The Wild Gardener

Fine flowers have been an accompaniment to good meals for centuries, whether as bouquets on the table or actually placed on the plate. And in many of today’s fancier restaurants, flower garnishes — often nasturtiums or pansies — have begun replacing parsley. Unfortunately, many diners push these edible blossoms, meant to heighten the dining experience, off to exile on the edge of the plate.

Often, such flowers are also sold at fresh herb counters and better grocery stores, not just in the big cities but even in Smalltown, U.S.A.

But though they remain in good-enough shape to be used in bouquets, they begin to lose their taste and texture as soon as they’re picked. So if you want to savor the flavor of a great guacamole with cilantro flowers, or the punch of a bunch of nasturtiums in your salad, you should probably grow your own.

“By growing your own edible flowers,” writes the National Garden Bureau, “you’re assured of their freshness and they they’re grown organically. No doubt, some of the plants you already grow from seed to beautify your home have edible flowers.

“Nasturtiums are the most readily recognized edible flower, having made their debut on salads in restaurants across the country. Their bold orange or scarlet color enlivens mixed greens. Up close, they have slightly sweet fragrance, but their unique flavor sets them apart. Pop the entire flower into your mouth and as you chew, you first get sweet essence from the nectar, followed by a bold peppery tang.”

For years, my wife made a colorful, flavorful vinegar by adding nasturtium flowers to a good white-wine vinegar, then letting it sit in the dark (light fades the color) for several weeks. Strain out the flowers and pour the vinegar into a clean glass bottle. Use it to make especially flavorful salad dressings. You can also steep nasturtiums in vodka to make a great martini. Besides orange and scarlet, these flowers come in yellow, pale orange, cream and bi-colors.

Don’t forget pansies, either. My mother used to decorate iced cakes with a topping of pansy flowers. Combined with a very sweet, lemony icing, the flavor of these flowers is quite grand. Some pansies — primarily the blue-colored petals — have a delicate fragrance and a mild wintergreen flavor. For elegant hors d’oeuvres, spread some cream cheese on a cracker and top it off with an entire pansy.

And though most people think of dandelions as weeds, the flowers are edible when young. Some varieties are bred for their size and leaves. In certain Native American cultures, people would dip the entire young flower in egg and then in cornmeal. Fried, they’re said to taste like mushrooms.

[Peter Loewer, aka The Wild Gardener, is a regular contributor to Xpress.]

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