By Renate Tilson

Right now, most Willamette Valley gardeners are thinking about harvesting their beans, tomatoes, and corn. I am thinking about my edible flowers.

Their bright colors and fresh flavors ensure an unforgettable meal. Pansies, roses, violets, daisies, and many more blooms are edible. You will find they add zest to all kinds of dishes, be it main courses or desserts, or as a simple garnish on the side of the plate.

The concept is not new. After falling out of favor for many years, cooking and garnishing with flowers is back in vogue. Flowery cookery has been traced back to Roman times and was especially popular during the Victorian era.

The onion family has approximately 400 flavorful species, including chives, garlic ramps, and shallots, all with lovely globe-like blooms. They range from mild onions and leeks to strong garlic.

All parts of these plants are edible in salads or as flavoring with other vegetables in soups. The wonderful, bright calendula is edible, but has a slightly bitter flavor. Its pretty golden or orange petals are delicious and lovely to look at when sprinkled on soups, rice, and green salads.

Who would have imagined that chrysanthemums are edible? Flavors range from peppery to cauliflower-like. Always remove the flower’s base first and eat only the petals. In Asia, the plant’s young leaves are used in stir-fries and salad seasoning.

Daylilies, which thrive here in the Eugene area, have a flavor like sweet lettuce or melon. Some people find that different colored blossoms have different flavors. Use the surprisingly sweet petals in desserts after cutting away their base. It is also great to stuff the blooms and to eat them as part of a main dish. The flowers look great on a composed salad or as a crown on a frosted cake.

Lavender—beyond looking beautiful and being used in perfumes and potpourris—can be used in cheesecake, cookies, and sorbet recipes, as well as in beef dishes and wine sauce. Nasturtiums, with their brilliant sunset colors, either trailing or upright, have a peppery flavor similar to watercress. You can stuff the flowers with a nice light dessert or use the entire flower to garnish platters, salads, cheese plates, or an open-faced sandwich. Tulips can be stuffed; the stems taste like asparagus.

Harvest flowers as you would fruit, by selecting those that look the most perfect with the fullest color. Remember, the fresher the flower, the more flavorful its taste.

All blooms should be thoroughly rinsed. If you are using the whole blossom, immerse it in water to remove any insects or soil. Lay it on a paper towel to dry or very gently spin-dry in a salad spinner.

Edible flowers are extremely fragile and cannot be preserved in the refrigerator, so eat them as quickly as possible. If you are thinking about purchasing your edible flowers, don’t go to the florist, nursery, or garden center. Oftentimes, these flowers have been treated with pesticides not labeled for food crops. Instead, grow and pick them from your own garden, or purchase them from the farmers market or gourmet grocery stores. If you are close to nature, why not venture into a nearby meadow with an edible flower guide and pick your own dinner?

A few caveats: Eat flowers only when you are sure they are edible. If uncertain, consult a good reference book at the library or check on the internet. Do not eat flowers from the roadside due to possible herbicide contamination.

We love seeing flowers in vases and in our gardens, so why not on our plates? Have fun surprising your family and guests with a floral culinary treat!