It’s comforting to tell myself that my gardening priorities — which have evolved from utilitarian to aesthetic since I planted my first sandbox-popcorn crop in 1957 — are a sign of maturation.
When I finally owned a bit of land 15 years later, vegetables still held my attention, and those first few adult gardens remained focused on food. But flowers began to sneak into the mix when I reached my 30s, first as optimistic — if fruitless — attempts at companion planting, but soon enough as flowers in their own right. Fifteen-or-so-years further on, I earned the amused laughter of an old-school gardener neighbor — whose ornamentals remain sequestered in flower beds — when she first visited my eclectic garden with as many glads as tomatoes and more dahlias than peppers. She couldn’t fathom why the zinnias, cannas, sunflowers, flocks, lilies, bachelor’s buttons, nasturtiums and dandelions were encouraged to grow cheek-by-jowl with potatoes, beans, squash, melons, okra, carrots and onions.
Over the years, flowers have gained ground in my heart. Yet dining has never been far from my mind, and the combined feasting of eye and palate has added to my agronomic as well as gastronomic pleasure. Attentive restaurateurs have generally adopted this philosophy of late, and for the same reason: Food should be beautiful as well as delicious, and a chef is hard pressed to invent something remotely as lovely as a bloom.
In July, daylilies provide a kaleidoscopic treat. Buds are delicious sauteed in butter, with or without garlic, or steamed with other veggies. Orange, red, yellow or peach petals can be arranged on salads, or chopped and sprinkled on any dish. Full-blown blossoms brighten morning pancakes — just place the flowers face down on a hot griddle and pour batter to encircle. When you flip them you’ll find the flower pattern atop each cake. (Note that lilies other than daylilies often contain alkaloids and are NOT edible. And while nearly every tome on the topic lists daylilies as good to eat, some people have allergic reactions to unusual plant compounds. Sample a small sliver of any untried blossom before tucking in for a full meal of the flower.)
Okra blossoms, which are worth growing for their hibiscus-like beauty (even if you don’t much like okra), and squash blossoms both have a sweet nectar flavor and are delicious dipped in batter and fried. Note that squash is monoecious, bearing both male and female blossoms — the females have miniature squashes at their base — so by selecting only the male blooms, you can enjoy the flower without sacrificing your squash crop. As sung by Loudon Wainwright III, “They know they’re expendable, after all, they’re men.”
Dandelion greens are commonly used for hot salads, but most folks don’t know that the very young buds fried in butter taste like mushrooms. Fully-opened blossoms make a beautiful garnish but are too bitter and chewy to add much to one’s diet. Sunflower buds are delicious served boiled and salted and served like artichokes with butter or hollandaise, or tossed on the grill after soaking in a balsamic vinegar and oil marinade. (Peel the green sepals before or after cooking, as they are resinous and a little bitter.)
Because colors tend to fade with cooking, salads provide the prettiest use for most blooms. At this point in the summer, impatiens are lush enough to spare the blossoms and are available in a wide range of colors. Other brilliant garnishes include gladiolus, with a flavor like lettuce, and snapdragons, which can be bland or slightly bitter. (Always examine snaps carefully before serving them to possibly squeamish guests, since they are often inhabited by color-mimicking bugs. You are what you eat, and they are what they eat, but many diners overlook philosophic niceties and turn up their noses when insects intermingle with flowers on the main course.)
Johnny-jump-ups, with their delicate tracery of sketched lines and contrasting petals, are sweet-to-bland in taste and should be used sparingly since they contain saponins, which may be toxic in large doses. Hollyhocks are bland but beautiful and always plentiful when well-established, while daisies are perfectly edible, though the centers are probably too chewy for real enjoyment. Geraniums, another vivid and plentiful option, taste different depending on the variety, running from lemon to mint — but the citronella variety may not be edible.
Showiest of all are the fuchsias, slightly acidic but the last word in elegant presentation for those of us who don’t grow edible orchids. Roses are a lovely — if strongly flavored — addition to the plate. For a touch of savoir faire, their blooms can be sprinkled liberally around the table, patio and walkway. The white inner ends of rose petals tend to be bitter, so trim the ones destined for plates and palates.
Among the spicier flowers, the blooms of most garden herbs usually deliver a more pungent version of the familiar leaf flavor. Basil, oregano, parsley, chives, rosemary and thyme each pack a culinary zap and cutting the flower spikes will help force more leaf growth for your winter dried-spice needs. Dill and cilantro flowers are pungent, but you then sacrifice your dill and coriander seed crop. Marigolds run from spicy to bitter (taste one before serving), cornflower runs from sweet to spicy and nasturtiums deliver a sweet, mildly peppery flavor that is hard to pass up once you’ve tried it. These days I grow it as much for the taste as for the brilliant yellow or orange coloration. Mustard and cress flowers add a certain piquancy to many dishes, as do arugula blooms. Chicory, nearly unique among weeds in its blueness, adds a wonderful dash of color, but tends to be too bitter for most people’s tastes. On the other hand, chicory buds make excellent sweet pickles (with sugar offsetting the bitterness). Radish blooms offer a milder version of the familiar root taste.
Among the subtler floral flavors, chamomile has a mild apple flavor (often used in hypnagogic teas), jasmine and gardenia offer delicate, sweet flavors also commonly brewed for beverage use. Mallow, too, is sweet and delicate while pansies run from mildly sweet to tart. Violets offer a sweet nectar flavor as do bean blossoms, albeit with a beanlike twist. Other flowers most often used for tea include hibiscus, which is slightly acidic; lemon verbena, which is lemony and lilac; also lemony but pungently floral. Clover is only used as a tea, since flower heads are considered to be indigestible, while bee balm brews into a tea somewhat reminiscent of Earl Grey. On the other hand, the fresh-cut electric red and purple flowers add a bright splash to salads.
Some blossoms are disagreeable or toxic, so it’s advisable not to experiment with varieties you don’t know. One that deserves special mention, given that it sounds and looks so inviting, is the flowering sweet pea — which is unquestionably poisonous. Once you begin to eat blooms you will never look at flowers the same way again. Pretty? Sure, but, hmmm, I wonder how it tastes?