Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Food and Drink

Here's to flower power!

1967 - the summer of love, and flowers were never more powerful, at least not in modern times. If you were going to San Francisco, you had to be sure to have some flowers in your hair, plus a few in your hand to stuff down the gun barrels of police at anti-war protests.

It's not very much that shakes we humans of the opposing thumbs, big brains and bigger guns off our anthropocentric foundations. After all, other than a few sharks and big cats, if there are any left, aren't we the end of the food chain, the kings of the world?

But can a pretty little flower shake our sense of self?

In his best-selling book of a few years back, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan turned his curious mind to the "crazy" idea that we clever humans have been outwitted by plants, plants that have learned to manipulate us to their own ends.

He examines four plants - pot, potatoes, apples, and tulips - and how they've taken advantage of our human desires for pleasure, nourishment, sweetness and beauty, respectively, to get us to make them bigger, better, stronger and grow more of them.

The entire book is a great read, but it's the tale of the mighty tulip that takes the idea of flower power to another level.

In what was a precursor to the lurid futures markets of today, the seemingly innocent tulip was able to wreak havoc on 17th century Dutch finances. No spoiler here - you'll have to read the book to learn how, but it was an amazing case of flower power run rampant.

So in homage to the power of flowers in all their forms, and maybe as a pre-emptive strike to get them before they get us, let's take the idea of eating flowers out of the realm of the exotic or forbidden and put them right in the centre of the summer dinner table, plunk, where they belong, and I don't mean in a vase.

Eating flowers still remains a novelty, at least in contemporary North American kitchens. The very idea is usually relegated to the purview of fancy chefs in fancy restaurants - "they" do it; "we" don't.

But flowers are simply parts of plants, often ones we already eat, the sex organs, if you will, that have developed flashy attributes like scent and colour to attract pollinating insects and other animals.

Take a look at some flowers that you already use, or at least have nibbled at, and may not have realized they're flowers.

Likely the most common flowers every good Canadian eats without thinking for a minute we're doing so are broccoli and cauliflower. In both cases we're munching down immature or unopened flower structures - buds and their supporting infrastructure.

Although not quite as common on dinner tables here as they are in the U.S., artichokes are another common bud we eat. They're the giant flower buds of a thistle known as Cynara scolymus, a native of the Mediterranean region and a distant relative of the cardoon, which no doubt manipulated some ancient Greeks or their neighbours into cross-breeding it to develop bigger and better edible buds.

The heart of the artichoke, says David McGee in his wonderfully informative book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, is the flower base. Scientifically, it corresponds to the fleshy portion of the strawberry and the fig.

Capers are the pickled flower buds of an evergreen bush also common in the Mediterranean region. And you might have enjoyed an iced tea or fruity punch made with the red petals of a kind of hibiscus, also know as jamaica (pronounced ha-MY-ka), which is remarkable for its concentration of vitamin C, phenolic antioxidants and pectin.

Saffron, of course, is simply the dried stigmas and styles from the flowers of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), while rose water has long been used in baklava and Turkish delight, and orange water flavours everything from Moroccan salads and stews to Turkish coffee.

So are you feeling braver now about arming yourself with some flower power for your next summer supper?

If so, Pemberton farms such as North Arm Farm and Ice Cap Organics are pedalling petals for your delight.

Jordan Sturdy at North Arm Farms says daylily flowers are among his favourites. Smooth and velvety with a little crunch, he and his wife, Trish, will cook them or take them apart and use them in salads. They're eaten both fresh and dried in Asia, where dried day lily buds are also called "golden needles."

The Sturdys also sprinkle bright yellow-orange calendula petals and blue bachelor button petals through North Arm salad mixes for a pretty confetti effect.

Nasturtium blooms are also popular. Try them in salads or on ice cream, suggests Delany Zayac at Ice Cap Organics. They're pretty to look at either way, and hold up with their robust earthy, spicy flavour that hints at mustard.

A more exotic favourite are squash blossoms. Stuffed or battered and fried, their aroma is musky and complex with green, almond and spicy notes.

If you do use flowers in your cooking, rather than fresh, just make sure you treat them as kindly as they do us. Petals and their flavours are delicate so they should be cooked very briefly or added at serving time as intriguing garnishes.

Edible flowers you can delight in:

Herbs (chives, rosemary, lavender, thyme); rose; violet and pansy; daylily; calendula; bachelor button; begonia; jasmine; geranium (many have herb and fruit scents); lilac; orchids; chrysanthemums and marigolds' lotus; nasturtium; elderflower (but not our local B.C. elderflowers); citrus; apple and pear; tulip (payback time!); gardenia; peony; linden (tilleul); redbud.

Don't try these:

Lily of the valley; hydrangea; narcissus and daffodil; oleander; poinsettia; rhododendron; sweet pea; wisteria.

These lists are largely from On Food and Cooking, but don't include all flowers.

A rule of thumb is never try eating a flower or any other part of a plant unless you've checked with a knowledgeable source and confirmed it's edible. Sometimes one part of a plant is edible, such as rhubarb stems, while other parts are toxic (rhubarb leaves).

Also, make sure flowers you gather for eating from gardens or from the wild are free from contaminants like pesticides and herbicides, or even toxins released from motor vehicles that collect on plants on roadsides. Gently wash the flowers you gather, then let their alluring powers wash over you.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has a lot of respect for flowers.