Striking colors, delicate fragrance ... bold flavors? Flowering plants, shrubs, and bushes add beauty and character to your garden, but did you know they can also bring an unexpected kick to your recipes? Since ancient Roman times, chefs have used seasonal blooms in various cuisines to give dishes a signature look and flavor. Though times have changed, fresh and dried blossoms are still an exciting way to bring color, nutrition, and tradition to the table.
Used for centuries for medical, culinary, and ornamental purposes, the Calendula officinalis or pot marigold remains a staple in many cuisines. Orange and yellow flowers add brilliance to stews and salads, with a spicy taste similar to saffron. The petals also make for a vibrant garnish on festive meals. Add them to your herb garden to draw aphids away from valuable herbs and vegetables instead of using pesticides. Plant marigolds in a section of the yard where there's room for new growth or harvest blooms before they go to seed.
Native to the Balkan Peninsula, the enchanting lilac made its way to America with the immigrants. They planted the aromatic shrub in their gardens to remind them of home, and they brought lilac-perfumed recipes along as well. The flavor is intense: savory and floral with a hint of bitterness. Enjoy a cup of fragrant tea, or sweeten iced teas and baked desserts with lilac-infused honey. Make lilac syrup to use as a sweetener for lemonades, cocktails, or pancakes. As with all flowers, be sure to slowly introduce them into your diet to keep from overwhelming your digestive system.
The Chrysanthemum coronarium goes by many names: chop suey greens, shungiko, crown daisies, and garland chrysanthemums. The leaves add a distinct aroma and flavor to Korean, Chinese, and Japanese stir-fries and soups. The flower buds are also useful in the kitchen. Bright petals make an attractive garnish for salads, or you can harvest mature flowers and unopened buds and dehydrate them for future use. Use dried chrysanthemum to steep a beautiful yellow herbal tea with a distinct fragrance.
Roses are some of the most popular flowers in ornamental gardens and a handy secret ingredient in the kitchen. Their signature perfume lends a delicate aroma to foods, with flavor profiles ranging from sweet to spicy to minty. Though each flower's taste varies, a darker-colored rose usually means a more pronounced flavor. Garnish desserts with unblemished petals, or freeze imperfect blooms inside ice cubes for a party. Make an infusion with dehydrated petals for afternoon tea. You can also use the fragrant flower in syrups, jellies, and even butter for an unexpected touch of elegance.
More than 1,000 varieties of the allium family exist, including leeks, chives, garlic, and onions. Cultivated for over 500 years, these decorative plants also grow fragrant, edible blooms. The flowers usually taste similar to the leaves, only with a more subtle aroma. Use the colorful, orb-shaped blossoms as a mild garnish on soups and salads or to flavor meat and vegetable dishes.
Squash is a staple in many spring gardens because the plant is easy to grow. As your gourds grow, don't forget to harvest the brilliant, yellow-orange flowers among the foliage. Squash blossoms are a prized dish in many Western cultures, and the recipes to prepare them are endless. Stuff them with a filling of cheeses, rice, or vegetables, cooking the blossoms in fat until they are browned and crispy. You can also chop up the flowers and add them to stews, stir-fries, and quesadillas.
A sunflower's recognizable form inspires visions of sunbathed fields and clear blue skies. Most people assume that sunflowers are only useful for the seeds, but all parts are edible and make delicious snacks. If you like artichokes, try cooked sunflower buds, preparing them in boiling water or sauteeing them in fat. The petals are also edible, with a nutty tang that pairs nicely with sweet and savory flavors. Use them in recipes similar to how you'd use chrysanthemums, adding sunflower greens for an extra kick.
Mustard flowers grow wild almost anywhere you go, but you should only harvest them from your own garden. Avoid picking them along the side of the road, since they have likely been exposed to many unsavory elements. You can eat mustard flowers raw in salads, or steam them in vegetable sautees. Harvest the buds right before the flowers open, taking the top section of leaves, too. Saute with fat and add spices, and your greens will taste similar to broccoli rabe at a fraction of the price.
The nostalgia of colorful carnations brings to mind corsages and floral centerpieces, but the plant is also tasty and easy to grow. The plants are adaptable, tolerating full sunlight, air pollution, and mild neglect. Carnation petals are surprisingly sweet with a clove-like fragrance, but remove the bitter, white base of the flower before you eat them. Aside from utilizing minced petals as a garnish on green salads and desserts, you can also candy the petals or steep them in wine.
Enjoying delicate blooms in striking colors is one reason to plant tulip beds in your garden. The blossoms are also edible and make an attractive garnish for soups and salads. After removing the pistil and stamens, use the whole flower as a bowl for salad, or use petals instead of crackers for spreads and dips. The more fragrant the flower is, the more pronounced its flavor will be. Some varieties taste earthy, like beans or lettuce, and the sweetest are white, peach, and pink. Eat petals raw to prevent their color from dimming.
Remember that as edible as a flower might be, if it has been sprayed with chemical pesticides or exposed to harmful pollutants, it might not sit well with you. Always be sure to only use flowers from a source you trust — such as your own or a friend's garden — and wash them well.