Spring brings us many treats to eat at the farmers markets: hollyhocks, pansies, bachelor's buttons, borage and nasturtiums.
Not exactly what you were thinking of, right? If you're like most farmers market shoppers, sugar-snap peas and strawberries take top priority. After all, summer will arrive all too soon -- and its heat will yank these delicacies away from us.
But it's worth your while to devote some attention to flowers. For just like strawberries and sugar-snap peas, the best season for edible flowers is before summer hits.
Before folks start experimenting with edible flowers, however, there are a few rules they should follow.
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Ask experts if your flowers are edible.
"Sweet peas are poisonous," said John Warner, who sells through Flower Garden of
Madera. "But the flowers from sugar-snap peas are edible."
Warner advises folks to consult reputable catalogs, such as Johnny's Selected Seeds. Johnny's uses a knife-and-fork icon to indicate whether or not a flower is edible.
Sharon Matson, a Fresno County Master Gardener, offers another way to determine the safety of a flower.
"There are common names for flowers that might fit more than one variety," she said. "You should know the botanical name and compare it." An example is the marigold. "Some are edible and some are not," she said.
Also be sure the flowers haven't been sprayed with chemicals.
"Unless you get it from an organic source," Matson said, "the nursery is going to use herbicides and insecticides that would be in the plant."
Likewise, avoid flowers that grow near roads, Cathy Wilkinson Barash writes in "Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate," (Fulcrum Publishing, $24.95).
"They are contaminated from car emissions."
When you do identify an edible flower, taste it before using it, Matson said.
"Even from one year to the next, the flower might have a different taste."
If you're cutting roses, you'll want to smell the flowers.
"They tend to be more flavorful when they have fragrance," she said.
When harvesting flowers, Matson follows the advice of "Edible Flowers." She heads into her garden in the early morning after the dew has evaporated and clips the flowers that are at their peak.
In some cases, such as pansies, it's appropriate to eat the whole flower, Matson says. But for most flowers, it's best to use just the petals.
"You want to cut the white part of the base of the petal," Matson said. "It can be very bitter."
She also points out some of the other rules listed in Barash's book:
"Introduce flowers into your diet the way you would new foods to a baby -- one at a time in small quantities."
"If you have hay fever, asthma or allergies, do not eat flowers."
Matson's experiments indicate a wide range of uses for edible flowers. They include daylily pancakes with flower syrup, rose-petal tea, sugarcoated lilacs, dried marigolds, hot potatoes with calendula petals and an appetizer of crackers and cream cheese topped with a variety of flowers.
Cooks can consult authors such as Barash and Frances Bissell for inspiration. In "The Book of Food: A Cook's Guide to Over 1,000 Exotic and Everyday Ingredients" (Henry Holt & Co., $40), Bissell describes how to infuse butter with flowers, make flower-flavored sugars, and use marigolds and nasturtiums in savory dishes.
"Wrap a piece of fresh, unsalted butter in cheesecloth, bury it in a bowl of flower petals, cover and leave it in a cool place for about 12 hours," she writes. "Then unwrap the butter, which is delicious on toast or scones.
"Flavored sugars for ice creams, sorbets and custards can be made by grinding one part clean, dry petals to two to four times their volume of sugar. The proportion depends on the strength of the flower's scent. Lavender will take plenty of sugar, violets and mimosa will take less."
As for nasturtiums and marigolds, "they are particularly good finely chopped, with one or two of their leaves, and added to cream cheese, omelets, souffles, or vegetable terrines."
The flavor of the flowers should dictate their use, Matson said.
"If using a flower for a dessert, then you're going to want to use the sweet-tasting flowers," she said. "The more vegetable flavor, you would tend to use those more with vegetables or meat dishes."