Krista Harrington can't understand why more people don't eat flowers.
"It's this really cool culinary niche that's really flying under the radar," says Harrington, who grows and forages edible flowers on the family farm in Flamborough near Hamilton.
She uses many of the flowers to create jams for her preserving business, combining flavours such as strawberry-lilac, black currant-wild violet, raspberry-rosemary or blueberry-lavender under her From These Roots label.
"When I started my jam company about 15 years ago, people thought it was just craziness that you would put flowers in jam. Now, it's not as bad as it was, but it's still really hard to introduce something new and try to convince people to buy into it."
Harrington also adds flowers to green salads and candies petals to eat as snacks or decorate desserts. Even stinging nettles are "really good chopped up in soup."
"Edible flowers have a lot of flavour and texture. And I think that's what's really kept edible flowers from hitting the mainstream," she says. "The textures are so different with all of them. And as long as people keep thinking of them as a flower, rather than a herb, it's hard for them to get their minds around eating them."
Caroline Ffrench, co-owner of Cookstown Greens just south of Barrie, Ont., agrees the consumer demand for edible flowers is small. She and her husband grow a wide variety of edible flowers for the restaurant trade, where they're used mainly as garnishes. They also sell prepared salads containing flower petals — usually marigolds but sometimes other kinds as well — to a number of Toronto grocers.
But other than the occasional specialty order for a wedding, consumer demand is almost non-existent, she says.
Diners 'intimated' by flowers, farmer says
Ffrench speculates cost may be part of the reason. On a commercial basis, edible flowers are labour-intensive to grow, harvest and prepare for sale.
However, Harrington and Ffrench agree the biggest factor may be lack of knowledge about edible flowers in North America. Even when served on a restaurant plate, many people are a little "intimidated" by flowers, Harrington says. They're not sure if they're supposed to eat the flowers or if they're just for decoration.
As with mushrooms, it's a complicated subject. Some websites list up to 100 common flowers that are edible — including petunias, gladioli, chrysanthemums, dandelion buds, wax and tuberous begonias and scented geraniums. But there are also long lists of flowers that are poisonous and cannot be eaten. These include azaleas, daffodils, hyacinths, irises, buttercups and lily-of-the-valley.
Even among edible flowers, there are many in which the stamens and bases should be removed before eating and warnings that people with allergies probably should not eat any kind of composite flowers.
The most important thing to do before deciding to sample edible flowers is to get educated on what is safe to eat and what is not. The second is to understand that you should never eat flowers from florists or even from many nurseries, which may treat their bedding plants with various chemicals or pesticides.
A few grocery stores now sell packaged edible flowers, but probably the best idea is to grow them yourself from trusted seeds in chemical-free soil.
Treat flowers in food like herbs
When sampling flowers, start small, and with just one kind, so you can make an accurate assessment of the taste and whether it causes any reaction.
"I think a little goes a long way with edible flowers," Harrington says. "They're like herbs, so they have to be used in a similar way."
She suggests starting with the flowers of edible herbs such as chives, garlic, basil or rosemary. They are safe to eat and will have a familiar flavour.
Lynda Dowling of Happy Valley Lavender and Herb Farm, just outside Victoria on Vancouver Island, likes to experiment with flowers. She suggests sprinkling a few fresh petals on a salad or ice cream, or crushing dried petals and adding a teaspoonful or two to a cookie, brownie or cake recipe.
Dowling said her lavender will be in bloom by the end of the month and harvest will extend through July. She ships dried lavender all over Canada and to other parts of the world.
Like herbs, the taste of flowers varies widely, so it's important to know how they taste before pairing them with other foods. Lilacs, for example, are described as having a lemony, vaguely vanilla taste; borage (star flowers) as light cucumber; carnations as spicy, like cloves; day lilies as sweet and crunchy, reminiscent of chestnuts or beans; gardenias as sweet; violets like sweet nectar and nasturtiums as peppery. Others are described as acidic or bitter.
Harrington also says it's not necessary to eat flowers to use them to effect. With the stamens pinched out, tulips or hibiscus are both edible but also make impressive individual serving dishes when filled with something light like mousse or set in Champagne glasses with the wine or Champagne poured over them.