Imagine, 75% of the calories consumed by humans come from just 12 plant and 5 livestock species. Humans regularly cultivate only 200 species of plants for food, out of the nearly half-million that exist. With over 400,000 species of flowering plants alone, there must be more diversity that we can bring to our plate. In fact, scientists believe that we could realistically eat about 300,000 of these plant species. In this article, we explore edible flowers. With so many flowers in the world, their potential for human food is quite vast. Some flowers are surprisingly common in the grocery store, whereas others are regular garden plants. Flowers lend themselves well to salads, baking, and adding bright colors to dishes.
This plant must be the most eaten flower in the world. World production of broccoli is around 26 million tons annually. Can you believe that broccoli is a flower? In fact, a head of broccoli contains thousands of individual flower buds. Each tiny green dot is a flower waiting to burst open. However, broccoli is typically harvested before the buds turn into flowers. Fun fact: brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, and broccoli are all the same species of plant, Brassica oleracea. Farmers harvest cauliflower before the vegetable can turn into buds, so it isn’t technically an edible flower. Both brussel sprouts and kale are leaves of the plant. Therefore, they are also not flowers.
Broccoli is an incredibly versatile food. It can be steamed, baked, boiled, fried, sautéed, or eaten raw. Cultures across the globe regularly consume this grocery store staple. Next time you eat broccoli, think about the hundreds of little flowers in your mouth!
Squash is an abundant and common summer vegetable (well, technically a fruit). Did you know that the blossom of the plant, rather than the fruit, is a common food item elsewhere in the world? The large, orange blossoms are some of the most satisfying flowers to eat. They cook well, keep a nice texture, and have a mild, squashy flavor.
Squash plants have separate male and female flowers. Only female flowers turn into squash, so male flowers can be picked freely, as long as a few are left to pollinate the females. Male flowers tend to be further out from the center of the plant, have a skinny base, and are more abundant. While squash blossoms are delicious, they are hard to find in traditional grocery stores because they have a very short shelf life. If you have a garden, try to learn to tell the difference between male and female so you have a fresh supply!
Before eating, the inner parts of the flower (stamen or stigma) must be removed, along with the pollen. Use these flowers as quickly as possible because they can go bad quickly. Mexicans use Flor de Calabaza as a common ingredient for soups and quesadillas. They can also be used as a pizza topping or sautéed with onions and added to a variety of dishes. For a simple preparation, they can be tossed into pasta or a salad for some great color and mild flavor.
This landscaping favorite is also an edible flower. It grows easily in most of the continental U.S., from hardiness zones 4 to 11. The plant flowers for many months of the year, which make it a consistent food producer. This flower has a peppery taste almost reminiscent of wasabi. They grow in all of the sunset colors and have a nice crunch.
Nasturtium flowers are best eaten fresh. Use them to top salads for a contrasting, bright color and zingy flavor. They can also be used to top pastries and cakes to add to their appearance.
Alright, I admit it. By weight, saffron probably isn’t one of the most popular edible flowers. Global production of saffron is a mere 300 tonnes annually. It is the most expensive spice on the planet, in part because of the tremendous labor needed to harvest the plant. A saffron ‘thread’ is a stigma of a special kind of crocus flower. Each flower produces a mere 3 threads. It takes 50,000 individual flowers to make one pound of spice. All this labor is done by hand. Iran grows the majority of the world’s saffron.
Due to its global scarcity, this special spice is difficult to find and very expensive. Specialty spice shops are the best place to find saffron. It is most commonly used to flavor rice. The red of the saffron will also turn the rice a pleasant yellow color. To cook saffron rice, steep the saffron threads in a few tablespoons of water. Add this water with the threads to the rice as it cooks. Easy as that!
What? Yes, just like broccoli, artichokes are also flowers. How fun! These plants are in the sunflower family. When flowering, the plant looks like a thistle. The edible parts of an artichoke are the numerous petals that surround the center of the flower. Once the artichoke opens into a flower, the petals become tough and nearly inedible. Artichoke must be one of the most commonly eaten flowers in the world, with a global annual production of 1.45 million tons.
As a fresh food, artichokes are steamed until the flesh at the base of the petals is soft and tender. These petals are typically dipped in mayonnaise, melted butter, or garlic-flavored olive oil. Artichoke hearts are also marinated with herbs and spices. These marinated hearts are great in pizza, pasta, or anything Italian. In fact, Italy is the world’s largest producer of artichokes.
There are many species, varieties, and hybrids of lavender. English lavender, the most fragrant, is considered the best for essential oils and cooking. While this plant is more commonly used as a scent or in herbal infusions, it can also be used to flavor foods. The flowers are a pleasant purple color, and their small size makes them aesthetically appealing when sprinkled on pastries. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean basin, and all species are moderately to extremely drought-tolerant. This plant grows well in most the continental US, excluding the colder parts of the Northeast, upper Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains.
Beware: lavender has a strong flavor and can easily overpower a dish. Be conservative when adding lavender to avoid making your food taste like perfume. Keep in mind that dried lavender is about 3 times more potent than fresh lavender. It can be used in place of rosemary in many recipes. It can also be used to flavor bread by adding it in place of thyme. Grinding the flowers in a coffee grinder, or with a mortar and pestle, will enhance their flavor. As with all flowers, be sure to use food-grade flowers rather than flowers from a nursery or florist. These flowers are more likely to have nasty pesticides and chemical, which you don’t want in your food.
This list of edible flowers is obviously incredibly abbreviated. There are so many kinds to try in the world. However, please don’t harvest native wildflowers. These are super important food sources for all sorts of wildlife. When you pick a flower, you functionally kill a plant because it can no longer produce seeds. There are so many edible non-native flowers, garden flowers, and landscaping flowers in your neighborhood. Just start looking!