A row of bright flowers in a kitchen garden isn't just an ornamental gesture. Colorful blooms attract pollinators to the whole plot and increase the productivity of any vegetable garden. They also have a place at the table: in salads, soups, drinks and desserts.
Edible flowers are no longer an exotic novelty. Sparkling nasturtiums, golden calendulas and mini violas "are riding the wave of increased interest in salads and microgreens, baking, and -- not least -- craft cocktails," says Hillary Alger, flower production manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. Johnny's, a mail-order seed company with customers among both backyard gardeners and commercial market growers, has seen tremendous growth in interest in edible flowers recently, Alger says.
Customers still love the old favorites, including tiny Gem marigolds, cornflowers, pansies and snapdragons, but more adventurous choices are gaining in popularity, Alger says. Instead of pinching off the flowers from the tips of mint and basil plants and tossing them on the compost heap, people are putting these blooms into salad mixes. Pea blossoms and wispy pea shoots are flavorful and elegant garnishes for cakes and other desserts. Cilantro flowers are coming to the table, too, adding spice to salads and Southwestern-style dishes.
Johnny's has developed an edible flower guide (available on the company's website) to help gardeners and market growers appreciate the spicy, nutty, intense flavors of some unexpected flowers and herbs and to experiment well beyond the basics. Blue borage blooms, yellow mustard and arugula flowers, and peppery stock flowers have distinctive flavors and can "add whimsy and beauty to an event," says Joy Longfellow, a flower production technician at Johnny's. "The range of colors and varieties in these crops gives so much room for creativity."
Growing edible flowers is easy, even for novices. Many grow best from seed sown directly in a sunny spot in the garden in spring or early summer. Bachelor's buttons (cornflowers), sunflowers and marigolds will bloom all summer long, which gives you plenty of time to experiment with their colors, textures and flavors in recipes. Make room for these blooms in beds around the margins of a vegetable garden, in colorful sweeps between rows of beans and tomatoes, or in garden beds of their own near the kitchen door, so you can step outside to pick a few flowers -- for bouquets or for baking -- whenever you like.
Many vegetable flowers are a bonus crop you may not have appreciated before. Instead of ripping out the last of the spring radishes when they start to turn pithy, let them come into bloom, and you'll discover that the flowers are a spicy and delicious accent for salads. Broccoli flowers, strawberry blooms and the wispy white sprays of flowers of bolted kale and collard plants are also edible -- and tasty. Squash blossoms, of course, are a classic salad garnish, and their bright yellow flowers can be stuffed with mild cheese and herbs for a popular appetizer. Bees appreciate these blooms in the garden, but the plants are prolific, so there will be plenty of flowers to harvest for the table, too.
The best time to pick edible flowers is moments before you use them, when their colors and flavors are at their best. If you need to harvest flowers several hours to a day before using them in recipes, make a bouquet for the kitchen counter and keep it out of direct sunlight. Lavender flowers, as well as the blooms of basil, chives, dill, mint and other herbs, hold up surprisingly well in a vase.
Recipes for basil-flower mojitos, lemonade with borage blooms, and gazpacho decorated with calendula-petal garnish are a good start to your floral recipe repertoire, but don't stop there. You'll find inspiration for all kinds of edible flower-power salads, soups and desserts online. "Edible flowers are a wonderful way to elevate the look of any table," Longfellow says, "whether that means some nasturtiums tossed into a salad or an intricately decorated wedding cake." Of course, you don't need any particular excuse to experiment. Edible flowers turn cupcakes for the kids or a lunchtime salad into a special occasion.
Seeds for edible flowers of all kinds are available from Johnny's Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) and other mail-order specialists, and on the seed racks at your local garden shop. Johnny's also offers a guide to edible flowers and a few recipes on the company's website.
Many herbs known for their edible flowers (basil, dill, fennel, cilantro and others) are easy to grow from seed. Others (mint, chives, sage, oregano) can be grown from transplants. Harvesting the flowers often encourages the plants to branch and produce more leaves and flowers for the table.