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A veritable floral feast

Yes, if you're careful, you can eat flower petals straight from your yard. Carnations, tulips and impatiens, to name a few. Just make sure they're organic.

June 09, 2005|Tony Kienitz | Special to The Times

Fine, go ahead, eat the daisies, but please don't eat the daffodils. Don't eat the oleander either. Don't eat the azalea flowers or the sweet pea blossoms, the morning glory or the iris.

Instead, slip into your yard this morning and pick some daylilies while they're still cool and crisp, then eat them. While you're at it, snip some snaps, clip some pinks, pluck a carnation or two and eat those as well. Those flamboyant fuchsia blooms? Chow down. Pinch off some of the sweet alyssum, chew it up and discover why it's called "sweet."

Wow, you've got a lot going on in your garden. What are you, some kind of gourmet?

It isn't big news that we humans eat flowers. Broccoli, artichoke and cauliflower are the most obvious examples. Pasadena gardener Mae Powell likes to "take squash blossoms, stuff them with cheese, tie a scallion around them and," she says, lowering her voice conspiratorially, "deep-fry them."

Yes, there are many flowers we grow and eat with regularity. It's the flower petals we could eat but usually don't that are most fascinating.

Granted, many flowers aren't tasty. Some, in fact, are poisonous. You'll need to proceed with caution. This may be why you won't find a long line snaking through your garden at 2 a.m. with hungry customers waiting to nosh on a gladiola. Flowers won't dethrone a Pink's chili-cheese dog as ritualistic, late-night masochism. Why? Because edible flowers are not main attractions; they are added attractions.

Edible flowers are merely living spices going about the age-old business of reproducing. The phlox will bloom, indifferent to whether you layer a few petals on a BLT or not. Your calendulas couldn't care less about being baked into blueberry muffins; they just want to attract bees and grow seeds. Hibiscus is too busy fighting off giant whitefly to worry about its sour, sharp-flavored petals being used in iced sun tea.

In inferior climates, the vast majority of gardeners experiences spring as a brain-numbing overload of information. Flowers are everywhere but time is too scant to appreciate each species fully.

Not so in Southern California. Here, we truly can get to know our plants. The pansies, sown last November, are still lingering, still producing enough blooms to sprinkle atop a cool vichyssoise. The tulips have come and gone from our salads, but the bachelor buttons are next in line, having just arrived for the summer potlucks. Our plants bloom in manageable doses.

One unqualified requirement for growing edible flowers is that they be raised organically. Experts warn about ingesting pesticide residue on flowers, but one only needs to taste a tiny bit of rose treated with systemic chemicals to realize it's inedible.

Impatiens cultivated with chemical fertilizers will taste entirely different from those grown without lab coat influences. Organically grown flowers possess clean, subtle flavors that range from sweet to bitter and never remind the tongue of scrubbing bubbles.

Growing organically means that many of the plants you'll be tending will have to be raised from seed and not purchased as transplants from nurseries, whose stock typically has been fed beaucoup amounts of chemicals. But what a tremendous gift this constraint provides: One of the greatest rewards one can receive as a gardener rests in growing from seed. Sure, sowing seeds means you'll need to pay more attention to your garden, and growing organically means you might find a couple of holes in your leaves, but the benefit will be, for maybe the first time in your history, an absolutely honest, all-natural garden -- with stuff to feast on, no less.

The list of commonly grown plants with edible flower petals is extensive (and I am just talking about the petals -- not the leaves, stems or any other part). Culinary herbs have edible flowers. All the alliums have edible flowers. (Chives are the yummiest.) All citrus have edible flowers. Apple, plum, peach and pear blossoms are good with Cheerios.

Stop worrying about college tuition; lavender lemonade can be sold at the curb for $1.25 a cup. Pineapple guava blossoms, in my opinion, are infinitely better tasting than the fruit itself. Roses are great in many dishes as long as you snip off the bitter white part from the petal. (Dark-colored roses are notably better.) Yucca blooms can be fried. Some recipes call for lilacs, others for hosta buds and still others for hollyhock. Dandelions are good, raw or cooked. And glazed violets are, well, totally Martha.

Gardener and private chef Andy Olsen used to cook with flowers. "I don't any more," he said. "They seem to get picked out and put to the side of the plate."

Sometimes a new twist on an old idea is all that it takes to inspire. When he learned that nasturtium flowers can replace basil in pesto, he got excited. "Oh, that sounds fabulous!" Olsen said. "We've got lots of nasties growing. I can make that tonight."

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