Eats: Petals on the plate

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Durham’s Irene Barber will get your palate blooming.

Pretty tasty! That just about sums it up when it comes to Irene Barber’s edible flower salad.

And no surprise. Barber spends most of her time at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, where she teaches edible landscape classes. She holds degrees in horticultural and soil sciences and therapeutic landscape design, with a certificate in horticultural therapy, and she maintains a beautifully edible garden at her home office of Irene Barber Greenscapes Design in Durham.

This woman knows her plants, edible and not so.

When Barber was a college student she worked summers at a garden center, where she weeded and performed garden tasks for private clients. After college, she went to work for a florist, where she met a woman from Peaks Island who often visited the flower shop for what she referred to as “plant therapy.” Inspired, Barber ventured into “horticultural therapy — techniques that support cognitively impaired and physically and visually challenged individuals.

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“Therapeutic landscapes,” Barber explains, “are intended to enhance your well-being. . . . There are strategic ways to meet (an individual’s) needs with respect to accessibility and the tactile experience, which uses contrasting textures to distinguish between different plants.” Her methods also make use of the fragrant qualities of plants, as well as sound through use of water.

Because she uses native and low-impact procedures with minimal mechanical devices, no pesticides and no synthetic fertilizers, her ecological landscapes produce flowers that are both lovely and edible.

The number of flowers that are edible is surprising, and Barber not only knows which ones, but how to use them and often how to serve them.

Edible efflorescence

• “All marigolds are edible,” says Barber, adding, “The petals are more digestible in a smaller flower.” She notes that Lemon Gem is a type of marigold that tastes like lemon.

• “Bachelor buttons are edible and super gorgeous,” she says. Barber recommends breaking apart the bachelor button because it is actually “an inflorescence of flowers (or) many little flowers on a solid head.”

• Similarly, she says “tuberous begonias are edible (but) you have to break up the flower into petals.”

Day lily flowers, either stuffed with cheeses or shredded in a coleslaw, “have a little bit of a peppery flavor.”

Cucumber and zucchini flowers can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Lavender’s flowers and foliage are both edible, Barber says, though the flower is the most aromatic and flavorful part of the plant. The lavender that Barber grows is a cross between an English and a French variety, “with the hardiness of the English and the elegance of the French.”

To use fresh lavender, Barber recommends that you use your fingers to scrape the petals off the stem, from top to bottom.

“Lavender,” says Barber, “is used in sachets, chocolates, specialty drinks like lavender-infused vodka and is also delicious in frosting.” She notes that fresh lavender’s strong flavor balances well with honey and with stevia.

Barber speaks passionately about lavender: “Imagine stevia with lavender in a cookie, with chocolate bits in the batter.”

• “The flowers from the English thyme plant are edible,” she says. “You can put them directly into whatever you are cooking or, like lemon grass, you can use them in a bundle with other herbs.”

Calendula officinalis is an orange-yellow flower that is not only edible, but also has medicinal properties. “You can use it to make a poultice or a salve, or let it infuse in jojoba oil for burns, cracked skin or chapped lips. . . . You can also rub (the flower) right on your skin, if you need a quick fix, but when you eat the flowers, you have to separate the petals.”

Snapdragons are not only fun and beautiful, they are also edible. “When you consume it, you use the whole flower,” says Barber, adding, “The flower breaks down in the dressing, but still looks pretty.” She recommends applying the dressing to the salad only at the very last moment. “You can even serve snapdragons alone with just a little olive oil and vinegar.”

• The flowers of pansies and violas, as well as sweet strawberry flowers, are edible, and Barber recommends breaking apart the flower petals.

• “Borage officinalis is an edible flower that attracts beneficial insects that prey on insects you don’t want in your garden,” says Barber. “The borage flower tastes like cucumber. It’s very refreshing, and they’re so beautiful.” The stem, she notes, is not edible.

Chive flowers taste “super fresh and super oniony,” says Barber, and, like the bachelor button, “The flower is actually hundreds of little flowers.”

When it comes to chives, you can eat the flower/seeds and the leaves, but not the stem. “The seed is where the flavor is,” says Barber but “the stem, which looks like the leaves but has the flower on top, is woody.”

Even after a chive flower is dry, you can still use it by crushing it with a mortar and pestle.

Marjoram and oregano plants produce edible flowers, though not all oregano. (See next item.)

Salvia officinalis, or sage flowers, are also both pretty and edible. The sage flower “is very peppery,” says Barber, who uses it when she cooks poultry or steak. “You can almost use it as a substitute for pepper.”

Not all sage, however, is edible, so be careful when you purchase your seedlings. Like sage, some oregano is not edible, but is just ornamental and for pollination purposes.

• The flower of the Kale plant “has a mustardy/peppery flavor,” says Barber, noting, “Kale, Swiss chard, broccoli and cauliflower are all in the brassica family, while cucumber, squash and pumpkin are in the cucurbit family, and all of the flowers from all of these plants are edible when they are fresh.”

Handle like a delicate flower

Barber prepared a pretty and tasty edible flower salad for us, and shared her recipe, emphasizing that with a plant like nasturtium “you add the whole flower, because it’s so decorative.” Nasturtium, she says, “tastes like radish, and can grow up to 12 feet in a season.” Barber uses them as a garnish, as well as in salads, and notes that nasturtium can be used to infuse a dressing.

The dressing is a key component for her salad, according to Barber, who uses a little garlic and lemon juice, rather than vinegar, along with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and honey Dijon mustard. She also adds Thai cucumbers and fresh raspberries.

When cooking with flowers, Barber recommends rinsing them “toward the end of your prep and only under a very gentle shower, or they will disintegrate too quickly.”

“While these flowers are referred to being edible, there are limits for ingesting large concentrations due to plant properties and personal allergic reactions.  Please follow up with independent research for further information,” says Barber, and use sparingly until you know how they affect you.

For most people, flowers are not considered for their gustatory qualities. “The purpose of having flowers in your garden,” explains Barber, “is to attract pollinators to pollinate your broccoli, peas and blueberries.

“When most people talk about decorative flowers, they’re also looking for an aesthetic quality,” she adds.

But when Barber talks of flowers, she acknowledges that she’s often planning dinner. “I have fun with this.”

“While these flowers are referred to being edible, there are limits for ingesting large concentrations due to plant properties and personal allergic reactions.  Please follow up with independent research for further information,” says horticulturalist Irene Barber, and use sparingly until you know how they affect you.

Irene Barber’s colorful garden salad

Serves four-five

Mixed lettuce greens of choice to fill half of a 12-inch salad bowl (arugula is recommended)

1 freshly shredded carrot (include cleaned skin because it has the most amount of nutrients)

2-3 small cucumbers, thinly sliced

1-2 cups of baby broccoli or broccolini heads

Add half of the following ingredients to your salad above before tossing with dressing. Then add the other half as fresh garnish.

1/4 cup borage flowers (taste like cucumbers)

1/4 cup bee balm flowers (depending on color, sweet minty flavor)

1/2 cup nasturtiums (If you don’t like the radish flavor of nasturtiums, use violets. The more red the flower color of nasturtiums, the spicier they are.)

Dressing*

The juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or if preferable, sunflower oil)

1 tablespoon finely chopped or pressed garlic clove (if using a wooden bowl, rub garlic inside the bowl for added flavor)

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt (stronger flavor with ground sea salt)

Whisk the ingredients quickly. Toss into half your salad, let it marry with the ingredients, then add the other half of the salad ingredients.

*This dressing is light and complementary to enhance the flavors of the salad, rather than trying to disguise them.

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