By Sandra Wendel
Photography by Ariel Fried
What is it about the culinary artistry of a flower on a plate that makes a meal look, well, positively beautiful? And now, new research is telling us that those edible flowers may be good for health, too. So take a bite.
A study in the Journal of Food Science found that common edible flowers in China (note to self: these are plants growing in China, not the peonies growing in your backyard) are rich in phenolics, the plant-based compounds inside the plant. And phenolics have excellent antioxidant capacity, meaning they may prevent inflammation that leads to chronic disease such as heart disease and cancer—much like the properties of certain supplements you can buy at Walgreens.
Folk medicine has tapped into the wisdom in flowers and herbs for centuries. White and red clover blossoms, for example, were said to cure what ails you, or at least gout and rheumatism. And dandelions, the scourge of manicured lawns, make a dandy wine and tea. None with proven health benefits, but don’t tell Grandma.
Before you start grazing in your own flower beds, know this: Only some flowers and their parts can be eaten safely. Know which ones. And stay away from anything not organically grown.
The Pansy Prescription
Your doctor won’t be prescribing a handful of pansies anytime soon, but you may find edible flowers served in some of Omaha’s restaurants, so go ahead and nibble.
“We use a variety of edible flowers, but those most notable include borage, mustard, arugula, squash, hibiscus, nasturtiums and elderberry,” said The Grey Plume’s Chef Clayton Chapman. “We mostly use the edible flowers in a garnish capacity to brighten dishes and add depth of flavor. They are extremely delicate so the vast majority of the time, we do not apply heat.”
At Kitchen Table, owner Colin Duggan puts edible flowers and herbs such as lavender, rosemary and cilantro in bud vases on the dining tables. They use them “to enhance the dining experience through aroma. Even though they are for display, we like the idea of having something edible on the tables.”
Chances are the edible flowers come from the greenhouses of Blooms Organic, a sweet spot in the Loess Hills of Crescent, Iowa, where Rebecca Bloom (the significance of her last name will not be lost on sophisticated readers) provided a tour of her flower beds. We munched our way from nasturtiums to purple basil.
An Omaha native and former art instructor, Rebecca decided she wanted to do something for the earth in 1999. That’s when she started her organic garden. “We hate all chemicals,” she said, confirming what the Iowa state inspector found—“bugs”—as he appeared during our visit.
“We encourage beneficial insects by planting flowers and having a wide diversity of plants,” Rebecca said as we dodged a few of those beneficial wasps.
Rebecca pointed out a purple basil plant, “You can eat the whole plant,” she said, but she also suggested stuffing the entire stem and leaves into a bottle of white wine vinegar to make an attractive reddish-tinted mix.
“Spilanthes will numb your mouth,” Rebecca said of the olive-shaped golden flowers commonly called the toothache plant. She described the mouth sensation as much like eating the tingly Pop Rocks candy.
The Healing Power in Plants
Rebecca supplies plants to Omaha clinical herbalist Nicholas Schnell at Four Winds Natural Healing Center. He makes a syrup from the flowers and leaves of a native prairie plant from Blooms Organic called anise hyssop. He said, “It helps kids with an upset stomach.”
Tiger lilies can be eaten in salads, he said, and he uses the root in an herbal medicine for ovarian cramps. “We use the whole plant. Everything has some purpose from simple acid reflux to hormone imbalance and more serious health issues,” Nicholas said. “We try to source locally as much as we can.” He and his staff make much of their diverse product line in their FDA-approved herb clinic.
Certainly caution is key. Even Rebecca won’t eat anything unless she looks it up first in seed catalogs or garden guides. Here are some wise guidelines: Don’t eat plants that have been sprayed with any chemicals or grown on roadsides. Wash thoroughly. Eat small amounts in case you have allergies or reactions. And ask the chef if the flowers decorating your meal are “culinary safe” or just garnish. For a more detailed guide, see the Colorado State University Extension fact sheet on edible flowers online.
Fun facts about edible flowers: Carnation petals are the secret ingredient in Chartreuse, a French liqueur. And lavender flowers look beautiful in a Champagne flute or nestled alongside a piece of chocolate cake.
Whether you sprinkle a smiling pansy face in a salad, toss a delicate nasturtium and its leaves that leave a peppery afterglow into a salad, steep a cup of rosemary tea or snip the pink blooming top off the chive plant that has gone to flower with its delicate chive-y taste all its own, the diversity of edible beauty is everywhere.
Sandra Wendel, an Omaha-based health writer, is coauthor of a new book entitled How Not to Be My Patient: A Physician’s Secrets for Staying Healthy and Surviving Any Diagnosis with Edward T. Creagan, MD, of Mayo Clinic.