Edible Native Flowers: From The Garden To Your Table

by Cindy Gilberg

Our gardens are ready to burst forth with all their bounty and soon we can enjoy fresh-picked edible crops. Take eating local a step further and explore native edible plants, including edible flowers. Edible flowers rank high on the list of eye-appealing additions to gourmet dishes and add color and subtle flavor to many of our commonly prepared dishes.

Many edible native plants are also ornamental, making them excellent choices for developing an edible landscape. Buy plants from a reputable source rather than foraging for plants whose identity you are unsure of. The plants mentioned here are easy to find. Ask at your favorite local garden center. Refer to the Buyers’ Guide list at www.grownative.org which includes not only garden centers but also nurseries mail order, etc. Add to your calendar the annual Shaw Nature Reserve Wildflower Market—May 10th & May 11th ( info at www.shawnature.org). Prior to using edible native plants, always research how to identify, harvest and prepare them, since some are quite specific.

At the top of my list is a delightful spring flower—the violet. While many gardeners try to get rid of violets, I cherish mine. Each year I anxiously await the arrival of violet flowers to sprinkle on top of my spring green salads and soups. This beautiful addition enhances the presentation of so simple a dish. They can be added to ice cream, yogurt, cakes and are used in making jelly. The leaves are also edible, though should be eaten in small quantities. Violets are the host plant for various fritillary butterflies, a plus if you like butterflies. (Who doesn’t?) Another great, yet overlooked, edible flower makes its appearance in spring—the redbud. This small native tree is one of the earliest to bloom in our woodlands with branches enveloped in clusters of mildly sweet pink flowers. Add these to everything from salads to desserts; sometimes I add both violets and redbuds for a color explosion in my otherwise drab salads.

The petals of native roses, such as the wild prairie rose, can be used to add color and a mild sweet flavor to desserts and jellies. The flower petals of both pink beebalm (Monarda) and blue anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) are yet other summer-blooming flowers that add a variety of color. Anise hyssop has an intriguing licorice flavor while beebalm tends to have a mild minty flavor. The large perennial hibiscus is a source of large flowers that come in white, pink and sometimes even red. These flowers can be brewed for tea or sliced and added fresh to dishes for additional color.

The list of more unusual flowers to try includes elderberry, a large shrub that grows in moist soil. Large umbels of white flowers appear in summer, followed by rich purple berries later on. Note that most of the elderberry plant—roots, shoots, stems and leaves—is poisonous! Remove the flower umbel just as the florets are opening, dip in a fritter batter and then dust with powdered sugar. This makes a delightful dessert! One that I have not yet tried is milkweed. All milkweeds have a very bitter white sap. Pick the flower clusters while they are still in tight bud, place them in hot water, bring to a boil for a few minutes and then rinse. Repeat the hot water/boil treatment two more times to remove the bitter sap and serve with butter.

There are many more edible native plants to look into as well as a number of non-native edible flowers. A quick internet search will yield all sorts or information. Remember—identify the plant, the plant part to be used, how to prepare it, wash it before using and start with small quantities if you have never eaten it before. And then, enjoy!

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Profes-sional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. You can ontact Cindy at 314-630-1004 or cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.