Petal Power: Edible Flowers

Dry on paper towelling
Dry on paper towelling

Edible flowers have a long history of being grown for making dyes for food and fabrics, or as decorations for cakes, salads and garnishes. What’s surprising is how many commonly grown flowers are edible.
Elder is my earliest memory of an edible flower. Elderflower fritters are a tasty snack, elderberry wine and jam are good for the spirit, elderflower wine is sublime, its flowers are a feast for pollinators, and its leaves, which are toxic, make pesticide.

This is a handy, hardy, no-fuss shrub as long as it gets some water in dry weather. There are various species in cultivation, including our native Sambucus australis. There are also many ornamental cultivars. Elder is much derided in England as being a ‘council housing estate’ plant.

Across the border in Wales, it is encouraged as a hedgerow species, its spring blooms are eagerly awaited for their culinary uses. Plants growing as epiphytes are particularly prized in folklore. At Sydney Botanic Gardens it was planted to screen a shed used by gardeners. I noticed that old, woody stems on these screening plants get attacked by borer. While not usually harmful to the plant, if borer attack makes the foliage look tired, ragged or thin out, say during drought, cut the affected stems down tot ground level, then mulch and water deeply. New suckers will soon grow as replacements. When I posted an elderflower picture on Facebook,  Anja replied, “Not to forget elderflower cordial”, and Stacey said, “I made my first batch of Elderflower Champagne last year, and I can’t wait to do it again this season!”

Before you get carried away with edible flowers, please note that plants that have white, milky sap – like frangipani – are mostly toxic or the sap may irritate skin, eyes and mouth. Lettuce is one of the few exceptions to this rule of thumb. Well known toxic plants include Angels’ Trumpet (Brugmansia cvs and hybrids). If you’re uncertain about the palatability of a flower, please do a bit of book work before you eat any. Please check before you graze.

The edible parts of a flower are the petals, rather than the calyx. The calyx is usually green and is the part that encloses the unopened flower. These may taste bitter or may be unpleasantly fibrous. Rosella (Hibiscus sabdariffa), is en exception, this plant has edible calyces, petals and leaves.

Some flowers, like pansy and Johnny Jump Up’s should only be eaten in small quantities: think of edible flowers as a garnish rather than a main course!

I prefer using flowers I have grown myself so I can be certain they are clean and pesticide-free and, importantly, fresh. Flowers that are red, orange and yellow, such as Dwarf French marigold and Calendula, contain high levels of antioxidants, so they can add to the nutritional value of food.

Here’s a list of commonly grown edible flowers.

Sugar coated flowers can be dried and stored in air tight containers in the fridge for several weeks. To prepare:

* Wash and air dry the flowers on paper kitchen towelling. You can use a hair dryer to speed this up, just make sure it is set on cool as too much warmth can discolour the flowers;

* Whisk the white of an egg for one minute and use an artists’ brush to paint a thin layer over the whole flower;

* Sprinkle a thin layer of castor sugar over them. Don’t add too much or you will obscure the colour and patterns on the petals. Too much sugar can also weigh down and distort tubular flowers;

* Place on paper towelling and either air dry, dry using a hairdryer (set on cool) or dry in a herb dryer (on the lowest setting);

I’ve never considered sugar coating flowers from the onion family, although they make a great garnish. One of the most appealing flowers for sugar coating is Begonia. Begonias have juicy, tart tasting flowers which really compliment the sweetness. Sugar-coated mint leaves taste exquisite!

Jerry Coleby-Williams
31st August 2014


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