There is a blurred line between edibles and ornamentals in Marjorie’s garden. Take as an example the self-sown calendulas that grow in drifts and patches throughout our vegetable garden, their orange and yellow flowers serving as magnets for native bees. The flowers also add a spot of color to our summer meals. When we harvest peas and lettuce, we gather a few heads of calendula, also called Poor Man’s Saffron, and pepper their petals over our supper salad, adding a subtle flavor ranging from bitter to spicy.
In most years, there are more than enough volunteer calendulas popping up everywhere. In those years when the seedling population of calendulas does seem sparse, we scatter a few fresh seeds along the bed edges. Calendula seedlings are also easy to transplant in early spring if you need them somewhere else in the garden. When we move one to a new location, we always prop old shingles over the seedling for a few days to shade it from the midday sun.
One year I placed pots of nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) among the vegetables to trap aphids. The following year, nasturtium seedlings were growing in beds where the pots had rested, evidence that their seeds can survive the winter. Yet there are years when there are no self-sown nasturtiums and we have to start with pots again. I suspect that winter survival of the seeds is dependent on the depth of snow cover during periods of extreme cold.
We cut flowers from nasturtiums growing in the vegetable garden and in pots scattered throughout the garden, adding the blossoms to salads. After quick scrutiny for hiding insects, the blossoms are tossed in whole. They offer a sharp peppery taste, much like the flavor of radishes. Nasturtium leaves are also edible and the seed pods can be pickled as an inexpensive substitute for capers.
In early spring, volunteer johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor) scattered along the edges of the perennial bed provide small flowers for salads. Their yellow, white, and
purple petals add a touch of color as well as a mild wintergreen flavor. These flowers can also be used in drinks, soups, and desserts.
We always grow pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) on the porch railings. Despite efforts to keep them floriferous by snipping off fading blooms, a few seed pods ripen on these plants, the seeds winding up in the beds beneath the porch. Each May, new seedlings appear in these beds beneath the spreading arms of elderberry shrubs, and, as the season progresses, these self-sown pansies bloom in colors totally unlike their parents. Volunteer pansies also populate the vegetable garden, their seeds introduced from the compost pile.
The flowers of pansies, like those of the closely related johnny-jump-ups, are edible. Eaten alone, the petals have a very mild green or grassy flavor, while entire flowers have a much stronger grassy taste. Pansy flowers can be used in deserts and soups, as well as salads.
Whenever daylilies (Hemerocallis sp.) are blooming, I like to garnish each salad with a few bright petals. As I harvest the flowers, I pop a crisp petal in my mouth to melt on my tongue and release a flavor much like buttery lettuce but sweeter, a combination of zucchini and asparagus. While some people detect unique flavors among daylily petals of different colors, I’ve sampled the
several varieties in our garden and find differences mainly in texture.
As gardeners interested in eating the flowers of these and other plants, we follow three important rules. First, we never use pesticides, even organics, on any plants.
Second, we never assume that all parts of a plant with edible flowers are edible. For example, elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) flowers are edible, but all other parts of the plant, including uncooked berries, are poisonous. Once cooked, however, the berries are harmless and often used in making jams, jellies, and elderberry wine.
Third, we use flowers sparingly in salads and other recipes. Large quantities often lead to digestive disorders. For example, you should use daylily petals sparingly as they can act as a laxative when eaten in excess. And johnny-jump-ups should always be eaten in small amounts, primarily as a garnish, as they contain saponins which in large quantities can be toxic.
Combining edible flowers with traditional vegetables, gardeners can enjoy colorful and delicious summer salads throughout the gardening year. Each meal will be unique in the novelty of its creation, a combination of whatever is available in both traditional vegetables and edible blossoms.
Author’s note: Marjorie and I, coauthors of THE NEW ENGLAND GARDNER’S YEAR, will be speaking and signing books at the Maine State Library this Friday, May 16, at 6:00 pm. The program is open to the public and admission is free. Join us!