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Eating Smart

Take the Time to Stop and Eat the Flowers

April 12, 1999|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR | Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter

Spring is finally here, and a stroll through the garden put us in a floral kind of mood. The connection of flowers, food and health seems like a tenuous one at first, but if you're willing to look beyond using flowers as a centerpiece on your dining room table, there actually is a connection.

With all the interest in herbal and other botanical products nowadays, it is not surprising to find out that many flowers that we have come to admire for their beauty and aroma are also quite delicious. And because they are plants, flowers have no fat and very few calories.

While that makes them a perfect addition to an otherwise healthy diet, considerable care must be exercised in selecting flowers for eating. They should be treated like wild mushrooms: If you don't know for sure they are edible, don't eat them.

As far back as ancient Rome, herbs and cultivated flowers like roses and violets were a regular part of the cuisine. In Victorian England, rose petals were routinely added to both sweet and savory dishes. Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines regularly use flowers, especially in desserts. The reintroduction of flowers into today's U.S. cuisine began (as one would expect) on the West Coast.

It was the trendy restaurants that actually brought back the interest in flowers. In some markets, you can find several varieties of edible flowers in the produce section, but the prices are absolutely outrageous. Fortunately, no one is likely to just eat a plate full of flowers, so they end up mixed in with greens or as colorful additions to other dishes. Used this way, the cost is not prohibitive because they are sold by the pound, and even a whole bag doesn't weigh very much.

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Flowers can also be used in food as candied, edible garnishes. There are now many wonderful books available on using edible flowers, so we expect that the use of them is likely to grow. However, because of this renewed interest, it is absolutely critical that consumers know the difference between flowers that are edible and those that are poisonous or that are inedible because they have been treated with pesticides.

Cathy Barash, author of "Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate" (Fulcrum, 1993), lists the 10 rules of edible flowers.

1. Eat flowers only when you are positive they are edible.

2. Just because it is served with food does not mean a flower is edible. It may be meant as decoration only. Be sure you know whether it is an edible variety.

3. Eat only flowers grown organically (without pesticides and nonorganic fertilizers).

4. Do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers unless you know they have been grown specifically to be eaten.

5. If you have hay fever, asthma or allergies, do not eat flowers.

6. Do not eat flowers picked from the side of the road. They are contaminated from auto emissions.

7. Remove pistils and stamens from flowers before eating. Eat only the petals.

8. Not all flowers are edible. Some are poisonous.

9. There are many varieties of any one flower. Flowers taste differently when grown in different locations.

10. Introduce flowers into your diet the way you would new foods to a baby--one at a time in small quantities.

The 10 most common edible flowers and their tastes are: calendula (bitter), chives (oniony), mint (minty), nasturtium (spicy), pansy (minty), rose (floral), sage (herbal), signet marigold (herbal), and daylily and squash blossoms (taste like vegetables). Among many others that are also edible, some easily recognizable flowers that could be added to the list are violets, tulips, lilacs, lavender, jasmine, chrysanthemums, dandelions, English daisies and orange blossoms.

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Caution: It is not safe to assume that just because a flower is not toxic, it must be edible. Even some completely nontoxic flowers just aren't very tasty, so you want to stick with those that have been identified as having good flavors.

The toxic effect of poisonous plants can be very serious and will vary among individuals. It can be as mild as an irritation of the mouth, sneezing or heartburn. It might be somewhat more serious and cause nausea, diarrhea and cramping or in severe cases difficult breathing, irregular heartbeat, unconsciousness or tingling in the extremities. If you experience any of these symptoms after eating flowers (or any substance), you should seek medical attention and bring the plant along to help with the diagnosis. A good rule of thumb is, again, if you cannot positively identify a flower as edible, do not eat it.

Here's a simple way to use flowers to dress up a plate of vegetables. Steam enough broccoli or asparagus to feed four to six people. Cook just until tender so that it will keep its green color. Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of butter, add the juice of a lemon and a minced clove of garlic, plus 1/4 cup of marigold petals. Pour the butter mixture over the cooked vegetables and toss.

This dish is not only beautiful to behold, but delicious served hot or cold.

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Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

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