Dress up your plate with these edible blooms

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If we’ve learned anything about the culinary use of edible flowers, it’s that we don’t want to eat a big salad of flowers. While they may be edible, most of them are either bland or not very palatable. What they are, is pretty.

They add bits of color to monochrome meals. They’re fun. They make great garnishes. They belong in salads, but only to spice up their looks. Think of most edible flowers as vegetable confetti. When making a special dish, celebrating a special occasion, or creating a fancy dessert, they’re just the ticket.

By reserving a bit of your flower garden for edible flowers, you’ll know they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. By choosing flowering plants from the following list, you’ll also know they’re safe to ingest and aren’t poisonous.

Most of them prefer full sun, but there are others that like full or partial shade. In either case, pick them in the morning when they’re at their plumpest. If you won’t use them until dinner or until tomorrow, dampen a paper towel, wrap the flowers in it, put it in a plastic bag used for food at the market, and place it in the fridge. If there’s any wilting when you go to use the flowers, float them in cold water for a few minutes.

For most edible flowers, you’ll use the petals. This means removing the stamens (the male parts with pollen), the styles (the female parts that carry pollen down to the ovary), and the hard lump at the base of the flower that is the ovary. With most flowers, you’re after the brightly colored petals.

A few flowers are okay to eat whole. The red flowers of scarlet runner beans can be added to salads. Little violas like Johnny-jump-ups and violets, and borage flowers with their mild cucumber flavor, make pleasant eating.

It may make the most sense to pick a spot in full sun for most of your edible flowers. Plant the shade lovers in pots as accents in a dappled part of your landscape. The three shade lovers listed here are all perennials, so give them generous pots to call home. You probably won’t want to plant all of the dozen sun lovers listed here, but separate those you choose into annuals and perennials, giving each type its own area in your edible flower plot. The perennials will typically have a shorter period of bloom than the annuals, which tend to pump out flowers through much of the growing season.

Two shrubs

Plant a repeat-blooming rose bush in your sunny edible flower garden. Choose by color rather than scent. Shell pink, soft yellow, and light orange petals cut to small bits with scissors can be sprinkled on salads to brighten them.

Rosemary blooms in late winter and fitfully at other times, but its pale blue flowers are always welcome on lamb. Sprigs of flowering rosemary can garnish roast leg of lamb and pork roasts, as well as side dishes like oven-roasted root crops, and creamed spinach.

Shade perennials

Fuchsias are not only colorful, they’re edible. They’re so pretty it seems a shame to deconstruct the blossoms. Use them whole to dress up cakes, or snip them to bits to add sparkle to fish and seafood.

Johnny-jump-ups make a fine addition used whole in salads, and their relatives the pansies add festive bits of color minced and sprinkled sparingly on soups.

Violets make the most charming decorations pressed lightly into the icing of cakes and cupcakes, or set singly on crème brulee or pots de crème.

Sun-loving perennials

Pop a flowering head of English lavender into your glass of cold sauvignon blanc and you’ll be amazed at the synergy of these two substances.

Calendula is a short-lived perennial. Its rich yellow petals dress up salads, soups, and poultry dishes.

In high summer the chicory (Ciccoria intybus) opens its sky blue, many-rayed flowers. If you’re not growing it but gathering it from the wild, make sure it hasn’t been sprayed or isn’t growing by a roadside where car exhaust and road contaminants can get at it. The petals are perfectly edible. They’ll blend with other colors on a fancy salad.

Chive blossoms are purplish balls of clustered flowers. Pick them apart and add them to salads, where they’ll impart not only color but the light flavor of onion.

Of all the sages, pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is perhaps the most useful in the kitchen. Its cardinal red flowers in late summer and fall can decorate herbal teas or cocktails, or make exciting fruit salads. Toss the red flowers onto a green salad, too.

Sun-loving annuals

Grow basil for the culinary uses of its leaves (such as for pesto), but don’t forget the purplish flower heads that can add color and basil flavor to salads.

Borage flowers are the purest hue of true blue and they taste of cucumber. Bees love them. Garnish cold long drinks with them as you relax after a hot summer day.

Cornflowers are another blue beauty. Sow seed in early spring for a brilliant summer display. Tear up the petals and sprinkle on salads, desserts, and, just for kicks, pizza.

Nasturtium flowers are not only brightly colorful, they are also spicy. Snip the leaves into confetti and sprinkle some on the kids’ spaghetti.

Pound a post into the back part of your edible flower garden and plant three seeds of scarlet runner beans around it, then train the vines up on the post.

The red flowers have a pleasant bean taste and their matte red color will help dress up a salad of mixed greens.

None of these plants takes a lot of work. And not every dish from your kitchen needs vegetable confetti to dress it up. But used judiciously, the bright colors of edible flowers will create memories in those you’re feeding that will last a lifetime.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net

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