One of the most striking things about growing food with forest gardening is how many flowers end up on your plate. When you think about it though, the stranger thing is perhaps why this part of the plant has been neglected in our cookery for so long (apart from immature flowers like cauliflowers and artichokes). After all, plants are pretty keen on producing them and there is a massive industry dedicated to breeding and growing them for non-edible purposes.
Recently, the balance seems to have shifted and there is a bit of a fashion for eating flowers. There’s a good, comprehensive article on the subject here. However, a lot of this is driven by the search for novelty in fancy restaurants or is based on picking a few flowers off basically ornamental species to decorate a dish. There is a much shorter list of flowers that can really be considered as crops in themselves, either because they are so productive that they are worth growing as the main yield or because they are a by-product of a plant that is cropped for some other part. My short list is: day lilies, bellflowers, salsify, pot marigold, king’s spear, alliums, mallow, courgette, peas, runner bean, nasturtium, dandelion and (maybe) tiger lily and golden currant.
Day lilies, salsify and bellflowers are the three most productive: best fried, steamed and in salads respectively. All three illustrate an important point about eating flowers: the more you pick, the more you have of them. For a plant, a flower is just a means to an end: getting pollinated and producing seeds. Once that has been achieved it rapidly switches its resources to the growing fruit or seed head and stops flowering, but if you frustrate its ambitions it will often keep on trying, sometimes for the rest of the year.
Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are not bulk producers like the last three, but a small patch will produce a lot of flowers over the course of a summer. It is the petals that are used: they add a subtle but interesting flavour and an entirely unsubtle, cheerful colour to practically any dish. Perhaps they are best regarded as a herb. They are equally good raw in a salad or cooked in almost anything and unlike most flowers they keep their colour no matter how much you cook them. On top of this they are famously good for the health of the garden, producing chemicals that kill or repel little parasitic worms called nematodes. This combination of qualities, plus their relative ease of growing, wins them a place in my garden.
The alliums or onions are a group with too many edible species to even list. They are often grown for their leaves or bulbs but the flowers are usually edible too and they are often available when the rest of the plant has either died down or become woody. Chives (A. schoenoprasum) are one that I use a lot. Like all alliums, its flowers are borne on little stems radiating from a central point. The trick to using it is to get your thumbnail into this central point and nip it out, causing an explosion of little pink florets. Chive flowers are mild enough for salads. Wild garlic (A. ursinum) can also be used but has a much stronger, more garlicky flavour. Golden garlic (A. moly) hardly looks like an allium at all, with relatively few flowers per head and those bright yellow. The flowers add a sweet oniony flavour to a salad and the leaves and bulbs can be used too. Round-headed leek (A. sphaerocephalon) has huge, showy balls of edible flowers.
Common mallow has the advantage that it will grow in the shade. It’s an all-round useful plant that I’ve already written about here.
Across in the annual garden, courgettes (or zucchini if you prefer) are already moderately well known, especially frittered. Sometimes the baby courgette is harvested along with the flower but if you’re careful you can break the flower off the end of the fruit before it wilts, allowing you to both have your courgette and eat it(s flower).
Other annual crops that have unexpectedly edible flowers are mangtout peas, sugar snap peas and runner beans. The runners in particular are delicious and mine always produce far more flowers than they are capable of ripening into pods, so a little thinning does no harm at all. Don’t be deceived by appearances though: sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata) are not edible.
Another annual famed for its edible flowers is the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus – a bit confusingly, Nasturtium as a Latin name refers to water cress, not nasturtiums.) Every part of the nasturtium is edible, with a hot, cress/pepper flavour. In fact they are too strong for me – the only way I like to use them is to pickle the seeds and use them like capers – but if you like a cress flavour then this is the plant for you.
I don’t plant dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) in the forest garden but, as you’d expect, I have them anyway. In fact they’re a fairly low level weed in the forest garden, so in contrast to my zero-tolerance approach in the annual beds I’m fairly lax about pulling them out, happy to make occasional use of the spring leaves and flowers in the meantime. Dandelion flowers should be cooked, preferably in ways that either exploit their bitterness or minimise it with a starchy component. Fritters and bhajis are good, or you could try the spicy fried dandelion recipe I found on a rather good blog by Ciaran Burke in Ireland.
Finally, a couple I haven’t tried yet but have high hopes for. Golden currant (Ribes aureum) has very pretty flowers which are said to be edible. It is closely related to buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), which grows well here, so I’ve ordered some and expect them to thrive. Then there is tiger lily (Lilium linifolium). I am already growing this for its edible bulbs but I found out recently that the flower is edible too, with some very enthusiastic reports online. On the other hand, Plants for a Future list the pollen as poisonous, which could make eating the flowers a delicate business. More research, as they say, is needed.