Flowering plants that don’t produce a fruit or vegetable can seem a bit of a luxury in the permaculture garden. Sure, they may look beautiful, but unless they are performing a function in a guild (such as daffodils suppressing grass around an apple tree), this single function can look a little underwhelming in the context of an integrated garden ecosystem.
Fortunately, however, there are lots of species of flower that have more than one function, providing both an attractive color to your plot and an edible bloom to your kitchen. There are also vegetable and herb species whose flowers are edible as well as their crop, adding another dimension to these plants (although, of course, the flowers of vegetable plants will turn into said vegetables, so pluck judiciously).
Adding flowers to dishes is not a very common practice, but eating blooms does have a long history. The Ancient Romans certainly used them as part of their cuisine, while the Chinese have included flowers like chrysanthemums in their diet for thousands of years. In fact, you may have been eating flowers without even realizing it – capers are actually the unripe flower buds of a Mediterranean perennial plant that have been pickled in wine or vinegar.
Not all flowers are edible, and you certainly don’t want to be tucking into blooms bought from a nursery or florists as they may well have been treated with chemicals, so growing your own is the best way to add the unique colors and tastes of edible flowers to your menu. Here are some potential species to consider adding to your permaculture plot.
Arguably, the flower that is most commonly used in the kitchen, nasturtiums have a pleasing yellow or orange color and a slightly spicy flavor. Most commonly used as a salad garnish, you could also try chopping the flowers up and mixing into lemon butter, or garnish a root vegetable soup. Be aware that nasturtiums tend to attract aphids, so plant near species that attract ladybugs, which will predate the aphis, such as fennel and coriander.
Borage blooms are the perfect flower to add to salads, as they have a taste similar to that of cucumber. The blue flowers are very beautiful and look great in a fruit salad or added to a summer drink, such as an elderflower cordial (you could even freeze individual blooms in ice-cubes for an added aesthetic).
Zucchini flowers have become a more common sight on restaurant menus in recent years, often served stuffed with a soft cheese. You can do the same thing in your own kitchen. Alternatively, add some blooms to a risotto at the last minute or deep-fry for tempura. Zucchini plants are a valuable crop as they produce a large number of flowers on each plant, meaning you can harvest some flowers and still leave plenty behind to turn into vegetables. Squash flowers can be used in the same ways.
If broccolini (and broccoli) heads are left on the plant they will flower. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you missed your chance to eat them, as the flowers can add a milder broccoli taste to dishes, working particularly well in salads, where their bright yellow color stands out.
Often known as Calendula, pot marigolds flowers have a taste not unlike saffron. As such, the bright orange petals are good additions to salads and risottos. The plants are particularly adapted to container growing, so make a good choice for those short on space.
If you find the heat and peppery spice of arugula leaves a bit overpowering, try using the flowers instead. They have a milder, subtler flavor than the leaves, and can be used in many of the same dishes, such as summer salad or a cheesy quiche or frittata. They are best used early in the spring when the blooms are young.
Violas do not have the strongest of flavors, but they have the benefit of a long growing season, continuing to produce blooms throughout the fall and, if it is a warm one, into the winter. Young, early-season flowers go well in green and fruit salads, while blooms later in the season add flavour to soups and stews. Traditionally viola flowers have also been crystallized and used as cake decorations. Pansies come from the same family as violas and can be used in much the same way. They also come in a broader range of colors for added eye-catching appeal.
Chive plants do double service in providing an onion flavor to a dish. Many people use the long, slender leaves as a herb, but the flowers perform the same function, with the added bonus of a pleasing crunch. They are a great addition to mashed potato, adding striking purple flecks of color, while they can also be deep-fried Japanese style as tempura. In the garden, chive flowers are very attractive to bees, so before you harvest them they play a role in the pollination of your plants by attracting this important insect.
Despite its name, this plant is not actually related to the spiny tropical fruit. Instead, it is because of its sweet scent that it acquired the moniker. In taste, it resembles conventional sage, but with a milder flavor. As such, flash-fried blooms will pair well with pork dishes, while fresh the flowers actually complement a fruit salad.
Whichever edible flowers you choose to grow, there are a few guidelines to observe when picking and handling. Always try to pick the blooms as close to when you are going to use them as possible. This preserves their vibrancy and crunch. If you can’t take them directly from garden to plate, store in the refrigerator in a container and covered with a damp paper towel. Always check the flowers carefully for bugs, but avoid washing them, as flower petals are delicate and could be damaged by the water; it will also make them go limp, lessening the attractiveness they add to the plate.