“Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean,
As o’er the path in rich disorder lean
Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils,
Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils.”
— John Clare, “Beans in Blossom,” 1835
I love the imagery English poet John Clare provides in this verse. I can picture the bees weighed down with pollen on their hind legs, and the perfumed bean blossoms are almost real. I wonder if Clare, who worked on a farm as a child, knew that bean flowers are also lusciously tasty?
According to Lorene Edwards Forkner, author of “Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest” (2012), raw pole and runner bean blossoms, fresh from the garden, add a delicately sweet flavor to salads and coleslaw.
In fact, Forkner reminds us that “secondary crops — whether it be a stem, seed pod, blossom, or bud — are seasonal treats only available to the backyard grower.”
It’s the home gardener’s privilege to pilfer a few blossoms now and then to add color, flavor and texture to all sorts of seasonal dishes. Research on edible flowers shows they contain high levels of antioxidants and minerals.
Forkner offers a list of edible flowers from plants that may be growing in your vegetable garden:
Alliums – Chives, leeks and garlic blossoms can be added to green salads, pasta and potato salads, and dips. Be sure to remove the central stem from the flower cluster to release the florets. Whole chive blossoms can also be pickled.
Brassicas – If your Brassica crops bolt early, don’t fret. Arugula, broccoli, cabbage, kale, mustard, and radish flowers all produce delicate, spicy-sweet flowers that are delicious eaten raw. The immature seed pods that follow the flowers are crunchy with a peppery taste; they can be eaten raw or lightly sautéed.
Peas – Snip off 3-4 inches of the tendrils and growing tips before the plants set seed pods. Use blossoms and tips right away as their sweet, fresh pea flavor fades quickly. Only eat the blossoms of vegetable peas, as sweet pea flowers are toxic.
Squashes – All types of squash produce male and female flowers, but only the females produce fruit (look for a slight swelling at the base of the blossom). Harvest the male flowers, remove the stamen, and eat them raw in salads or as a garnish, sautéed with other vegetables, or stuffed and fried for a delicious, crispy treat.
Forkner also provides a list of edible flowers from herb plants, as well as plants that are usually considered only ornamental:
Anise hyssop – A perennial herb that has lavender-blue blossoms with a sweet licorice flavor and a hint of mint. Separate the clustered florets and serve them with fruit, as a garnish for desserts, or brewed for tea.
Bee balm – A perennial herb with shaggy, brightly colored flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds. The blossoms have a citrusy-mint flavor for tea.
Begonia – An annual plant used for ornamental flower beds, begonia’s juicy stems and colorful blossoms have a lemony flavor. Add to fruit or green salads, fish dishes or cocktails.
Borage – An annual herb, all parts of the plant, including the pretty blue flowers, have a refreshing cucumber flavor. Add to fruit salads, green salads, or freeze in ice cubes for cold drinks.
Calendula – An annual herb, calendula is sometimes called the “poor man’s saffron” because the golden flowers have a mild, peppery taste. Separate the petals from the center of the flower and sprinkle them over green salads or soups.
Chrysanthemum – Flowers and foliage add a pungent, slightly bitter taste to traditional Asian cuisine. The most popular edible variety is a short-lived perennial called “shungiko,” translated as “spring chrysanthemum.”
Daylily – Crunchy daylily blossoms have a sweet, peppery flavor. Cut them up and toss in green salads or pasta dishes, or dip them in batter and quick-fry.
Dianthus – Delicate carnation petals have a spicy-sweet, clove-like flavor that matches their fragrance. Remove the petals from the bitter-tasting base of the flower, then toss in salads or soups, or steep in wine or tea.
Lavender – The deep purple flowers of English lavender are the best for culinary uses. Grind up the buds or steep them and use the strained liquid for flavoring. Lavender buds are often used with rosemary, thyme and oregano for a pungent mixture called Herbes de Provence.
Marigold – The single-flowered signet varieties have a lemony fragrance and flavor, whereas larger marigolds taste bitter. Pull the petals from the stem and cut off the pale-colored portion of the petal, which has a bitter taste.
Nasturtium – An annual flower that tastes peppery, brightly colored nasturtiums can be added to salads, soups, pasta and stir-fries.
Pansy – The annual flowers have a mild taste and add vivid color to a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Pansies can also be frozen in ice cubes and served with cold drinks.
Roses – Old-fashioned roses and rugosa roses provide the stronger, traditional rose flavor that resembles green apples and strawberries. Pick fresh roses in the morning, remove the petals from the stem, and cut off the pale, bitter-tasting bottom portion of the petal. Use rose petals along with other spices for meat rubs, muddle petals and add to fruity beverages, steep for teas, or make candied rose petals by brushing with beaten egg whites and dipping in sugar.
Violets – The fragrant, deep purple blossoms are traditionally candied with sugar, or can be used as a colorful garnish for salads, soups and savory dishes.
Eating flowers can be a fun and flavorful way to get the most out of your garden, but be careful. Plants that have been sprayed with pesticides should not be eaten, and before popping a freshly picked flower into your mouth, be sure it’s safe to eat, as some flowers are poisonous.
Let’s heed the words of E.E. Cummings, an American poet who lived after John Clare and his bean blossoms. Cummings wrote in the early 20th century, “the thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not be afraid.”
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.