Deer and rabbits aren’t the only ones that eye a garden or landscape full of flowers and think, “Let’s eat!”
With “Edible Flowers: How, Why, and When We Eat Flowers,” author Monica Nelson has all the gardeners and home chefs who give this book a read considering more than 100 different types of flowers as sources of food, if not entirely meant to nourish in and of themselves, then at least put to good use to provide alluring adornments and a unique pop of flavor and color in a variety of dishes.
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Their colorful splendor is emphasized with full-color photographs sprinkled throughout, some glossy and others printed on matte paper.
The majority of these are by Adrianna Glaviano, alongside a short list of pictures from additional contributing photographers.
You can find a copy of “Edible Flowers” to add to your cooking and gardening bookshelf now on Amazon.
After I read it, my newfound knowledge at least tripled the number of blooms I would consider eating, as garnishes, in soups, as bread or jelly ingredients… and the list goes on.
And that’s really what Nelson aims to accomplish with this book.
Along with the help of a few dozen food and art luminaries who contribute essays and poems to the book under the title “Flower Eaters,” Nelson immerses readers in the lore, botany, and sometimes personal experience of so many different edible blooms.
I read the book from cover to cover, then browsed it, and later dipped back in for more info at least 10 times to date after I first received it.
My short take: If you’re interested at all in floral food, this compendium is destined to become dog-eared once you get a hold of it.
But do allow me to back up and give you some more information about this volume, so you can decide if it sounds appealing to you. Here are the aspects of Nelson’s book I’ll share my opinion on in this review:
Edible Flowers: A Look Inside
In the ensuing weeks after I first opened my hard copy of “Edible Flowers” I barely noticed the transformation, but within just a few days it was already sporting a few slap-dash bookmarks in the form of old receipts and Post-it placeholders, and I’d found a spot for it on my nightstand.
This is that kind of book. It has both holding power as a reference and entertainment value as it offers dozens of accounts and remembrances shared as “Flower Eater” anecdotes.
Within the 250+ pages, Nelson shares information of varying breadth and length on at least 103 varieties of edible flowers, more if you count different types of alliums and citrus separately.
Most are common in cultivation in North America and Europe. Some may be foraged from the wild as well, and many are native plants.
Depending on where you live and whether you hang out with floral foodies or not, you may find dozens of unusual selections among these. But even bloom-eating aficionados are sure to pick up tips on a few that haven’t yet landed on their plates.
Having a taste of each of these seems possible, desirable even, as you page through this alphabetical list of edible delights. And the sheets of pasta adorned with fresh blooms look almost too pretty to eat.
But above all, this book is inspiring.
Oh, on a pragmatic level, it will probably make me want to grow and pick even more edible flowers in the coming seasons, beyond the borage, nasturtiums, and pansies I already cultivate and harvest regularly.
But I find the most inspiration in the way Nelson dives headfirst into the important topics surrounding edible blooms, be they historical or philosophical, practical or amusing, anthropological or trending now.
As she notes in her introduction, “We live with flowers, and sometimes for them.” And with the help of this book, you can live to eat them, too.
Author and Contributors
Monica Nelson is a writer, editor, designer, and art director based in New York who says “it was important to foster a sense of immersion” when designing this book and photographing the flowers that are featured.
Some may know her as the founding creative and photo director of Wilder Quarterly, a magazine about exploring and enjoying the natural world.
Photographer Adrianna Glaviano, based in New York and Milan, has collaborated with various artists, magazines, and brands to shoot photos across various categories including food, travel, art, architecture, and fashion.
The book also draws on the talent of 30 contributors including Argentinian director and photographer Agostina Galvez; New York-based artist Laila Gohar, who uses food to create sculpture; Anna Morton, the founder of Leaves and Flowers, a botanical tea company based in Berkeley, California; and many more!
Section by Section
Here’s what drew me in and also kept me coming back to Nelson’s book:
Boy, howdy! The introduction to this book leaps into action after just four sentences sketching out an encounter between the author and a flower-eating iguana.
As a reader who’s equal parts pragmatist and art appreciator, I enjoyed the way Nelson jumps in with both feet after stating, “The impulse to stuff flowers into your pockets is perhaps more natural than to create an elaborate arrangement with them, the urge to eat them truer than to watch them wilt slowly. […] Flowers exist by attracting attention; they rely on impulse.”
What follows in five quickly-read pages is a short summation of the long history of eating flowers.
She wraps up by bringing us to the present, a time wherein restaurants have popularized edible blooms, and we as gardeners are poised to continue the trend with our efforts.
Towards the end of this section, Nelson states her purpose, a mission I think the book fully realizes. The author does not intend for the work to act as a definitive guide, but rather as an “inspiring primer.” She writes, “My hope is that this book will spark curiosity and set readers off in a number of directions.”
The most readily actionable advice in the book comes at the end of the introduction, in one pithy, boiled-down, and extra-informative page entitled “How to Eat Flowers.”
It gives the necessary cautions about not eating any flowers that may have been exposed to herbicides, or that could conceivably be toxic.
This section also outlines how and when to collect your blooms, wash them, and prepare them for drying if needed.
Moving along through the next 242 pages with entries on 100+ flowers you can eat, starting with acacia and ending with zinnia, Nelson truly covers the gamut from A to Z. We’ll take a look at this portion of the book next.
The variety of botanical and culinary info contained in “Edible Flowers” is what brings the gardener/reader back to cross-reference and thumb through the pages for inspiration. But it’s also a trove of anecdotes and lore, much of it absolutely delightful.
Among the “Flower Eater” literary efforts from various contributors, I especially enjoyed art writer and author Fanny Singer’s remembrance of arranging bouquets of violets a Parisian flower vendor, and British novelist Hermione Hoby’s tale of the importance of edible flowers in family lore, saying one of her “best childhood malapropisms was asking if someone was ‘casting nasturtiums’ on someone else’s character.”
The core of the book, the heft, comes from the individual write-ups on edible blooms.
The broad scope of these includes herbal blooms like thyme and tarragon; showy flowers like hibiscus, fuchsia, and cockscomb; and blossoms from vegetable plants that are already firmly positioned within the culinary realm, like squash and onions.
Each in the roundup is described in terms of its botanical and historical origin, including notes on plant type and bloom time, though some are detailed more extensively than others.
While many entries feature flavor notes and describe recommended culinary uses for the flowers, some are more focused on other parts of the plant at hand. Select varieties also include an anecdote from one of the additional contributors to the book.
These are fresh and appealing, and fairly literary. If you’re expecting straightforward how-to information, I hope these additions are a pleasant surprise.
Cooking with Flowers
Nelson says culinary use “adds an extra phase to the life cycle of a flower.” The recipes included in the book serve as another high point, and these come from a panoply of cooks, bakers, chefs, and food artists.
I have to be honest here: A few of the recipes have more novelty value than worth for the average home cook, unless perhaps you are on the lookout for a new technique to try or a unique project.
For example, I’m probably not going to mix up a batch of hopping clover kombucha any time soon, nor was I tempted to try to make ewe milk yogurt with lilac. But if home fermentation is your thing, there are several new and exciting options here for you! Vinegar and cultured butter make an appearance in the recipe collection as well.
Even so, I was intrigued. Descriptions of floral cookery I would never attempt at home drew me in nonetheless, and have already inspired some pretty good trivia conversations at local outdoor gatherings.
This book also includes the critical recipes that are responsible for drawing many of us to eating flowers in the first place.
A dish of leafy greens and blossoms is a versatile meal-starter for spring, for example, and the recipes for candied violets and rose syrup are much like foods made commonly over a century ago, yet perfect for decorating modern-day confections as well, utterly delicious and versatile.
Following the recipes, readers will find two helpful indices, as well as resources and a final thank you message from the author.
Anecdotes from contributing writers can be located according to title and author in the table of contents at the front, and the flowers included throughout the book are listed alphabetically. Each individual entry also includes a list of pages where images of the plant may be found.
And I would add that these images, some matte and others printed on glossy paper, are stunningly colorful, some depicting plants as they grow in nature, others showing their use in recipes. Still others are arranged more artfully, laid on a scanner or pressed between glass and held up to the light.
But readers will likely find the index of plants according to common name useful as well, and a corresponding list according to botanical (or Latin) name is also included. Images are italicized while page numbers for written entries appear in plain text.
A short list of farms, gardens, and other flower purveyors, including at least a few where flowers were sourced for taking photos that appear in the book, is followed by a list of suggested further reading, and a list of contributors with short bios of each.
Unusual Edible Flower Selections
I don’t want to project my own experience onto readers too heartily, but I did find it refreshing to see that so many of the flowers profiled here struck me as being a bit unusual.
I guess it depends on your perspective – where you garden, and whether you’re an old hand or a beginner when it comes to consuming fresh flowers as part of your meals. Either way, this book presents the opportunity for all readers to try something new.
Some of what was fresh and novel to me might already be on your plate or floating in your soup every evening! But have you tried banana flowers or dittany tea? New delights await, dear reader.
Here are four of Nelson’s selections that I personally found to be a bit offbeat, as a sampling to entice you. Even if I don’t ultimately experiment with these myself, they’re well worth contemplating as additions to the menu.
This ornamental vine, one you’ve probably seen draping itself over modest stone cottages in Los Angeles or climbing high fences in southern Florida, has colorful bracts you can eat fresh or steep to make bougainvillea tea.
How cool is that?
The flowers from this invasive vine that plagues the southern US are not ordinarily among the first flower varieties that leap to mind in the company of more typical edibles like delicate violets or peppery nasturtiums.
But Nelson points out that those who scorn the plant are missing out on the opportunity to sup on the flowers, which she explains are suitable as an ingredient in jelly and sorbet, or mixed with collard greens for a quick sauteed side dish.
What better way to get rid of invasive plants could there be than to eat them!
The information provided on this beautiful water flower includes some poetic waxing about Homerian poems and James Joyce’s “Ulysses” before getting down to brass tacks.
Apparently, this mystical bloom is commonly battered and fried or made into jelly. New to me, common to others, sure to be utterly delicious.
These favorites from Holland originated in Persia, Nelson explains, and the edible petals have a “bright, lettuce-like flavor and a watery, cucumber texture.”
She recommends tulip petals as curvaceous containers for dip, too.
I only have a few quibbles with “Edible Flowers,” and none of them are substantial enough to diminish my enjoyment.
The soft background colors of the pages in buff, gray, and light khaki are restful and complement the text throughout the majority of the book. But the darker, burnt orange tint of the pages in the recipe section doesn’t work as well.
This shade would be beautiful on a living room wall, but here it’s a little too dark, and I found it a bit difficult to quickly read the text of the recipes. These are printed in a cream-colored reverse type.
Also, I would have liked to see at least a few more sentences-worth of information for each of the vendors listed by name and state or with a web address in the “Flowers” list that comes after the indices. I would love to know at least a little bit more about who these folks are and what they added to the book.
The safety of consuming certain plants also came to mind for me while reading. The entry for Indian paintbrush, for example, says it is “fully edible,” while the “Flower Eater” anecdote notes, “Indian paintbrush is a flower that should be consumed in moderation. Horses have died from eating too many. The plants accumulate selenium from the soil. […] In large amounts, it is a poison.”
My editor here at Gardener’s Path also pointed out that it was mildly alarming to discover a reference to sweet peas in a story about decorating a child’s birthday cake, with a note that reads “not proud of that, but a desperate mom will go to great lengths for her child.”
Was the author not proud because these blooms were gleaned from a local community garden, or because they are poisonous, as noted towards the beginning of the book in a list entitled “Do not eat these common flowers”? Including such a mention in a contributing writer’s anecdote seems questionable at best, but at least the flowers were not touted as part of a recipe.
Snap pea flowers, on the other hand, are edible, and these have their own entry in the book.
It’s also unclear why poppies, for example, are included with their own entry and several images, while the description explains that the field poppy should be approached with caution and states, “Most poppy species are quite toxic when ingested, and considering the harmful properties of even the edible species of the flower, sorting the safe from the toxic requires extreme vigilance.”
As the old adage states, the dose makes the poison. A statement on the copyright page notes that the flowers referred to in this book are generally acknowledged to be safe and includes a reminder to readers to avoid consuming in large quantities, eating inedible parts or misidentified plants, and so on. Please proceed with caution.
It is noted that some of the flowers included would be put to best use as a purely ornamental garnish, and it may be best to eschew consuming at least a few of these altogether.
There are several edible flowers mentioned in recipes – calendula and black locust tree blossoms, for example – that do not appear in the A to Z descriptions. This seems like a missed opportunity, as these more palatable (and nontoxic) blooms could have served as stand-ins for a few of the more controversial ones.
It’s perhaps surprising that about a quarter of the plants included in the A to Z compendium are not actually pictured in the book, though you won’t miss them unless you were perhaps flipping through in search of a visual to pair with a description. And you may discover an error or two in the index when searching for images as well.
These are minor objections, though, in light of the author’s delivery of page after page of relatable anecdotes, thought-provoking trivia, and mouthwatering recipes.
I always like an informational book with a confident tone, saying “here is some info you can use tomorrow if you choose,” and this book definitely has that vibe.
I consider it a keeper, both for the gardener and for the home cook who’s new to edible flowers, as well as bloom-eating veterans who need a refresher – and perhaps a recipe for candied violets and a chuckle about “casting nasturtiums.”
A Compendium of Edible Delights for Floral Foodies
From the beautiful to the whimsical to the downright odd, from sweet to spicy – to not particularly tasty in some cases, from the traditional and time-honored to nouveau cuisine, “Edible Flowers” serves as an impressive collection of just over 100 worthy edible blooms, bound together in an attractive hardcover book.
It’s sure to be enjoyed, whether you read it from cover to cover, or merely dip in or cross-reference whenever you need a little floral foodie inspiration.
Are you already familiar with this detailed labor of love from Monica Nelson, Adrianna Glaviano, and a couple dozen contributors?
If so, please do share any comments you have from reading this book in the comments section below. Or grab a copy now on Amazon and get back to us later – we’ll be waiting for you!
And if you’re interested in finding more worthy additions to your garden library, peruse these book reviews next: