By Ronni Martin. NSCF Education & Support Team Manager
Bring colour and interest to your garden and plate by growing edible flowers. Edible flowers can create a colourful show in your front garden. Or they can be distributed through your vegetable beds or around fruit trees where their other uses in attracting beneficial insects and pollinators will be appreciated. You can even grow some edible flowers in containers on your deck or balcony where they are close to the kitchen.
Edible flowers can be used to garnish sweet or savoury dishes, as well as in flower butters, oils or liqueurs. They make great decorations on cakes or desserts, either fresh or candied. Zucchini and daylily flowers can be stuffed with tasty fillings and steamed or baked. However, most flowers are served fresh, not cooked, so that they keep their colour and texture.
You are already eating some edible flowers as the common ‘vegetables’ broccoli, cauliflower, and artichokes are all flowers. The spice saffron is the stamen from the crocus flower, while cloves are flower buds. Capers are the unopened flower buds of a bush native in the Mediterranean.
Flowers are part of the traditional cuisine around the world. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe and India, floral waters such as rosewater and orange flower water are used to flavour sweets, meats and beverages. The French mixture known as “Herbes de Provence” has dried lavender flowers in it, while the liqueur Chartreuse contains carnation flowers.
Choosing edible flowers
Some flowers are poisonous so always identify flowers accurately before eating them. And use flowers as a garnish, so you eat them in moderation.
Some common garden flowers to be avoided (but not a complete list) are: arum, azalea, crocus, daffodil, foxglove, hydrangea, iris, oleander, lilies, lily of the valley, lobelia, and wisteria.
Only the petals of composite flowers (daisy-like flowers) are edible. The pollen of composite flowers is allergenic and may cause reactions in sensitive people. Sufferers of asthma and hay-fever should not consume composite flowers, and may have extreme allergies to ingesting any flowers at all. If you have any allergies, consult your doctor before consuming edible flowers.
There are a few cautions to remember before harvesting any flowers:
- Don’t harvest any flowers that could have been exposed to animal excrement.
- Don’t harvest any flowers that have had insecticides sprayed on them.
- Don’t harvest any flowers from the side of roads where they have been exposed to carbon monoxide or other pollutants.
- Don’t eat any flowers from florists as they may have been sprayed with pesticides.
- Don’t pick any flowers that show signs of disease or have been eaten by insects.
Common edible flowers for the subtropics
*= Composite flowers. Only the petals of composite flowers (daisy-like flowers) are edible.
Chives (garden & garlic)
Cilantro / Coriander
Impatiens / Busy lizzie
Johnny Jump Up (Heartsease)
Pineapple guava / Feijoa
Rose of Sharon
Using edible flowers
Pick your flowers in the morning when their water content is at its highest. Then wash the flowers gently in salt-water and immediately drop them in cold water for 1 minute. Dry on a tea towel. Then separate the petals, remove the stamens and stems as they are often woody or bitter. Use your flower petals immediately, or store the whole flower in a glass of water in the refrigerator overnight.
Growing Edible Flowers
The first task when planning to grow flowers is to find out the growing conditions the different types need. Seed packets or plant labels will tell you their soil, light and temperature requirements.
Most flowers thrive in well-drained, fertile soil enriched with compost. However, go easy on high-Nitrogen soil amendments as they will increase leaf growth at the expense of flowering. A layer of mulch around the plants will help to keep the soil cool in summer, retain moisture, and feed soil micro-organisms.
Grow plants with similar light and water requirements together to make it easier to give them the conditions they need. Most plants will flower better in full sun, but in the subtropics they will do just as well in part-shade, especially shade from the summer afternoon sun.
Give plants at least one good watering a week but more often in hot summers. Container grown flowers may need daily watering.
To ensure the edible flowers look their best, give them some shelter from strong winds. Even a few taller plants in the main wind direction will help to shelter smaller plants behind them.
‘Deadheading’, removing flowers once they drop their petals, extends the flowering time by encouraging the plant to create more flowers. However, you can collect your own seed if you leave some flowers on selected plants to set seed.
My ‘Top 10’ edible flowers for the subtropics, in alphabetical order, are:
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Sow seed spring to summer. Sun to part shade. Grows to 90cm. Bee attracting blue flowers, edible leaves.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Sow seed autumn to spring. Sunny position. Fertile soil. Collect seed and deadhead regularly. Orange to yellow flowers.
Cornflower (Centaurea cyanea)
Sow seed autumn to winter. Sun to part shade. Fertile soil. Grows to 60cm. Blue (pink to mauve) flowers.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus, C.sulphureus)
Sow seed in late winter to spring. Sun to part shade. Drought tolerant.
C. bipinnatus: pink to red flowers, up to 1.5m tall.
C. sulphurea: orange to yellow flowers, 45 – 50cm tall
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva and cultivars)
Propagate by division. Full sun. drought tolerant. Strappy leaves form a clump to 50cm. Botanically it is not a Lily, so the flowers are edible. Numerous colours and cultivars.
Dianthus (Dianthus spp)
Propagate from cuttings. Biennial. Full sun. Drought tolerant, needs good drainage. In acid soils, add lime. Deadhead regularly. Pinks to reds. 10 to 50cm. Pinks, Carnations and Sweet Williams are all species of Dianthus.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, H. acetosella, H.sabdariffa, H. tiliaceus)
Propagate from cuttings or seed. Full sun. There are many species of hibiscus, all with edible flowers.
H. rosa-sinensis – ‘hawaiian hibiscus’ – small trees or shrubs. Many cultivars with flowers from pink to yellow, red and white.
H. acetosella – cranberry hibiscus. –small shrub to 2m. Deep pink flowers and red leaves are edible.
H. sabdariffa – roselle. Swollen calyxes are used to make jam or drinks.
H. tiliaceus -native hibiscus. This tree is too big for most backyards, but the flower is edible if you spot a tree in flower somewhere.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Sow seed direct, in spring to autumn. Sun to part shade Poor soil increases flower production. Drought tolerant. Orange to yellow flowers, edible leaves. Groundcover.
Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans)
Propagate by cuttings. Sun to part shade.. Red flowers and pineapple-scented leaves are edible. Small shrub to 1.5m.
Viola (Viola spp)
Sow seed summer to winter. Fertile soil, mulch to protect surface roots. Keep moist. Deadhead regularly. Purples, yellows, whites. Viola, pansy, heartsease, and Johnny Jump Up are all species of Viola.