflowers. Add the petals to a green salad or, once the flowers have passed, eat the seeds raw or toasted. Or you can just leave them to attract wildlife. Bugs love the nectar, while seed-eating birds will appreciate their protein-rich seeds later in the season.
Elder. Not forgetting woody plants, some shrubs also have edible flowers. Elder bears frothy flowerheads that can be deep-fried in batter or turned into refreshing cordial or wine. Don’t harvest too many flowers all at once though – leave plenty behind for wildlife, as well as to glean a useful second harvest of berries for making delicious drinks and sweet pies.
Other Edible Flowers
Those are just my favourites; there are plenty of other edible flowers to experiment with! Try pansies or violas, cornflowers, primroses, borage, French marigolds or sweet William. The flowers of most herbs can be used as a milder version of their leaves too.
And don’t dismiss the flowers of many common vegetables – for instance, squash flowers can be fried in batter or stuffed with cheese or rice, and if any of your brassicas begin to bolt you can harvest them as ‘raab’.
Harvesting Edible Flowers
Make sure to correctly identify any flower you intend to eat, because some are poisonous. There’s a worrying trend for some food bloggers to use questionable flowers in photo shoots to pretty up their dishes, so don’t believe everything you see on the internet!
Avoid picking flowers from busy roadsides or anywhere frequented by dogs or farm animals. If you buy flowers as young plants, grow them on for several months before eating the flowers, just in case they’ve been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. The surest way to obtain edible flowers that are not tainted with pesticide or herbicide residue is, of course, to grow your own from seed.
Pick flowers fresh on the day you wish to use them. Usually the petals are the only part of the flower that is used, so discard all other parts and wash off any pollen. Umbelliferous plants such as fennel and dill can be used whole, thank goodness – can you imagine trying to remove the tiny petals from elderflower?
Remember, flowers attract insects so make sure to give them a shake to remove hangers-on, and a wash to get rid of any tiny creatures that are not so easily dislodged. It’s no good attracting beneficial bugs into your garden only to eat them yourself – unless that’s your intention. They do say insects are packed with protein after all!