From garden to plate to palate.
by Michael Braunstein
April showers bring May flowers, or so goes the time-worn axiom. But you don't have to wait till May to enjoy the taste of peppery sweet nasturtiums on your table. At home or eating out, flowers can give a sense of celebration to your taste buds while proving healthy as well.
Somehow, I can't help but wish I grew up hearing "Mikey, eat your flowers!" rather than "Finish your broccoli." But I must admit, flowers weren't a common element of the daily meals at the Braunstein household. Don't get me wrong, there was lots of love and ample nutrition at the table, but flowers were relegated to vases, not dinner plates. And the first time I saw a flower on a salad plate, I thought, "Well, isn't that cute? What a nice garnish." But I never thought of eating it.
Rose, you look good enough to eat.
"Everything that is placed on a plate at a restaurant has to be edible. That's the law," Mary McGranaghan told us. Mary and her husband, Tom Foster, are the owners of McFoster's Natural Kind Café in Omaha.
"We've served flowers as part of our meals since we opened here in 1994. We did it at our earlier restaurant too. A lot of people, of course, don't initially think of eating them. But that's one of the things about McFoster's. We think about food differently."
Flowers for the palate are not a new idea. Just like any plant, mankind has eaten them since hunger was first invented. The fact is, they are nutritious and many have powerful healing properties. It's just that they don't provide a particularly hearty repast. Flowers, for the most part, have been relegated to the role of garnish. But garnish is oh-so-important to the overall culinary experience.
"Four vital senses are aroused when a magnificent meal is served," McGranaghan tells us. "First is sight. The look of the presentation is what you get first. Following is the aroma. Then there is the taste and finally the texture. Flowers are a big part of all of those. When a dish is beautifully garnished, it shows that love and care went into the preparation."
Culinary artists use flowers of all sorts and varieties to garnish and provide both nutrition and health with their meals. The most common of garden variety blossoms can enhance and elevate the dining moment. But the most common of gardens should not necessarily be the source of the bloom for food.
"You shouldn't eat just any flower. All the ones we serve are organically grown, without chemicals or pesticides, obviously," McGranaghan mentions. "We either grow them in our organic garden or get them from other sources that also grow them organically. Even during winter months, you will find flowers on our salad plates."
"We seem to use a lot of nasturtia, calendula, which is the marigold, scented geraniums, rose petals, borage, violets and lilies. Lilies are great munchies. They're like non-fat potato chips. And you should eat them petal by petal or you miss the whole thing. It's like a delicacy."
April showers bring . . . lunch!
One caution most sources give is that some flower blossoms, like some plants, can contain powerful allergens or even be poisonous. So it doesn't hurt to do a little investigating before you start tossing tansy with your turnips.
Here's a list of some of the flowers that are often considered to enhance a meal, usually in salad or as garnish but also in other ways too. From various sources, we've listed some common flowers that are used as edibles. We included some description and also information from Jonathan Lust's The Herb Book as far as some of the healing properties these flowers have.
- Borage (Borago officinalis)
McGranaghan: "We serve these a lot. It's a star-shaped blue blossom. Easy to grow." It has a light cucumber flavor. Lust: Flowers are medicinal, anti-fever, restores vitality in recuperation, diaphoretic, antidotal, calmative properties. Good for pleurisy and anti-inflammatory... - shouldn't be used for long periods.
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Actually the marigold, but the ornamental variety is not the best for eating. Choose hybrids grown for such. Tastes a little like saffron, spicy, tangy, peppery, adds a golden hue to the plate. Lust: Anti-spasmodic, flowers good for colitis, cramps, ulcers; for fever and anti-nausea.
- Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Has a faint apple flavor, good as a tea also. Lust: medicinal properties soothe asthma, help against insomnia, decoctions ameliorate toothache.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Earthy, eat either the petals or the buds. Lust: digestive aid, good for spleen problems, jaundice, excellent appetizer as it stimulates appetite.
This dandy lion is the king of the nutrition jungle. Flowers are excellent tasting, leaves are wonderful in salads and sources tout the powerful blood purifying properties of the plant. Don't eat the ones out of your yard if Chem-Lawn has you on their route!
- Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Very bland tasting flavor. Lust: Used to soothe sore throat, can heal mouth inflammation.
- Lavender (Lavendula species)
Floral, slightly perfumey flavor. Lust: Soothes migraine headache, flatulence, dizziness. Note: This is one of the blooms that some sources say may be harmful in large amounts.
- Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
My Omaha favorite. Has a distinct lemony taste with floral, pungent overtones. Great in salads.
- Common Mallow (Malva sylrestris)
Has a sweet, delicate taste like - - guess what? -- Yep, marshmallow. Chew the thick twig stem or use the blossoms. At certain times of the year when the twig stem is moist, you'll swear you're eating a marshmallow. Blossoms are sweet.
- Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
This is a McFoster's regular. A delicate trumpet-shaped bloom. Buds are often pickled and used like capers. The blossom petals have a sweet, mildly pungent, peppery flavor. Tom Foster: "You can eat the stems like a stick of candy. They have a sweet but spicy streak to them." You can serve the whole blossom as a salad garnish. Lust: Excellent chopped and blended with cream cheese or butter. Medicinal qualities include antiseptic, expectorant, good for chest cold, promotes formation of new blood cells.
- Rose (Rosa rugosa or R. gallica officinalis)
Rose petals have a sweet, aromatic flavor. The stronger the fragrance, the stronger the flavor. The lower (whitish) part of the petal is bitter. Rose hips are also edible. Note that rosehips are often included in supplemental vitamins as a premium ingredient. Lust: Remedy for headache, dizziness. Excellent blood purifier. Good source of Vitamin C and other anti-oxidants.
Hardly a shrinking addition to salads or floating gently in a bowl of soup. Sweet and subtle, the small blossoms are crunchy if served fresh.
There are a number of commonsense thoughts that should guide your diet regardless of its direction and the same holds true of eating flowers. Some parts of blossoms have more allergens than the petals. You may want to avoid the internal workings such as the pistils and stamens where the pollen is formed and stored. Eat in conservative amounts so that you know which flowers agree with you if you've never enjoyed trying them before.
Some flowers are just plain considered poisonous. Some of those are azalea, crocus, daffodil, foxglove, oleander, rhododendron, jack-in-the-pulpit, lily of the valley, poinsettia and wisteria. Eat flowers from a proper source. You wouldn't eat a hamburger you found lying by the side of the road. Don't presume it's ok to pick the flowers there either. Be well.
About the Author Michael Braunstein is Executive Director of Heartland Healing and certified by the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners in clinical hypnotherapy. He graduated from the Los Angeles Hypnotism Training Institute and was an instructor at the UCLA Extension University for 11 years.