Flowers adorn our gardens and homes with beauty and color. Did you know that you can eat flowers, too? While we often see flowers gracing a wedding cake, most of us don’t eat them. However, flowers can be used as a garnish, in salads, and even in cooked dishes, such as stir-fries. Eating flowers is nothing new. In fact, the use of flowers in cooking dates back as far as 3000 B.C. In ancient Rome, violets and roses were used in cooking, and lavender was used in sauces. Pumpkin and squash blossoms have long been used by many Native American tribes in a number of ways and eaten fresh, fried, in soups, or dried.
Flowers are more than just a pretty face: they provide a surprising number of nutrition benefits, too.
Vitamin C. Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is an essential nutrient, acting as an antioxidant. It’s also needed to make collagen, helps the body to absorb iron, and keeps the immune system working properly. Nasturtiums, roses, wild borage, and chive blossoms are sources of vitamin C.
Vitamin A. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin needed for healthy vision, the immune system, proper organ function, and reproduction. Flowers high in this vitamin include pumpkin flowers, roses, and lavender.
Potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps to regulate blood pressure and heart function. Many flowers are an excellent source of potassium such as chrysanthemum, dianthus, nasturtium, and begonias.
Phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are substances found in plants that provide health benefits. There are different types of phytonutrients, such as carotenoids and flavonoids; some are believed to help lower the risk of heart disease, for example, while others may lower risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and other inflammatory conditions. Phytonutrient-rich flowers include marigolds, nasturtiums, woodland violets, roses, and chrysanthemums.
Not all flowers are safe to eat. As tempting as it may be to snip off flowers from your garden or that bouquet on your table, be extra careful when it comes to eating them. It’s best to avoid eating flowers that come from florists, nurseries, or garden centers, as they are likely treated with pesticides. Don’t use flowers from these sources as a garnish, either. Even flowers from your own garden may contain unsafe chemicals if you’ve treated them. Your best bet for buying edible flowers is to visit your local farmer’s market (confirm with the vendor that they haven’t been treated), specialty food shops, and maybe even the produce (not the florist) section of your local grocery store. You can also purchase edible flowers online. Here are a few vendors to try:
• Gourmet Sweet Botanicals
• Marx Foods
• The Chef’s Garden
Beautiful though they may be, some flowers are downright dangerous and can even be deadly, especially for children. These include rhododendron, wisteria, oleander, foxglove, daffodils, and hydrangea. Make sure you know which flowers are safe to eat. You can contact your local Cooperative Extension division to double-check. Or, to be on the safe side, purchase your flowers from vendors that specialize in edible flowers. And obviously avoid any flowers that you may be allergic to or that trigger conditions such as hay fever or asthma.
Cleaning and storing edible flowers
Flowers are very perishable and won’t keep for long. Make sure they’re free of dirt and insects by shaking them gently and rinsing them in a bowl of cold water. Store them in the refrigerator and eat them as soon as you can. If you do need to keep them for a bit, place them between two moist paper towels and wrap them in plastic or an airtight container and keep them in the fridge. They should keep for up to a week.
Flowers to try
If you’re not used to eating flowers, it’s wise to start out slowly and discover flowers that are to your liking. Some flowers will have a stronger flavor than others. It’s also a good idea not to eat too many flowers at once to avoid an allergic reaction or stomach upset, for example. But to get you started, here are a few that you might try:
Hibiscus: salads, tea, and cocktails
Lavender: tea, cocktails, baked goods
Squash blossoms: sautés, soups
Rose petals: jam
Woodland violets: use as a garnish or freeze into ice cubes
Dandelions: salads, frittatas
Elderflower: infused in vinegar
An online search for using and cooking with edible flowers will give you plenty of options and ideas. Edible flowers are naturally low in calories and carbs and can add color, flavor, and variety to many of your foods and beverages.
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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.
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