Flowers More than Just a Treat for the Eyes

At the farmer’s market this weekend, I sampled a crisp, peppery purple and yellow flower. It was a Johnny-Jump-Up, with a faint taste of wintergreen. I also tried a daylily bud, which reminded me of fresh green beans. The grower showed me how appealing the flowers looked with his newly picked lettuces. Indeed, they were pretty enough to eat… and made a brilliant salad that evening.


Hungering for more — flowers and information — I called herbalist Michele Eccleston of Portland, Oregon, and James Duke, PhD, ethnobotanist and former USDA researcher, to learn more about which flowers are edible and what health benefits they bring to the plate.

According to Dr. Duke, all flowers contain protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and sugars. His Web site,, makes it easy to find the precise chemicals in your favorite flowers. Most contain several antioxidants, including Vitamin C, but some also have particular health benefits:

  • Violets, kin of the vivid Johnny-Jump-Up, add a grassy flavor to garnishes and desserts. These are a good source of rutin, believed to reduce capillary fragility.
  • Borage, which hints at cucumber, is good in salads. It should be used sparingly, but can be helpful when you have a cold or cough.
  • Lavender petals taste sweet and contain chemicals thought to benefit the central nervous system.
  • Roses have a sweet, astringent flavor. Rose petals are rich in antioxidant-like polyphenols that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Different colors have different bioactive pigments — and white has the least. Eccleston cautioned against eating the ones you buy in stores as they are grown with chemicals and dipped in fungicide.
  • Nasturtiums, lemon gem marigold and calendula (petals only) are all delicious in salads, each bringing its distinct earthy flavor and color to the table, so to speak. The orange calendula (marigold) petals contain lycopene and other cancer-fighting nutrients, while the yellow ones are rich in lutein, which is good for the eyes.
  • Daylilies contain Vitamin B and chemicals associated with reduced risk of heart disorders.
  • Squash blossoms contain Vitamin A precursor carotenoids.

Mix these with fresh lettuces, dress lightly and admire your chef d’oeuvre before consuming it.


You can also steep edible flowers in hot water to make tea. While most people know of chamomile tea…

  • Rose petals make tea with a distinctively floral flavor.
  • Predictably, lemon verbena tastes lemony. You can use the leaves too.
  • Scented geraniums have a sweet citrus flavor.
  • Bee balm tastes of both mint and oregano.
  • Hibiscus has a fruity, cranberry flavor and turns tea a deep red.


Most edible flowers bloom between March and September. Violets (such as Johnny-Jump-Ups) appear early and other flowers follow in May, with many remaining in bloom until the first frost. Edible flowers can be annuals or perennials. They can be dried or frozen, but most lose their color, flavor and nutrient value over time.

Eccleston notes that every year, people are poisoned by plants because they don’t know what they are eating. It is important to research any wild plant so you know whether a particular flower is edible, and if so, which parts. For example, blue elderberry is edible, but red-berried elder is not… and all pistils and stamens usually need to be removed. Take classes, check out plant books and visit nurseries specializing in edible plants.

It’s best to eat only flowers you’ve grown so you know they have not been exposed to pesticides, lead-based paint (found around older buildings) or animal waste. Do not fertilize edible flowers with animal manure.


A salad tossed with an assortment of edible flowers looks like a Monet painting — it’s a naturally beautiful way to showcase them. Here are some others as well…

Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Skip the pasta. Stuff squash blossoms with cheese and herbs, dip in egg and flour and lightly sauté in a bit of olive oil. Eccleston cautions that you should only pick and prepare the male blossoms (the ones with stamen, which you should remove first). Leave the female blossoms on the plant so they can mature and become squash.

Herbal Sun Tea

Fill a one-gallon glass jar with filtered water and add a handful of one type or a combination of lavender flowers, rose petals, rose geranium (flowers and leaves), lemon verbena (flowers and leaves) and mint. Leave it to sit in the full sun to steep for four to six hours. The water turns a tea color as the herbs infuse into the water. Then, strain out the plants, place the tea in the refrigerator and serve cold.

Nasturtium salad dressing, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service

¾ cup canola oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar (or an edible flower vinegar)
three to four minced garlic cloves

Whisk together and blend well.

Add ½ cup nasturtium petals and ¼ cup snipped chives and florets. Gently blend and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over salad garnished with nasturtium flowers.


For a delightful summer dessert, Eccleston suggests mixing crushed lavender petals with coconut sorbet or ice cream. Eat on a hot summer evening… while sitting in the garden, naturally.