Celebrating Edible Flowers
By Antonia Demas, PhD
Flowers have a culinary tradition that dates to ancient times. In fact, flowers were an esteemed addition to the diet to a much greater extent in the past until the nineteenth century in the western world. In the eastern world flowers were common ingredients in many cuisines and remain so today.
Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius is credited with writing the first cookbook, The Roman Cookery Book, during the reign of Tiberius (Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD). A wealthy, well-educated aristocrat, Apicius had an insatiable appetite for the exotic and unique combinations of uncommon ingredients in his daily diet. He wrote about the use of violets, roses, and mallows in his recipes along with other flowers that he combined with more rare items. He had his cook’s (who were slaves) experiment in the kitchen and he chronicled what he was eating in over 400 recipes and went on to write a second cookbook though there is some debate whether he did the actual writing. There were no exact measurements, just descriptions on what to do and how to put the recipe together. He loved to explore far off lands and discover their foods and incorporate them in his menus. His recipes included such items as stuffed dormouse, possum, and flamingo tongue, a favorite. Included in his books were helpful hints on all things food related. Apicius is said to have hosted many extravagant parties for his wealthy friends all with a seemingly endless supply of unusual foods which included a variety of flowers. One wonders how many people died in figuring out what foods were safe to eat.
Legend has it that Apicius was such a devoted gastrophile that when his fortune was reduced to a level where he could not continue indulging in opulent eating as a lifetime pursuit, he committed suicide by eating a poisonous food. A contemporary of his wrote:
After you’d spent 60 million on your stomach, Apicius,
10 million still remained,
An embarrassment, you said, fit only to satisfy
Mere hunger and thirst:
So your last and most expensive meal was poison….
Apicius, you never were more a glutton than at the end.
Martial, Epigrams,3.22. (Edwards 1984:xi) 
The Romans and Greeks ate the bulbs of flowers and considered them to be a powerful aphrodisiac. A recipe for gladiolus given by Pliny in his Natural History, XXI, 17, 67-68 (107-111), states that they are baked in ashes, eaten with salt and oil, or pounded with figs (Flower1958:119) . Roses, violets, and lavender blossoms were used to flavor wine and honey.
Essences from flowers have been distilled to create delicately flavored waters and oils for uses in cooking, for example rose water and orange blossom water. Flowers have been crystallized, dried, used as dyes, for medicinal purposes, and featured in a wide array of recipes from the past. Some spices are edible flowers, for example cloves are dried flower buds and saffron is the stigma of the crocus flower.
Cooking with flowers requires diligent botany skills. A mistake could result in illness or prove fatal since many delectable looking flowers are poisonous. Another important consideration when selecting flowers for eating is whether they have been sprayed with insecticides. it is best to avoid any flower with pesticide residue. This means that if the flowers are collected from a field, the gatherer should be aware of whether the field was sprayed. Likewise, if the flower is harvested by the side of the road, it may contain weed killers, salt, and undesirable organic materials. If there is any doubt in the identification of the flower, it should not be eaten. Children need to be told not to eat anything growing outdoors without a knowledgeable adult’s approval for safety. It should be noted that sometimes the same plant has safe parts and poisonous parts within the same plant!
During medieval times edible flowers were dried for winter use. Because the diet of the average person was limited, the addition of spices and flowers really livened things up in terms of taste and decoration. Spices were costly and therefore out of reach for the peasant. Flowers and herbs could be gathered wild or cultivated on a small parcel of land. Herbs were commonly strewn on the floor to impart a pleasing fragrance as they were walked upon. Shakespeare used flowers and herbs as analogies for feelings. Poetry is rich with references to flowers as symbols of emotion.
In Shakespeare’s day flowers were a regular part of the menu and were frequently made into tarts. One tart recipe for “marigolds, prymroses, (primroses), or cowslips” calls for” parboiling the flowers and mixing them with egg yolks, butter, and sweet curds (freshly made cottage cheese) or stewed apples that are flavored with mace (a byproduct of nutmeg)” (Lorwin 1976:368) . The leaves of strawberry and violet plants were eaten as well as the flowers.
Shakespeare used the symbolism of flowers in Hamlet. In Act 4, Ophelia hands out rosemary (remembrance), pansies (thoughts), fennel (flattery), columbine (foolishness), rue (adultery), daisies (innocence) and violets (faithfulness) to express her feelings. The Elizabethan audience, familiar with symbolic images, would have understood exactly what deeper meaning she was trying to convey through her flower-giving.
“The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath?” –Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet 99
During the Victorian era, flowers took on a life of their own. There became a whole language of flowers as they were assigned magical properties.
Native Americans have long had extensive knowledge of wild edibles including flowers. The settlers who came from Europe to the United States relied on flowers in their cooking to break monotony in their diets and as a means of imparting a delicate flavor to desserts and cakes. Although edible flowers are increasingly in vogue in the United States, there was a period when their use was neglected.
Asian cookery continues to make use of flowers such as chrysanthemums, hibiscus, lilies, jasmine, marigolds, roses, and nasturtiums. They provide flavor to sauces and stocks, poultry and fish dishes.
Some of the most popular flowers used in cooking follow. Like herbs, often special medicinal or magical properties are ascribed to them.
Selected Garden Photos of Edible Flowers
Chamomile is a perennial; wild or German chamomile is an annual that self-seeds. A popular tea is made from the dried flowerheads, and it is said to be a remedy for upset stomachs and bladder ailments.
Capers are the flower buds of a small bush that grows in the Mediterranean region. The buds are picked and added to salads and sauces; sometimes the pickled leaves and stems complete with thorns are eaten as well. Reputedly the best capers, the nonpareils, come from southern France. Harvested by hand, capers are preserved by storing in salted white vinegar or are dry-salted.
Cloves are the dried flower buds of the evergreen clove tree that are indigenous to the West Indies and southern Asia. The clove tree grows to a height of thirty feet and must be by the sea to flourish. The flower buds are the most fragrant part of the plant and are carefully picked and dried before they open. Their aromatic oil is antiseptic and acts as a preservative. Oil of cloves is used by dentists as a penetrating antiseptic that numbs the soft tissues in the mouth. It is also used as a preservative and flavoring for pickles and meats. During the Middle Ages it was believed that an orange studded with cloves would guard against the plague. In Naples sweets made with cloves were thought to be aphrodisiacs. Spiced wines, liqueurs, and curries depend upon cloves for their characteristic flavors.
Clove Pinks, otherwise known as clove carnations, were used by the ancient Romans and in the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries by others. custom was to float the petals in the wine glasses of engaged couples.
Cowslips, a meadow flower related to the primrose, were once a favored British edible flower harvested for making cowslip wine and tea. They are used fresh in salads, candied, and as a decoration.
Dandelions, from the French dent-de-lion, which means lion’s tooth, are eaten for their flowers, leaves, and roots. The flowers are made into wine, the roasted roots ground into a coffee substitute, and the leaves as fresh or cooked greens.
Hops, a climbing vine, was cultivated by the Romans. The female flowers or catkins, contain resins and bitter aromatics that are dried for use in brewing. Hops contain preservative qualities and some varieties are mildly narcotic. The larger male flowers are eaten as a vegetable and salad.
Marigold, or calendula petals were once used to add color to butter. They are used to flavor soups, vinegars, and salads. Since Roman times the petals have been considered the poor man’s answer to saffron.
Nasturtium, an annual that originated in Peru, thrives in many parts of the world. The buds, flowers, seeds, and leaves are eaten. The seeds are used as a substitute for capers, and the leaves give a peppery flavor to salads. The showy flowers decorate cakes and are used in salads and vinegars.
Primrose are spring blooming woodland and meadow plants; both the leaves and flowers are eaten. Tea is made from the flowers, they are featured in several old English recipes and are sometimes included in bouquet garni.
Pyrethrum includes all single flower chrysanthemums. Three species are used as an insecticide, though they are not toxic to humans (Parry 1953:172).
Roses have been used for centuries to flavor confectioneries, jams, and as a spice. The petals of scented roses are used as a flavoring agent. Rose water and essence add a delicate taste to cakes, pastries, wines, teas, creams, jellies, liqueurs. The petals of scented roses are used as a flavoring agent. Rose-hips are the berry like fruit of the rose and is used for making jam. A high source of vitamin C, it was an early remedy against scurvy.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. It is made from the stigmas of the saffron crocus and between 70,000 and 80,000 stigmas are needed to make 500 g. (18 oz.) of the spice (Lang 1988:913). Not only are enormous quantities of the stigmas needed, they must also be collected by hand. Fortunately, a pinch is adequate to flavor a large dish. Saffron is water soluble and imparts a yellowish color to whatever it is cooked with. Fish, rice, and garlic combine especially well with saffron. Saffron is thought to be native to Persia (Iran), and has been appreciated throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean for thousands of years. Today, Iran produces 90% of the worlds saffron. Some farmers are switching to saffron rather than opium as a cash crop. The saffron crocus will bloom in many climates with wet springs and hot dry summers, including the United States. I grow the fall blooming Crocus sativus in my Finger Lakes Garden and have been patiently collecting stamens for a number of years. If you are lucky, each crocus will produce 3 stigmas which make up the saffron.
Fall blooming saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)
Harvested and dried saffron stigmas
Squash blossoms have been eaten by Native Americans, Latinos, and Italians for centuries as a regular ingredient. They are stuffed, fried, and added to soups, omelet’s, and salads.
Violets have been used in cough medicine as well as for culinary purposes. A perennial and welcome sign of spring, the flowers are crystallized, added to salads, and used in preserves.
A number of herbs have flowers that are eaten along with the plant. While the flowers are not the featured item, they add decorative qualities and taste. Examples include rosemary, lavender, thyme, basil, chervil, bergamot, marjoram, sweet woodruff, mint, rose geranium, and sage.
A Salad of Watercress and Violets
From Robert May, The Accomplished Cook, 1660
Watercress being finely picked, washed, and laid in the dish with violets … serve it with good oyl [oil] and vinegar and scrape on sugar.
Flower Vinegars and Oils
These are very easy to make and will be a welcome addition to winter salads. To make vinegars or oils the washed petals are steeped in a glass container filled with either vinegar or oil and placed on a sunny windowsill. The process takes 3 – 4 weeks for the flavor to be released. The jar should be tightly covered and shaken daily. Flowers suitable for flavoring vinegars or oils include rose petals, violets, lavender, mint, primroses, nasturtiums, rosemary, thyme, basil, carnations.
Below are two recipes for crystalizing and preserving flowers, including: primroses, violets, violas, pansies, rose petals, honeysuckle, borage, lavender, carnations, herb flowers. Flowers should be beginning to open–not in full bloom.
- Lightly beat egg white and dip each flower in so that it is entirely coated.
- Dip the flower in caster sugar. Place on a plate or wire rack to dry. When thoroughly dry, store in an airtight container.
Crystallizing Rose Petals
The Encyclopedia or Herbs Spices & Flavorings, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz
Separate the petals and trim away any white parts. Be sure to work in a dry environment, because they are very sensitive to humidity. Many other edible flowers can be crystallized, including violets and borage.
- Dissolve 2 oz (60 g) gum Arabic (or edible gum) in 1 ¼ cups (300 ml) warmed rose water. Allow to cool. (Gum Arabic is found in specialty stores.)
- With tweezers, dip each petal into the rosewater mixture and coat lightly and evenly. Shake the petal gently to remove excess liquid.
- Dip the coated petals into sugar and place on waxed paper to dry. Store in an airtight container lined with waxed paper.
Bake your favorite white cake and add saffron that has been allowed to steep in warm water (1 cup) for ten minutes to the batter. Frost with rose water icing and decorate with an assortment of edible flowers.
Collect edible flowers and wash carefully. Place in ice cube trays, cover with water and freeze. For a lovely punch, artistically arrange flowers in a stainless-steel bowl. Mint and sliced citrus or other fruits and/or herbs can be added. Cover with water and freeze until solid.
Incorporating Edible Flowers in our Kitchens and Gardens
Apicius, credited with writing the first cookbook, was a passionate “foodie”. He found joy in expanding variety in what he and others ate, and he had the financial means to experiment and document the results. Many of his recipes were animal products very high in fat but he also experimented with plant foods including flowers and prided himself on being an agriculturist. Apicius expanded the definition of what was edible for human consumption and made liberal use of flowers in this cookery. He always had 3 courses at his banquets which included appetizers, main courses, and desserts. When Apicius’ financial fortune changed so he could no longer extravagantly indulge his food obsessions he decided to end his life by consuming his carefully chosen last meal.
In the plant world experts debate how many edibles are safe to eat. The range is around 40,000 – 50,000. Of those at most the average person consumes about 30 in their lifetime, with many people eating far fewer. Some 2,000 years after Apicius celebrated the diversity of edibles, it would be exciting to research incorporating more locally grown plants that are often free for the harvesting and create delicious, nutritious recipes to expand what we eat. The addition of edible flowers adds taste, nutrition, and beauty to any recipe.
Apicius pioneered items like foie gras at a time when food was scarce during the winter for the average person and only the wealthy could overindulge in rich foods. With the science of nutrition and ethical concerns about how food is produced we have new knowledge about how to make wise choices about what to consume and need to make this knowledge accessible to all people. During this era of climate change, it would be lovely for the average person to be knowledgeable about collecting and preserving wild plants to create delicious healthy recipes for the future of people and the planet. This will require education and incorporating flowers will enhance the experience.
List of Edible Flowers
Cilantro or Coriander
Johnny Jump up
Saffron crocus – see below
Butterfly gathering the nectar of lavender flowers
 Edwards, John, The Roman Cookery of Apicius, Hartley & Marks, Ltd, Washington, 1984, Martial, Epigrams,3.22 (Edwards 1984:xi)
 Flower, Barbara & Rosenbaum, Elizabeth, The Roman Cookery Book, (a critical translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius, George G. Harrap & Co., LTD, London, 1958. (Flower1958:119)
 Lorwin, Madge, Dining with William Shakespeare, Atheneum, N.Y., 1976 (Lorwin,1976:368)
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