Column: Edible flowers - fragrance, beauty and great taste
Mother's Day marks the beginning of the planting season for all those flowers that love our summer heat. Flowers are the ultimate quality of life enhancers. Their color, fragrance and beauty lift the spirit, soothe the soul and have been the worthy subjects of innumerable photographs and paintings. Flowers can be far more than eye candy; they also can be tasty to the human palate.
Edible flowers can be especially fun if you have children in your life. When introducing youngsters to gardens, adults become profound authorities when they casually pluck a couple of blossoms, pop them into their mouths and eat them! They never fail to make lasting impressions on young minds.
Edible flowers have been used as garnishes or in salads since the beginning of time. Squash flowers can be coated with a light cornmeal batter and fried. Many flowers can be stuffed or used in stir-fry dishes. Blossoms can be added to beverages, used to make teas and wine, frozen in ice cubes, candied, made into jellies and jams; they can be minced and added to cheese spreads, herbal butters, pancakes, crepes, and waffles. Many flowers can be used to make vinegars for cooking, marinades or salad dressings.
Growing the perfect edible flower has the same goal as growing any other flower: the bigger and brighter the flower, the better. Most flowers require a well-drained garden soil. Add a 2-3 inch layer of cedar mulch to reduce weeds, conserve soil moisture, and maintain uniform soil temperatures. Added benefits of a cedar mulch are its repelling action on insects and the reduced amount of soil splashed onto the plant during a heavy rain. A full-fledged garden isn't a prerequisite to homegrown edible flowers; many blooming plants do really well when cultivated in containers.
Flowering plants need regular watering to keep them actively growing and blooming. Most plants will need 1 inch of water per week. When possible avoid overhead irrigation because moisture on leaf surfaces for extended periods of time can increase the chances of mildew and disease during our rainy season. Watering with a soaker hose or drip irrigation is ideal.
Harsh chemicals should be avoided when an edible flower is open. Garden centers sell beneficial insects such as ladybugs and praying mantises that "naturally" reduce populations of undesirable insects. The diversity of growing different flowers together supports a good beneficial insect population and keeps pest problems low. "Good bugs" can keep thrips, aphids and other flower- eating insects under control.
Harvest flowers during the cool of the day after morning dew has evaporated. Flavors can vary with growing conditions. Conduct a taste test before harvesting large numbers of flowers for your table. For maximum flavor choose flowers at their peak. Avoid flowers that are not fully open and those that are past their prime. To maintain maximum freshness, keep flowers cool after harvesting. Long-stemmed flowers should be placed in a container of water. Short-stemmed flowers like borage and orange blossoms should be harvested, placed in plastic bags, then stored in a refrigerator. Include damp paper towels in the plastic bags to help maintain a humid atmosphere for your table-bound blossoms.
Pollen can distract from the flavor so it's best to remove the pistils and stamens before consuming edible flowers. Remove the sepals from all flowers except for violas, Johnny-jump-ups and pansies. For flowers such as calendula, chrysanthemum, lavender, rose, tulip and yucca only the flowers' petals are edible. The white base of the petal of many flowers may have a bitter taste and should be removed from flowers such as chrysanthemums, dianthus, marigolds and roses.
Additional edible flowers include those of the purple robe locust tree, cattails, common milkweed and coriander, also know as cilantro. Not surprising are the wonderful flavors of fuchsias, gardenias, garlic, chives, gladioli, and nasturtiums. Also tasty are blossoms of hyssop, leeks, lemon, marjoram, mallow, mustard, nodding onion, peony, orange, oregano, guava, plums, radish, redbud, rose of Sharon, safflower, spiderwort, strawberry, water hyacinth, water lily and savory. The variety appears endless, the flavors equally varied.
Pesticides for use on fruits and vegetables have undergone extensive testing to determine the waiting periods from treatment to harvest and the potential residue on treated edibles. I only use insecticidal soaps, or organic neem oils on my edible flower crops and follow the directions carefully. Do not eat flowers from florists, or flowers found on the side of the road. Consume only flowers that you or someone you know has grown specifically for this purpose. If you have hay fever, asthma, or allergies it is best not to eat flowers since many allergies are due to sensitivity to the pollens of specific plants. It's always better to be safe than sorry. Start small, have fun, then work your way up to a flowering smorgasbord.
Garden tip for Mistletoe - Now that native oak trees have shed their spring leaves it is easy to see mistletoe problems. Oaks are hosts to mistletoe, a parasitic plant that will eventually suck all the life out of a well-established oak tree. It is impossible to kill the parasite without killing the host, but the parasitic growth can be stunted. Arresting the parasite will prolong the tree's life by decades. Spray "Florel Fruit Eliminator" over the entire leaf mass of the mistletoe before the oak sends out new leaves. This growth retardant burns off all of last year's growth, prevents new bloodsucking limbs, and reduces the spread of further outbreaks. This is a very specialized spray and probably can be found only at garden centers. Before buying it, ask for assistance on exactly how to apply this mistletoe inhibitor.
Until next week, I'll see you at the garden center.
Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Rd, Prescott, and can be contacted through his web site at www.wattersonline.com. Ken says: "my personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes