Nibbling flower petals might seem a little out of place in a world more in tune with take-out food and TV dinners, but consumer interest in edible flowers is enjoying a resurgence.
You can buy edible flowers in the grocery store and at area farmers' markets. Rare is the upscale North County restaurant chef nowadays who doesn't use an edible flower or two as the final touch for a signature dish.
The use of edible flowers as flavorings or medicines reaches back to ancient times. One of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Old Testament was dandelion. According to the Roman naturalist Pliny, for instance, the baby-blue, star-like flower of borage had the "power to drive away melancholy" and increase a man's courage.
Hollyhocks, which originated in the Holy Land, (hence holy-hocks) were once a popular remedy for coughs, and an infusion made from the flower was popular in Great Britain to reduce the swelling in horses' legs (or hocks). Carnation petals are one of the numerous "secret" ingredients in the French Chartreuse liqueur, already popular in the 17th Century. It is also recounted that England's Queen Elizabeth I had a great fondness for lavender tea.
Most of us appreciate fuchsias and calendulas for their colorful blooms, but for a number of growers in North County, these flowers serve another purpose: Not only do they brighten up patios, they add color and zest to food.
Bob and Jan Sayles' Edible Acre in Vista caters to this expanding market. Little did they realize a few years back that their hobby would reach some of the most distinguished restaurant plates in the county. Flowers that the Sayles once thought of only as border plants are now sent to market. These days, carefully tended pots of baby-blue pansies, gold-tinted marigolds and salmon-colored fuchsias cover much of their sun-drenched patio. Nasturtiums are particularly popular, says Jan Sayles. The peppery-flavored petals with a strong mustard accent have long been a staple in many Mediterranean dishes.
Pansies are Jan's favorites. "Chefs love our pansies," she says, picking out budding weeds from one of the flats covering a poolside table. She favors pansies not only for the distinct "face-like" markings on each single flower, but also for their eye appeal. The Sayles' fuchsias also end up on chic dinner plates.
Fuschia blossoms in all shades of pink hang like multilayered bells from bushes and pots in the Sayles' yard. The fuchsia's bland flavor, however, is no match for its spectacular appearance. The mild flavor of the delicate Johnny jump-ups, on the other hand, recalls that of a mild lettuce leaf.
Stephenie Caughlin of Seabreeze Organic Farm in Del Mar tucks in edible flowers "here and there, as part of the landscape."
She is fond of borage, a blue star with a distinct cucumber taste, which readily reseeds itself. "It's a very tall and aggressive plant," she says. It's best when picked early in the day, when the flavor and scent are at their peak. "Be careful of competing with bees, they love them," she cautions. The remedy for a sting lies not far away at Seabreeze: the petals of the Calendula, another edible flower, are also used as a poultice for treating bee stings. Caughlin often sprinkles the petals over a frittata or a souffle.
She counts among the most unusual edible flowers the day lily. Only certain species are edible, though, and great caution must be exercised before ingesting one. She breaks off a spectacular one from its stem, and offers it to a visitor. The flower's crunch, and the refreshing flavor comes as a surprise. The flower has one of the most delicate tastes, says Caughlin. It also has a very short shelf life, and must be eaten almost immediately after being picked.
Caughlin also specializes in more common edibles, such as sage flowers, society garlic, chive blossoms and lemon thyme, which she adds to the baby salad mix she sells at area farmer's markets.
Tim Connelly of Connelly Farms in Ramona also sounds a note of caution when it comes to eating flowers. "Nobody really knows what is edible and what isn't," explains the organic farmer. "Only very few have been thoroughly tested by UC Davis researchers." Some flowers have a wonderful fragrance, but that doesn't necessarily make them palatable, he says. One such flower is lavender blossoms. "They taste horrendous in salads," he says, although they are sometimes used as a subtle flavoring for custards or sorbets.
Connelly started growing edible flowers at the request of chefs a few years back, to take up the slack during the winter lull in production of his specialty vegetables.
"Chefs still need to add color to their plates without spending a fortune," he says. And certain varieties of edible flowers do just that. Beginning with nasturtiums, Connelly added organically grown lavender, Johnny jump-ups, and wide rows of pineapple sage to his manicured plantings.
The tiny blue blossom of the society garlic ranks as one of the most popular edible flowers. "Society garlic has a very strong flavor and is best used as a garnish for soup," says Connelly.
Be advised that a lovely blossom is not necessarily a good thing to eat: consult experts before consuming flowers. If a flower tastes caustic or bitter, definitely do not eat it. Do not introduce young children to edible flowers, since they can't tell the difference between "good" ones and "bad." Poisonous plants include oleander, rhododendron and daffodils, among others. Flowers should be rinsed thoroughly before use. Many flowers such as roses, violets and mimosas can be candied.
The Edible Acre, 2252 Catalina Ave., Vista 92084. (619) 758-1030. Will pick with 24 hours' notice. 60 flowers minimum order. Flowers cost 17 cents each.
Seabreeze Organic Farm. Stephenie Caughlin. Sells at Hazard, Del Mar, Pacific Beach Farmer's Markets. Flowers are included in salad mixture. Price depends on availability. Special orders accepted with advance notice.
Connelly Farms, 456 Telford Lane, Ramona 92065. (619) 789-5293. Wholesale only. Sells directly to restaurants such as Fairbanks Ranch Country Club and 515 5th Avenue in San Diego. Will grow flowers to order.