I have just one word to say on eating flowers: don't.
The editor, however, expects more than a single word column. So to elaborate …
Flowers evolved to be irresistible to the birds and the bees, with colour, scent, nectar, shape and pollen all playing their parts. Humans too enjoy their colour, shape and scent, though not all humans and not all flowers. But munch a rose and you will discover that roses have neither evolved nor been bred to be a human-type snack. Think soggy cardboard with a hint of perfumed sponge.
Some flowers are toxic. Their toxicity varies – do not try killing Great-aunt Agatha with flowers, no matter what you've seen on a TV murder mystery. You may just give her a stomach upset, major annoyance and precipitate a change in her will. Others have sap that can irritate the skin or even more sensitive tissues if you swallow them.
The fashion for eating fresh flowers began in the flower child 60s, on the theory that if fondant flowers looked good on a cake, then real ones were even better. I once gazed with horror at a friend's sixtieth birthday cake, festooned with whipped cream and fresh daffodils – the sap of daffs can be toxic. Should I leap up and scream: Don't eat it!?
Luckily little sap had oozed out. Even more luckily everyone was on a diet and left the cream on their plates. Or I hope they did. If anyone suffered daffodil side effects I offer my apologies for social cowardice.
There are a few flowers, however, that are excellent used indirectly in cooking. Clove pinks can be dried, then left to scent caster sugar or simmer in sugar and water to make a clove scented syrup. Fragrant carnations can be used the same way.
Nasturtium stamens are full of sweet sap. Bite off the end – the long tube is obvious – and suck. Sweet and flavourful and, if you have extreme patience, it can be collected for a sorbet.
The more fragrant violets are deeply sweet and were once collected and dried to sweeten puddings and custard before the days of cheap sugar. (Honey can give too pronounced a flavour.) They do tend to turn whatever you are cooking green, so be warned.
And there is the tea jasmine, a tree not a vine so don't confuse it with the one that may be trying to strangle your front fence. The blossoms are dried to give fragrance to tea. Elderflowers have a natural yeast that can be used to make a fizzy 'not champagne', though you need to catch the flowers when they are fully open but not yet deep cream or they can taste like cat urine. Also make sure you remove all stems, which can be toxic. These days I am more inclined to make elderflower cordial, rather than champagne. The taste is elusive, but moreish. The cordial can then be used as the basis of a delicate sorbet. Its flavour is a bit subtle for ice cream, unless you just want to boast, '… and this one is elderflower'.
Or honeysuckle, and again, flowers only. Roses may be strongly scented, but the fragrance seems to vanish unless you make rose water or rose oil – you will need to distil the latter. Rose water can be made by covering fragrant petals in vodka then straining and refill with more fresh petals until it is full flavoured and scented. Alternatively, dried but still fragrant petals can be layered in sugar. If they are red, they may even turn the sugar pink. (If they are not dried the whole thing will turn to red mush.)
And of course candied violets, rose petals, miniature roses or individual wattle blooms, made by dipping them in beaten egg white and then in caster or powdered sugar and left to dry are pretty, and a talking point.
But taste? Nope. Texture? Tough. When it comes to flowers, the beauty is in their colour and the fragrance. Bung them in a vase, not the salad, and when you're cooking, stick to rose oil, vanilla pods and orange flower water.
. replanting the cucumbers the lyrebirds dug up and hoping they perk up with watering;
. making asparagus soup – much fresh-picked asparagus, a little onion, home-made stock: a major luxury;
. explaining to the dahlias that they can poke their heads up now … it's spring, but they are on strike till it rains or I water them;
. envying all those warmer climate gardeners whose liliums are already in full fragrant bloom;
. waiting for the first mulberry to ripen … maybe that one ...; and
. hoping the possums eat 95% of the pears that have set this year.
The Growing Friends of the Australian National Botanic Garden Spring Plant Sale on 11 November from 8.30 to 11 (or earlier if sold out). The sale will be held in the small car park at the Gardens behind the Crosby Morrison Building.
Dr Suzi Bond (author of the Field Guide to the Butterflies of the ACT) will be available at the sale to sign your copies of her book and to discuss native plants that attract butterflies to the garden.
All plants sold have been propagated by the Growing Friends (a sub-set of The Friends of the Australian Botanic Gardens) from plant material growing in the Gardens and all money raised goes to support ANBG projects. Since its inception The Friends have raised and spent around half a million dollars on projects in the Gardens. Growing Friends meet on the first Saturday of each month and the meetings are the perfect place to learn how to propagate and grow Australian native plants.
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