Edible Flowers

Scattering flowers over your food is a good way to add colour and I've always been a sucker for marigolds, violas, primroses and nasturtiums for this decorative reason alone, but the more I learn about eating flowers, the more I realise there may be other, less fanciful reasons for doing this.

In his excellent and useful book, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, about restoring wild flowers to fields and meadows, author Charles Flower tells of how farmers used to hugely value the wild flowers in their pastures as a source of supplementary minerals for grazing livestock. Eating flowers provided the animals with key minerals that would otherwise be scarce.

The reason for this was that many of the more common wild flowers - birdsfoot trefoil, lesser knapweed, field scabious, common sorrel and yarrow - have long tap roots that grow into deeper layers of the soil than grasses, thus making different and additional minerals available through their flowers and leaves

He has dairymen's records, describing how when their animals entered a new field of perennial rye grass, they would go hunting around the edges of the field straight away to pick at the wild flowers in the hedges. We've seen this ourselves with the cattle on our farm. You open a gate into a new field and they almost gallop for the hedge.

Of course, our human diet is incredibly varied and we are not faced with monotonous - and monochrome - grass, day after day, but even as a visual signal of variety and diversity, there's nothing more enhancing for a salad or a bowl of rice than a sprinkle of edible flowers. So, this spring, why not celebrate diversity and sow an edible flower for every day of the year?

Flowers for spring

Starting in March and continuing through April, you can pick any of the polyanthus family - primroses or cowslips - and add them to your salads or rice. I've just made a wonderful Persian jewelled rice salad with pistachios, dried cranberries and apricots, scattered all over with the exotic and delicious-looking Gold-laced primulas.

Then for May and June, you can harvest the petals of anchusa or any of the English marigolds (such as 'Indian Prince') and blue or white borage. Anchusa is a short-lived perennial, which will flower next year from sowing now, but the marigolds and borage are easy hardy annuals.

Sow them under cover anytime from Early March and they'll both be in flower for early summer. You can use the marigold petals to make calendula cream, and you can harvest the buds, and whole growth tips - top tender leaves and all - for stuffing tortellini, or for dipping into a light tempura batter and eating with an aperitif.

Summer eating

Then for July and August, you can harvest courgette flowers by the basketload if you grow them. People feel wary of this - that they will disrupt the crop - but not if you pick mostly male flowers and leave the female flowers, with a small courgette forming behind the flower to grow on.

All you need do is remove the stigma - the chunky stick in the centre of each flower - and you're away. Stuff them with cream cheese and pine nuts, and dip them in batter, or just shred their golden petals - like saffron - over pasta or a baby vegetable risotto.

By August, runner beans will join the courgettes and the flowers of these are excellent to pick and eat. They taste deliciously beany. Grow a few plants of several different coloured varieties - a red 'Polestar', deep pink and white, 'Painted Lady' and a pure white 'White Lady' . These are the three varieties I go for, on frames made from willow, bamboo or hazel, hooping over a path.

Late season colour

For August, September and October, nasturtiums are the thing. They taste the strongest of all edible flower and all parts of the plant are delicious. If protected with fleece, Enviromesh or netting against the cabbage white butterfly, you can eat the young leaves in salad, and add the buds and flowers and then, as the plants go over, use the seed heads wherever you may use capers in your food, too.

We made a delicious recipe with these last summer, stored in a sweet pickling mix. The one thing to say about nasturtiums is that they can spread like wildfire so take care where you plant them.

Once the frosts start, the nasturtiums will struggle. Their flower production slows down, but then the truly hardy winter-flowering pansies come into their own. My favourite, by far, is the pretty wild cornfield weed, Viola tricolor or heartsease, and the more you pick, the more it flowers.

It also makes a fantastic house plant for a cool spot so you can pick the flowers from the table in front of you as you eat. They'll flower from October to March/April.

Get sowing in March and you'll have an edible flower to pick 12 months round.