Edible flowers don’t just look pretty, they bring a wide range of delicious flavours to the kitchen table. Although floral feasts are having a fashionable moment, flowers have been a source of food for thousands of years. Chinese cooks used petals as far back as 3000BC, and the Romans added mallow, violets and roses to their famously extravagant feasts. In the Victorian era, candied florals were used to flavour and decorate cakes, pastries and desserts. Now, edible flowers are widely used to create fresh, modern flavours in both savoury and sweet dishes – and no episode of Bake Off or MasterChef is complete without them.
The only rules are to check very carefully that your chosen flower is edible (pretty definitely doesn’t always mean palatable) and when growing specifically for the table, avoid using pesticides either directly on the plant or anywhere in the vicinity.
Keep reading for our advice on growing and using edible flowers, as well as our list of the best ones to grow in your garden. Want inspiration on how to incorporate them into your planting scheme too? You'll find what you need in our guide to garden borders feature.
How to use edible flowers
Growing and harvesting perennial and annual flowers to add to culinary creations could not be simpler. Even better, some of the easiest-to-grow edible flowers offer the biggest, boldest flavours and the most vibrant splashes of colour. Pot marigolds, with their peppery taste, can be grown in a container from a single pinch of seed scattered on the soil, while glorious orange and ruby red nasturtiums are one of the simplest annuals to raise, and every single part of the plant can be eaten, from the buds to the seed pods.
Add to the list cornflowers, honeysuckle, pinks, hollyhocks, bee balm, lilac, sunflowers, forget-me-knots, dahlias and chrysanthemums and you have a rainbow cutting garden and a complete floral larder in one. An extra bonus is that all of these plants are bee-friendly plants and will attract beneficial insects to the garden.
Cakes, home-made cordials, botanical cocktails, flavoured butters and vibrant salads are the obvious contenders for a floral boost, but edible flowers can also be used to give depth of flavour to fish, soups, omelettes and meat dishes.
HOW TO PICK AND PREPARE EDIBLE FLOWERS
When to pick them
Cut edible flowers early in the morning when the flavours will be more intense. Use the flowers immediately, or store in the fridge in a plastic bag until you are ready to add them to a dish. They should last for a couple of days.
Washing edible flowers
If you need to wash the flowers, dip in a bowl of cold water and gently shake dry. Some will not survive the washing process if they are delicate.
How to prepare edible flowers
Usually, only the petals of the flower are palatable, so remove the stamens, pistil and calyx. Hayfever sufferers should avoid eating the stamen of the flower (where pollen is produced).
HOW TO MAKE CRYSTALLISED EDIBLE FLOWERS
Petals will last longer if they are crystallised, a simple process which means you can add the flowers to a cake, biscuits or dessert without worrying about them wilting or shrivelling up. Use a fine paintbrush to apply egg white on the petals. Sprinkle caster sugar on both sides, and place on a lined baking tray to dry for a couple of hours. You may need to use tweezers to move the flowers if they are small and delicate.
THE BEST EDIBLE FLOWERS TO GROW IN YOUR GARDEN
Here’s our pick of the most delicious flowers to grow and eat. Some of them may surprise you!
Pot Marigold (calendula officinalis)
Its common name comes from the fact that in times past, monks frequently added this flower to their cooking pots. Not to be confused with a corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), these little jewels punch up the flavour of soups, stews and salads with a peppery hit.
They’re one of the easiest plants to grow from seed, whether you sow direct into the ground in the autumn, or start them off on the window ledge in early spring, and then transfer them outside when the risk of frosts has passed. Go for the best-known orange ones, or try something different: ‘Snow Princess’ is pale and creamy, while ‘Touch of Red Buff’ has dusty pink petals with toasted brown tips.
Famous for their beauty as a cut flower, in shades of crimson, caramel, pink and orange, but less well known as one you can eat. Yet dahlia petals are delicious chopped into salads, where they will add a subtly spicy/acidic flavour, or they can be used decoratively to scatter over the top of a home-made cake.
It's certainly worth learning how to grow dahlias as they're a stunning flower to have in your garden. Dahlias grow from tubers (which are also edible and may be eaten like a root vegetable), and once planted, they should come up year after year if the soil is not too soggy. They can either be planted in containers, or in borders, at about 20-25cm deep, in a spot in full sun. Add some fertiliser when planting, as these plants are hungry. The more flowers you cut, the more you get, and they will keep going until the first frosts, around November.
As one of the best cottage garden plants, the blooms of honeysuckle certainly smell good enough to eat. The pink and gold flowers won’t disappoint when they are simmered with sugar and made into a syrup which can be used to drizzle over summer desserts or used as a mixer with a summer cocktail. Add a drop of lemon juice to turn the syrup from an unappetising green to blush pink.
It’s important to note that the red berries, which appear in autumn, are toxic. Honeysuckle is a fast-growing shrub which will scramble over a fence or a shed, making it a pretty option for cottage garden ideas. It prefers moist soil and partial shade, and it will need a trellis for support. It can be planted at any time of year.
Its delicate cucumber flavour makes this a delicious kitchen addition, suitable for tossing into salads, infused into refreshing drinks or added to cakes and cookies. They look attractive added to ice cube trays and floated in gin cocktails. The sapphire blue, star-shaped flowers create a splash of colour in beds and borders, and bees love them.
Borage seeds can be sown directly into the ground in late spring. They are happy in thin, stony soil and will self-seed. Try scattering them into flower borders, or adding to a vegetable patch or raised beds, so long as you do not mind if they spread.
With beautiful clusters of purple or white flowers in April, and a distinctively sweet fragrance, lilac tastes just as good as it looks. The flowers can be gathered and made into jams, jellies, cordial and flavoured vinegar. They may also be infused into cream or milk and used to make crème caramel or panna cotta. Crystallised lilac flowers look stunning on a cake.
Lilac is a deciduous shrub, which likes well drained, fertile soil and alkaline to neutral conditions, particularly chalky ground. You can find out how to tell if your soil is acid or alkaline in our guide to soil types. Mulch the lilac bush in the spring, and deadhead the flowers as they go over. Dead or diseased branches should be pruned off in winter. There's more info on how to mulch in our guide to mulching.
Nasturtiums are so easy to grow from just a few inexpensive seeds, and every bit of the plant can be eaten. They come in a range of colours, from scarlet to zingy orange. The name is said to come from the latin words for ‘twisted nose’ – a reference to the effects of their hot, spicy flavour. The flowers taste exceptional in a salad, as do their mustardy leaves. The unripened seeds taste like capers, and even the seed pods can be pickled.
There are different types of nasturtiums: some are climbers, some trail and others form mounds of foliage and flowers. 'Milkmaid’ is a creamy yellow trailing plant, ‘Baby Deep Rose’ forms soft mounds and ‘Jewel of Africa’ has rich colours on variegated leaves. They can be sown directly into the ground in mid-April, and then left to do their thing.
Anise hyssop (A.Anisata)
Spires of blue flowers on dark green leaves with a distinctive liquorice smell will look good in the border and they work well when poached with peaches, apricots and berries. Or try adding a handful to home-made ice cream or custard. The minty leaves make a delicious and soothing tea. Sow the seeds direct into the ground in autumn, and they will flower the following year in mid- to late-summer. This plant prefers a sunny site in well-drained soil.
These self-seeding plants will spread like wildfire once they taken hold in the garden, but as well as providing excellent ground cover, the tiny blue or pink flowers make the prettiest decoration for a birthday cake and a gorgeous garnish for a cordial. They taste faintly sweet, and they will appear from April to June. Once picked, these tiny blooms won’t keep, even in the fridge, so use them as soon as possible and enjoy their fleeting beauty and delicate flavour. The seeds can be sown direct into the ground in May, June or September.
Most people know that sunflower seeds are a healthy snack, but the nutty flavoured petals are also a delicacy that is well worth a try. The buds can be blanched and eaten like artichokes, while the golden petals make a flavour statement added to a salad. They are also rich in vitamins A and C.
Sunflowers are simple to grow, in well-drained soil in full sun. Plant them in late spring and mulch with compost or manure to ensure that they grow tall and strong. Want to make your own compost? Our how to compost guide will get you started.
WHAT NOT TO EAT
These flowers are pretty and decorative, but they are toxic, so avoid them at all costs. If in doubt about the identity of a flower, it’s best not to eat it.
- Sweet peas
- Lily of the Valley