Flowers play an important role in an edible landscape and in any food producing permaculture.
The benefits of integrating flowering plants into a vegetable garden are numerous: they attract bees and other insects to pollinate and predate on common pests, fragrant flowers and flowering herbs help confuse and repel some harmful insect pests, and an exceptionally diverse range of flowers that can be harvested for pot-pourri, herb teas, aromatherapy, cut flowers and also for food.
Many fruit trees and vegetables have beautiful flowers with aesthetic value as well as other uses. Some of my favorite flowering fruits include pomegranate, quince, and all the stone fruits, and there's nothing more delightful than the fragrance of a citrus tree in flower. Salsify, chicory, globe artichoke and Jerusalem artichoke rank amongst some of the most attractive flowering vegetables.
Many the plants commonly grown in gardens solely for their flowers are medicinal and culinary herbs and some also produce edible fruit - like fuchsia which produces an edible berry. Roses have always been a great favorite in ornamental landscapes. The old traditional varieties are the best for harvesting the hips (fruit) for herb tea and jellies, but any fragrant rose can be harvested for pot pourri and if you want a real treat, try making some rose petal jam.
The elderberry bush has been used for centuries as a multi purpose plant in Europe - it's medicinal qualities are listed in most herb books, the fruit used for preserves and elder berry wine and the flowers are prized for pot pourri, wine making and most of all for making elder flower fritters (Note: recommend growing the true deciduous European Elder Sambucus nigra, not the invasive evergreen variety, Sambucus Canadensis). The flowers of pumpkin and squash are a delicacy in many cultures - you can eat the male flowers and leave the females to produce fruit.
There are a surprising number of regular ornamental flowers that can add colour and zest as a garnish for salads or sweet dishes: violets, pansies, petunia, carnations, calendula and gladiolus just to name a few. I love to garnish a mulberry pie with borage flowers, spice a baked custard with ginger flowers, toss nasturtium and calendula petals in a fresh garden salad, or top off a parfait with a couple of violets or heartsease.
There is a resurgence of interest in edible flowers which is rapidly becoming good business for back yard production and small scale horticulture supplying produce to local restaurants and food markets. An edible flower producer in southern California has tapped into a national market, with a US$1 million harvest from just 30 acres. Flowers for food must be free of pesticides so this is one new primary industry using only biological control. Harvest, storage, packing, transport and handling all require special care.
Care should be taken with eating flowers and it is important to remember that not all flowers are safe to eat. Never try eating the flowers of poisonous plants. If you suffer from hayfever, you're advised to give flowers a miss or try with caution as you could have an allergic reaction to the pollen. There have been cases of toxic reaction to some flowers listed as edible, possibly because local sub-species have developed a toxic compound due to different soil or climatic conditions. So be cautious, only try a small amount, one or two petals first time round. Avoid flowers that taste too bitter or caustic. Also remember that most edible flowers are primarily used as a garnish - don't go making an entire salad from your flower garden. In moderation, flowers can be used not only to brighten up the garden, but to add an exciting touch to many a dish on the table.
© Robyn Francis
* The Avant Gardener Vol.23, No.9.,
* Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally - Robert Kourik
Resources (Avant Gardener):
* "Specialty Flowers" Fact Sheet available free from USDA Office for Small-Scale Agriculture, Aerospace Building, Suite 342, Washington, DC 20250, USA
* "Guide to Cooking with Edible Flowers" - Jay & Pamela North, Paradise
Farms, Box 436, Summerland, CA 93067, USA (US$6.95)