Flower Head Vegetables

There are only a few vegetables we eat that are flowers – cauliflower, broccoli, and artichokes. When we eat this part of a plant, we are actually eating the immature flowers, or flower buds. Each tiny bump on the broccoli is a flower bud that has not bloomed yet. If broccoli is left in the fridge (or the field) too long, it will blossom into a beautiful bouquet of tiny yellow flowers. We don’t eat the broccoli at this stage as it becomes bitter after flowering. The most common cauliflower is white, but it can also be purple, orange, or green. Romanesco cauliflower is green and has a spiraled shape, looking like a fractal.

Most of the plants on earth (about 80%) are flowering plants, or angiosperms. There are more than 250,000 species of angiosperms, though most of them are not edible (safe to eat). The function of a flower is to make seeds which is how flowering plants reproduce and continue as a species.

Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)

Edible part(s): young flower head/bud – technically a fleshy receptacle leaves attached to it, with thousands of flower heads in the center
Native region(s): Mediterranean
Appearance: Large flower bud of a thistle plant has sturdy triangular petals/leaves with a pricker on the tip. The artichokes we eat are flower buds. Artichokes are a type of thistle, a flowering plant with sharp prickers on the petals. These prickers protect the plant from being eaten by herbivores (aside from humans). Mature thistle flowers have fluffy thistle-down seeds that disperse in the wind, like dandelions. To learn more about artichoke farming in Castroville, CA the self-proclaimed “artichoke center of the world” watch this video (3:28 min).
Aroma: cooked artichokes – mushroomy-metallic, green, waxy, honey, woody 
Taste: slightly bitter
Flavor: delicate, nutty, lemony
Nutritional value: vitamin B, antioxidants, iron, potassium, fiber 
Culinary uses: green artichokes are always eaten cooked, purple artichokes are eaten raw when they are young. Artichokes can be boiled, steamed, braised, baked, fried, or stuffed. Each petal has a small bite of food and the “heart” in the center at the base of the artichoke is the largest edible part.

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea)

A modified cabbage with a compact head of green florets; or, an umbel of cabbage flowers. 

Family: Brassicaceae
Edible part(s): Flower head and stem
Native region(s): Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor
Climate: temperate
Life cycle:
the broccoli plant has blueish-green leathery upright leaves surrounding a flower head with dense clusters of tiny green flower buds that, if left growing, would open into tiny yellow flowers. 
Aroma: sulfurous, ocean, pungent 
Taste: bitter, sweet 
Flavor: sweet, bitter, juicy
Nutritional value: vitamins C & K, antioxidants, potassium, iron, folate, fiber
Culinary uses: eaten raw and cooked; in salads, slaws, stir-fried, fried, sautéed, steamed, boiled, baked, roasted, in soups, casseroles. 

Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea, variety botrytis)

A modified form of cabbage with a compact white head of undeveloped flowers. 

Family: Brassicaceae – mustard 
Edible part(s):
flower heads and stems
Native region(s): Mediterranean
Climate: temperate
Life cycle:
Cauliflower plants grow to be about 1.5 feet high and have large round green leaves that surround a white flower head. 
Aroma: sulfurous, ocean, pungent, buttery, mushroomy-metallic
Taste: sweet
Flavor: sweet, earthy, slightly sulphuric, musky
Nutritional value: vitamins B, C & K, antioxidants, potassium, manganese, fiber
Culinary uses: eaten raw and cooked, in salads, pickled, in soups, steamed, boiled, baked, roasted, fried, pureed.



Some plants have flowers that are edible, but they are not considered vegetables. To learn more about decorative edible flowers and their culinary history, read the Food is Good to Think Blog post Celebrating Edible Flowers.


Parts of a Flower

The following is background information for educators, this level of detail is not covered in the lessons for students. The information is also applicable to the next lesson on fruits. To better understand the structure of a flower, watch the video below which shows the male and female parts of a stargazer lily. This flower is not edible, it does not produce vegetables or fruits, it was chosen simply to demonstrate the parts of a flower because it is a large flower with easily identifiable parts. In this video, the flower bud is dissected first, followed by the flower blossom. Understanding the parts of a flower will help you understand how fruits develop, which is the topic of the next lesson. The anther produces pollen (the male sex cell) and the ovary produces the ovule (the female sex cell). Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male anther to the sticky female stigma, which then travels down the slender style to the ovary where it fertilizes the ovule which becomes the seed. In a fruit, the ovary swells as it ripens and becomes a fruit which contains the seed or seeds.