FRESNO, Calif. – Chef Karsten Hart tucks flowers into terrines. He steeps chamomile in fish broth.

He is thinking of infusing iced tea with sage blossoms, but he’s not a fan of battering and frying flowers – a common technique. “It’s appropriate if the flower is bruised,” he says. “But if it’s perfect, you want to show it off.”

Hart, of Erna’s Elderberry House in Oakhurst, Calif., likes edible flowers. Spicy nasturtiums, sweet pansies and pea flowers that taste just like peas.

It’s best, he says, to use edible flowers immediately, although some of them will keep for up to a week if handled properly. He recommends loosely wrapping flowers in a moist paper towel and storing them in a plastic container.

Before folks start experimenting with edible flowers, however, there are a few rules they should follow.

Ask experts if your flowers are edible. “Sweet peas are poisonous,” John Warner says as an example. “But the flowers from sugar-snap peas are edible.”

He advises folks to consult reputable catalogs, such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Johnny’s uses a knife-and-fork icon to indicate whether or not a flower is edible.

Sharon Matson, a Fresno County master gardener, offers another way to determine the safety of a flower.

“There are common names for flowers that might fit more than one variety,” she says. “You should know the botanical name and compare it.” An example is the marigold. “Some are edible and some are not,” she says.

Also be sure the flowers haven’t been sprayed with chemicals.

Likewise, avoid flowers that grow near roads, Cathy Wilkinson Barash writes in “Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate,” (Fulcrum Publishing, $24.95). “They are contaminated from car emissions.”

When you do identify an edible flower, taste it before using it, Matson says. “Even from one year to the next, the flower might have a different taste.”

If you’re cutting roses, you’ll want to smell the flowers. “They tend to be more flavorful when they have fragrance,” she says.

When harvesting flowers, Matson follows the advice of “Edible Flowers.” She heads into her garden in the early morning after the dew has evaporated and clips the flowers that are at their peak.

In some cases, such as pansies, it’s appropriate to eat the whole flower, Matson says. But for most flowers, it’s best to use just the petals.

“You want to cut the white part of the base of the petal,” Matson says. “It can be very bitter.”

She also points out some of the other rules listed in Barash’s book: “Introduce flowers into your diet the way you would new foods to a baby one at a time in small quantities.” And “If you have hay fever, asthma or allergies, do not eat flowers.”

Matson’s experiments indicate a wide range of uses for edible flowers. They include daylily pancakes with flower syrup, rose-petal tea, sugarcoated lilacs, dried marigolds, hot potatoes with calendula petals, and an appetizer of crackers and cream cheese topped with a variety of flowers.

Cooks can consult authors such as Barash and Frances Bissell for inspiration. In “The Book of Food: A Cook’s Guide to Over 1,000 Exotic and Everyday Ingredients” (Henry Holt & Co., $40), Bissell describes how to infuse butter with flowers, make flower-flavored sugars and use marigolds and nasturtiums in savory dishes.

“Wrap a piece of fresh, unsalted butter in cheesecloth, bury it in a bowl of flower petals, cover and leave it in a cool place for about 12 hours,” she writes. “Then unwrap the butter, which is delicious on toast or scones.

“Flavored sugars for ice creams, sorbets and custards can be made by grinding one part clean, dry petals to two to four times their volume of sugar. The proportion depends on the strength of the flower’s scent. Lavender will take plenty of sugar, violets and mimosa will take less.”

As for nasturtiums and marigolds, “they are particularly good finely chopped, with one or two of their leaves, and added to cream cheese, omelets, souffles, or vegetable terrines.”

The flavor of the flowers should dictate their use, Matson says. “If using a flower for a dessert, then you’re going to want to use the sweet-tasting flowers,” she says. “The more vegetable flavor, you would tend to use those more with vegetables or meat dishes.”

And just because a flower is edible doesn’t mean you should eat it. “Like snapdragons,” Warner says. “They’re safe to eat, but they just taste horrible.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.