Floating on a sea of baby lettuce, a nasturtium draws my eyes like a bright orange beacon. I've never thought of eating flowers, but here on my plate at a local café is the same Day-Glo bloom I'm used to admiring while hiking or wandering the neighborhood; the idea of popping such beauty into my mouth makes me pause.
I smell the blossom first, then touch its velvety surface to my lips. I hold the petal away from me and think, "Is this really OK to eat?" I'm not concerned about toxicity, but about symbolism: Here is a magnificent, fleeting display of aliveness—offered up for my pleasure, to crunch and swallow. A blossom is a plant's last creative shout before turning to seed; a potent reminder of our own potential to unfurl, to bloom, and ultimately to wilt; a decadent display of beauty. And I'm about to eat it!
Of course, take away its exotic appearance, and a flower is no different than any common fruit or vegetable that is picked and eaten. With that thought, I put it in my mouth and am surprised at how fleshy and peppery it is, how it leaves a residue of sweetness.
That first flower was a revelation—that simple foodstuffs can be so provocative, visually, sensually, and philosophically. It renewed my sense of gratitude for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for my own vitality and potential.
Of course, as soon as I started paying attention, I discovered I was eating flowers all the time. They're disguised as dried spices like saffron, which is actually the stigmata—the inner crimson threads—of Crocus sativus; they flavor preserves like rose petal jam and many vinegars; they're the basis for herbal infusions like hibiscus tea.
No matter how often I saw them and ate them, though, they still had power to thrill me and surprise my palate. And I wasn't the only one affected that way. My sister told me she had been to a party where vast quantities of sushi were served on large trays, a perfect pansy blossom atop each piece. The trays sat on broad tables like purple and white fields, and inspired the guests to nibble slowly, so as not to reduce the magnificent landscape too quickly.
Down the Garden Path
If you garden at all, you probably have beautiful blooms to eat—provided they're organic. For the best flavor, pick flowers early in the day, and eat them as soon as possible. Of course, there are poisonous specimens too, so buy a flower guide for your area before munching like a rabbit on any old backyard bloom. If you have borage, calendulas, chrysanthemums, nasturtiums, pansies, roses, or violets on hand, float a petal on top of pureed soup or mix a few in with your lettuces. Try freezing violets in ice cube trays for a more appetizing rendition of the plastic frozen-fly trick you may remember from childhood.
So many edible flowers are easy to grow, it's almost a crime not to devote some corner of earth—even a window box or pot—to cultivating plants that produce gorgeous blossoms you can both eye and eat. If you have poor soil, try nasturtiums. These creeping vines produce a ton of blossoms ranging from yellow to deep maroon, even in the driest clay soil.
Calendula, also called pot marigold (and commonly used for medicinal purposes), is easy to grow and offers up basketfuls of blossoms in radiant oranges and yellows. After removing the center petals, you can use calendulas to brighten salads and garnish rice dishes, frittatas, or soups. In a pinch, a friend once searched her backyard for something to decorate a birthday cake and came up with late-blooming calendula, whose glossy orange petals gave an electric sheen to the white-frosted cake.
If you're not inclined to dirty your hands, or if you're an urban dweller without a garden, don't give up on edible beauty. Visit farmers' markets for the freshest, most reasonably priced selection. Many natural-food stores now carry edible flowers in the produce section, and some chain grocery stores stock them near the fresh herbs. But don't visit your favorite florist shop expecting to use its wares for food: They've been doused with a heavy load of non-food-grade pesticides.
Blossoms are a perishable, often expensive, and some might say non-nutritive commodity. But, I would argue, the deep nourishment that comes through beauty rivals vitamins and calories, at least for those of us who are already well fed. Often, it is the small indulgences that bring the greatest satisfaction—and this luxury won't make you fat or jittery.
Once you get your hands on some edible, organic flowers, try cooking with them. I, for one, am partial to "manicotti" in full bloom—the fleshy, yellow blossoms from zucchini plants, stuffed and baked, make a perfect replacement for the traditional pasta shell. Gerald Gass, head chef at the McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, California, often removes these thick petals and sautés them with vegetables in a stir-fry.
Chrysanthemums too, with their sturdy red, white, orange, or yellow petals, can be cooked with seasonal vegetables, adding glorious hues and a pungent flavor. "You don't get these kinds of colors with ordinary food," says Gass, who cooks only with produce grown in the organic gardens outside the ranch kitchen. Indeed, walking with Margaret Koski-Kent, head gardener at the McEvoy Ranch, I was dazzled by dozens of radiant flowers growing among the fruit trees and vegetable beds.
Pick the Proper Petal
Not all buds are pleasing to the palate, I soon discovered, as we walked among the towering hollyhocks and vines heavy with yellow gourds and nibbled on flowers from several plants. The bean blossoms, firm, fresh, and sweet, tasted like their name, but so did a society garlic blossom—lavender-hued and star-shaped. It filled my mouth with the unmistakable taste of garlic and overpowered the flavor of the next few blossoms I sampled. And a deep red salvia bloom, with its long tubular throat, was earthy and tough—not exactly a flower you'd want to serve to guests.
It's easy to forget that what you put into your mouth comes directly from the earth. But a flower can jog your memory and remind you of the garden where it came from and to which we all belong.