We tend to only notice them when they adorn the twee plates of food at fine dining restaurants. Pansies, violets, rose petals and marigold—artfully strewn around a pastel-hued dessert or a gleaming morsel of fish, urging us to whip out our camera phones to document their beauty for Instagram posterity.
The use of edible flowers seem modern and out of the ordinary, yet they have been a culinary tradition for thousands of years—think orange blossom and rose waters of the Middle East, marigold salads of the ancient Greeks and Romans, dandelions of Biblical times, and the chrysanthemum teas of China and Japan.
The Victorians candied flowers and used them to decorate desserts. Audiences at Renaissance-era plays sipped rose petal water, and the Americans have long used red clover blooms to fight coughs and colds.
Eating flowers is not unusual. We’ve all noshed on Nyonya desserts made with blue pea flower-stained rice, the spicy banana blossom salads that hawkers ply on the streets of Thailand, the ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms at our favourite Italian trattorias. That broccoli salad you ate yesterday? Or that cauliflower steak you grilled in the name of clean eating? All flowers.
Yet we often forget to take a moment to savour what is really the height of garden-to-table eating.
Flowers, in all their delicate construction, must be consumed almost as quickly as they are picked and must not have been treated with chemicals. This alone makes their commercialisation on a large scale impossible. But they are an undeniably lovely way to bring a sense of nature to the dishes we create. By growing them in easy-to-manage pots and planters at home, they make for a great way to brighten our day and teach children about where food can come from.
The kitchen at Open Farm Community (a restaurant with an on-site farm that doubles as a community hub educating diners about the origins of food) would head to the garden before service to harvest what they can. Most plants, shared a spokesperson, should flower every other month. “Butterfly sorrel will bloom after a couple of months and then take a break; we would then cut it back to stimulate a winter so that the plant can grow and bloom again—which can take three to four months,” added urban farmer Bjorn Low of Edible Garden City.
Rojak flower, he added, is a ginger and so a root. “Once planted and established after four months, it will continually give flowers for a long while, say four to six months after which it will lose vigour; we will cut it back and the cycle continues again.”
Whether prince or pauper, peasant or king, edible flowers are a sustainable and affordable culinary tradition. And reclaiming it, especially in this era of urban farming, requires little more than a patch of earth and a little care and attention. In return, the rewards are manifold.
LET IT FLOURISH
Bjorn Low shows us how to grow edible flowers right in our own backyard
Grow flowers that are native and adapted to our climate...
Like moringa, roselle, Indian snakeweed or ulam rajah, to name a few. One of the easiest edible flowers to grow here is the butterfly pea flower. It thrives in poor soil and is a legume that naturally transfers nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil.
Decide on the taste profiles you want to enjoy...
If you want something spicy, look at the ulam rajah. For something sour, try begonias or lavender sorrel. Some edible flowering plants are best grown from seeds that can be purchased online. Alternatively, wander into one of your friendly community gardens where you can get your hands on some seeds.
Choose a spot with good sunlight...
Ensure you have good, fertile soil and dedicate time to cultivating and caring for the plant with a routine of watering and fertilising. When the plant is in flowering mode, pick it regularly, which encourages it to produce more flowers. Don’t over-fertilise during the flowering stage as it encourages vegetative growth rather than flowering.
The flower of a vegetable or herb plant is usually edible too...
Eat flowers from most of the vegetable or herb groups, like pak choi, mustard and basil. Some vegetables produce flowers that are less palatable or poisonous, so do some research when in doubt.