I’d like to use edible flowers in salads and as garnishes. Can you recommend some good plants to grow?
Liz Concheck, Lorain, OH
Flowers from flavorful herbs and some cool-season annuals, like pansies and violas, can be used in salads.
Photo/Illustration: Alllison Starcher
Rosalind Creasy, landscape designer in Los Altos, California, and author of The Edible Flower Garden, responds: There are many easily grown edible flowers that are just great for salads and garnishing. A small corner of a flower bed or a large wine-barrel planter is all that’s needed to supply the cook with a sumptuous array. The most versatile edible flowers for these savory purposes fall into two categories: cool-season annuals and flavorful herbs with fairly large flowers.
I’ve found the best edible, cool-season annual flowers to be pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis cvs.), pansies and violas (Viola spp. and cvs.), and dwarf nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus cvs.). They all prefer many of the same conditions as the leafy salad greens they so nicely complement. They thrive in mild spring or fall temperatures, full sun, and fast-draining soil. All of these flowers also tolerate light frosts. The pot marigolds, pansies, and violas need a fairly rich organic soil, while nasturtiums are quirky; they produce lots of flowers in lean soil but very few in rich, organic conditions.
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There are two main savory herbs with fairly sizable flowers that I like to use in salads and as garnishes: chives (Allium schoenoprasum or A. tuberosum, USDA Hardiness Zones 3–9) and sage (Salvia officinalis and cvs., Zones 5–8). They are both perennials that, given full sun and good drainage, grow easily in all but the hottest and most humid climates.
Some edible flowers, like chive and sage florets, are often used in recipes as much for their flavor as their appearance. In contrast, pot marigolds, pansies, and violas have only the mildest of flavors and are used mostly for their eye appeal. But it’s the nasturtium that truly shines. All varieties have a great spicy taste and spectacular flowers. There are dwarf nasturtium mixes with yellow, orange, red, apricot, and mahogany blooms, like the Jewel and Whirlybird series; the Alaska mix, with the same range of flower colors plus splotchy green-and-white leaves; and the heirloom ‘Empress of India’, with its bluish green leaves and deep red–orange flowers.
Pot marigolds are handsome flowers with a range of sunset-colored, shaggy heads. And while all varieties can be used in the kitchen, the old standby orange-and-yellow ‘Pacific Beauty’ has the largest petals and is the easiest to clean. Pansies now come in a gorgeous spectrum of colors from bright yellow to deep blue to bicolors and stripes. There must be at least 50 varieties. They are all gorgeous in the garden and sumptuous on the plate.