By Fiona Cumberpatch published
Edible flowers don't just look pretty, they bring a wide range of delicious flavors to all manner of meals. And although they're having a fashionable moment, the use of flowers in cooking goes back thousands of years. Chinese cooks used petals in 3000BC, and the Romans added mallow, violets and roses to their famously extravagant feasts. In the Victorian era, candied florals were used to flavor and decorate cakes, pastries and desserts. Now, edible flowers are widely used to create fresh, modern flavors in both savory and sweet dishes – and no episode of Bake Off or MasterChef is complete without them.
It's easy to start growing and using your own edible flowers – you could even base some of your flowerbed ideas around them. But of course, safety rules apply – always 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.
Edible flowers: tips and advice to elevate your meals
Whether you're an edible-flower novice or have been dabbling in floral feasts for a while, our advice – as well as our list of the best ones to grow in your garden – is sure to come in handy.
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 flavors and the most vibrant splashes of color. Pot marigolds, with their peppery taste, can be grown as part of your container gardening ideas from a single pinch of seed scattered on the soil. Meanwhile, 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-nots, 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 are bee-friendly plants and will attract beneficial insects to the garden.
Cakes, homemade cordials, botanical cocktails, flavored butters and vibrant salads are the obvious contenders for a floral boost, but edible flowers can also be used to give depth of flavor to fish, soups, omelettes and meat dishes.
Here are some of Amateur Gardening's fruit-and-veg-expert Lucy Chamberlain's favorite ways to use them:
- Crystallized: Using crystallized flowers to adorn the top of a fluffy Victoria sandwich or beautify the side of a summer fruit dessert plate is an utter indulgence, says Lucy. The technique works particularly well for rose, viola and dianthus petals. You can find more info on how to crystallize flowers below.
- Battered: 'Make a light tempura-style batter, dip flowers in, and deep or shallow-fry in oil. Elderflower fritters have a delicious perfume,' says Lucy. She has also tried malva flower fritters, she says, and courgette blooms stuffed with herby soft cheese. You can learn how to grow courgettes with our useful guide.
- Ice cubes: This is 'a great way to introduce newcomers to edible flowers,' says Lucy. 'I made frozen borage flowers for our wedding guests’ drinks which looked lovely. Violas look great, too. Simply place in an ice cube tray, add water and freeze.' A perfect addition to stylish outdoor bar ideas for summer entertaining.
How to make crystallized edible flowers
Petals will last longer if they are crystallized, a simple process which means you can add the flowers to a cake, biscuits or dessert without worrying about them wilting or shrivelling up. They're easy to create and will give any dessert the wow factor.
Here's how to do it:
- Whisk up egg whites to stiff peaks.
- Use a fine paintbrush to apply the egg white onto 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.
How do you pick and prepare edible flowers?
For the best results, there are a few things to bear in mind when picking and preparing your edible flowers.
When to pick them
Cut edible flowers early in the morning when the flavors will be more intense. Once picked, it's a good idea to allow them to sit undisturbed for a while so that any pollen beetles and other insects can crawl away. If you're not using the flowers straightaway, you can store them 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 them in a bowl of cold water and gently shake dry, or carefully pat with kitchen towel. 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).
Edible flower varieties: 12 types to try
Here's our pick of the most delicious flowers to grow and eat. Some of them may surprise you!
1. Pot marigolds
Pot marigold's 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 flavor 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.
You can learn more about how to grow marigolds with our guide.
Dahlias are 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. However, dahlia petals are delicious chopped into salads, where they will add a subtly spicy-acidic flavor. Or, they can be used decoratively to scatter over the top of a homemade 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 7.9–9.8in (20–25cm) deep, in a spot in full sun. Add some fertilizer 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 unappetizing green to blush pink. However, 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 flavor makes borage a delicious kitchen addition, suitable for tossing into salads, infusing refreshing drinks or adding to cakes and cookies. The sapphire blue, star-shaped flowers create a splash of color 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 your raised garden 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 flavored vinegar. They may also be infused into cream or milk and used to make crème caramel or panna cotta. Crystallized 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 – in fact, they're one of our best plants for beginners. And every bit of the plant can be eaten. They come in a range of colors, 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 flavor. 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 colors on variegated leaves. They can be sown directly into the ground in mid-April, and then left to do their thing.
7. Anise hyssop
Anise hyssop's 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. Alternatively, try adding a handful to homemade ice cream or custard. And if you're eager to learn how to grow your own herbal tea, then this is a good one to try: the minty leaves make a delicious and soothing brew.
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 have 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 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 flavor.
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-flavored 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 flavor statement when 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. You can find more tips on how to grow sunflowers in our guide.
Roses are a favorite summer bloom of many gardeners, bringing beautiful scent and a sense of romance to any flowerbed or border. The petals have a wonderfully delicate, floral flavor, which makes them perfect for adding to sweet treats.
'To create a show-stopping centerpiece cake, coat a tiered sponge in butter icing and then add rose petals to cover it,' suggests Lucy Chamberlain of Amateur Gardening. You can also add them to drinks, mix them into fruit salads, or stir them into jams and jellies.
There are lots of types of rose to try – but as a general rule, the ones that smell the best will taste the best.
'With their heady perfume, these tiny blooms are ideal for flavoring sugar and pepping up bland biscuits,' says Lucy Chamberlain. Its floral taste works particularly well alongside citrus notes – think lemon and lavender shortbread, for instance. You don't need much – overdoing it can make a dish taste a little soapy.
The plants like a sunny spot and plenty of drainage, and make a lovely addition to Mediterranean-inspired gardens. You can find all our tips on how to grow lavender in our feature.
Chives are a must-have if you're looking to create a herb garden. They're super easy to grow – just plant them in moist but well-drained soil and lift and divide the plants every few years to avoid them getting congested.
The flowers are excellent if you’d like to add a mild onion flavor to meals, especially if you find actual onions too harsh. Chop up the leaves to sprinkle alongside the pretty purple petals – particularly good on potato salads.
What flowers can you not eat?
Some flowers may be pretty and decorative, but are also toxic, so avoid them at all costs. Always do your own research before eating any flower, and if in doubt about its identity, it's best not to risk it.
Here are some common poisonous flowers which should be kept well away from the kitchen:
- Sweet peas
- Lily of the valley
There are some poisonous plants for dogs too – our guide is full of advice to help keep your four-legged friends safe.
An experienced freelance journalist, editor and columnist writing for national magazines and websites, Fiona now specialises in gardens. She enjoys finding and writing about all kinds, from the tiniest town plots to impressively designed ones in grand country houses. She's a firm believer that gardening is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you have a single window ledge or an acre, there’s always peace and joy to be found outside. The small town garden of her Edwardian terraced house is currently a work in progress as she renovates the property, but her goal is always to fill it with flowers, climbers, colour, fragrance – and as many of her treasured vintage finds as she can possibly fit in.
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