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Thursday, June 28,2012

Let your taste buds blossom with flowery flavor

By Michael Callahan

We’ve all seen dill or chives added to a summer dip. Sage, rosemary and thyme enhanced meals long before Simon & Garfunkel made the troika a part of pop culture. And most everyone at one time or another has pushed around the broccoli and cauliflower on their plate in an attempt to appease the cook. But would you consider adding marigolds and chrysanthemums to your salad, or chewing a piece of yucca plant in lieu of sucking an orange?

It might come as a surprise to know that all of those herbs, vegetables and fruits have something in common — they are all plants that grow edible flowers.

As food enthusiasts search out the next trend in eating, often they tend to look to the past to forecast the future. Edible plants and blossoms have been around forever, but as technological advances and agribusiness have changed what we put on our dinner table, our society has moved past or abandoned altogether the art of enhancing our meals with the natural flavors around us.

Flowers have become such an ornamental presence that we have taken for granted any inherent culinary or health benefits. Others have fallen out of flavor due to alternative uses of the plant, such as picking chives while green or letting a lemon tree bear fruit rather than picking the sweetly floral and mildly bitter blossoms. While interest in vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers with edible blossoms may have wilted with the introduction of mass-produced food, the genre is beginning to bloom once again.

Bergamot and English chamomile are often extracted into teas. Okra and squash make for hearty additions to soups, while arugula and mustard incorporate well into salads. Various herbs can lift the flavor of a previously bland dish. With a little work, the bane of yard enthusiasts — dandelions — can be made into wine, which is a meal enhancer of its own.

Most flowers used in cooking these days are reserved for garnish. Yet with subtle flavors, bright and exotic coloring and medicinal properties, adding some blossoms to your food can not only lively up the presentation of a dish, but lively up your bodily functions as well. Daylilies may act as a diuretic or laxative, clover blossoms have been used to combat gout and rheumatism, and elderberry blossoms have been used in traditional folk medicine for generations.

Always make sure that what you’re planning to eat is safe. Food labeling has allowed consumers to knowingly ingest products that may contribute to unfavorable health conditions. With monikers like bleeding heart and death camas, some garden plants can be avoided by name recognition alone. Yet there are no labels on jasmine, cassava or daffodils — all of which are toxic — so look before you eat.

Colorado State University’s Boulder County Extension Office has a great resource for edible flowers. More than just a scientific listing of different varieties, a CSU paper breaks down what plants are toxic and which are ingestible, by appearance, if they are an herb, vegetable or fruit, and what they taste like. It can be helpful when searching for a human with extensive knowledge doesn’t bear fruit. While there aren’t many local farmers in the business solely to cull blossoms for eating, most who grow veggies or flowers can attest to the edible properties of the plants they grow.

“One that’s blooming right now is the common daylily,” Sheila Payne of Far Out Farms says. “The daylily petals are beautiful, and they’re kind of sweet. And you can eat those as a pretty addition to a salad.”

In this era of organic-minded cuisine, another concern about eating flowers or blossoms is the same as with any vegetable — what chemicals have been applied to the plant to help it grow and resist predators? Unless you feel like ingesting chemicals along with your colorful garnish, stick with non-poisonous herbicides and sprays.

You’re not going to be able to sustain yourself off of flowers and blossoms, so don’t go picking those squash blossoms before they produce fruit or you’ll be left with a reduced harvest. Experimenting with different varieties and combinations from a source you trust is a good way to start. Head down to the farmers’ market and strike up a conversation with your local grower. You may be able to find all kinds of previously unimaginable uses for the plants that grow around us.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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