Biting Blossoms 

Eating your way through the flower bed

As I watch the hens peck the ground, I notice they make a special, high-pitched series of clucks when they find a treat like a worm, a bug or a berry, which brings their chicks scampering. They are showing their broods what is good to eat, just like someone had to show you and me what foods to eat and how to eat them.

My parents were no nonsense, no frills kind of people. They never bought anything as frivolous or exotic as an artichoke. So I never tasted one until I was in college. I remember somewhere along the line seeing some folks on television eating an artichoke, maybe in a movie or on some cooking show. It looked so elegant as they carefully tore off scales (they aren't leaves, by the way) and dipped each one in melted butter, then dragged them daintily between their teeth to remove that little bit of goodness at the base of each scale. That's all I needed to know, or so I thought.

I ran down to the store and purchased a big, green artichoke and some real butter. I put the giant bud in water to boil it. I hadn't seen how they cooked it, but I knew it was suppose to be hot and the butter melted. Later I learned you were supposed to steam, not boil artichokes.

After boiling it for a long time, I figured it was ready and began my elegant meal. I started dipping and skimming the individual scales between my teeth noticing that each of the scales had a little pointy spine at the tip--a reminder that this was really nothing more than a huge, cultivated thistle bud. I experimented with eating further up the scale than just the butt end, because it seemed like such a waste to toss all that good greenery, but it was tough and didn't taste too good. "What a lot of work," I thought, for such small edible morsels, but it was surprisingly tasty.

I was determined to plow through the entire bud by myself. Soon the dish was heaped with nibbled scales ready for the compost pile as I systematically dissected the green globe down to its middle. When I finally unearthed the inside portion, I hadn't a clue how to eat it, but I knew that artichoke hearts were very expensive canned items and I didn't want to waste the littlest bit. I ate the whole thing, yep, even that brush-like part. I choked that thing down too and figured that's how the arti-choke got its name. After that meal, I remember thinking artichoke hearts were overrated. Later I learned you weren't supposed to eat that brush part, the beginnings of the flower.

Since that odd episode in experimental eating, I've enjoyed many of those delicately flavored buds, but it was that single eating experience that left the biggest impression. They say you learn from your mistakes and I did, unlike a friend of mine who didn't have the benefit of seeing an artichoke being eaten ahead of time. He cooked his artichoke and ate the whole thing--little pointy spines, leathery scales and all. He told me later that he didn't know what all the fuss was about when it came to artichokes; he thought they were terrible. He never ate another one. Such is the power of ignorance.

We've all eaten flowers like broccoli and cauliflower; they are nothing more than unopened flower buds, just like artichokes. But have you ever tried eating flowers that were open? There are many edible flowers out there in the garden just waiting to be nibbled. Eating flowers is fun but it is something you have to be very careful with because not all flowers are edible. Like mushrooms, flowers need to be correctly identified to avoid being poisoned. There are flowers out there that will make you sick or even kill you, like foxglove (Digitalis) or larkspur. You wouldn't pick any ole mushroom and munch it, would you? The same holds true for flowers.

If you'd like to try eating a few blooms, get yourself a good reference book like Cathy Wilkinson Barash's book, Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate, and make friends with a local botanist or horticulturist to verify plant identities before tasting anything. Eat flowers only when you are positive they are edible.

Begin with the easily identified ones like: calendula, pansies, Johnny-jump-ups (violas), violets, squash and chive blossoms, or nasturtiums. It's like with any new food--begin gradually and eat only small amounts, especially if you happen to be a person susceptible to food allergies. Do not eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers or any that have been treated with pesticides. Flowers along the road can be contaminated with car emissions. Leave them be.

Cathy Barash recommends removing stamens and pistils before eating a flower, and eating only the petals. Flowers don't provide a whole lot of nutrition, but they will add color, texture and taste to your table. The zing of pepper can be added with nasturtium blossoms to your next salad. Add a few of the tender, young, round leaves from the plant as well. They have a watercress-like flavor. Break apart a chive flower into individual florets and sprinkle some over a meat dish. Use the whole chive flowers as garnish. They taste onion-y just like their leaves do. Pansies and violas have a subtle flavor that tastes grassy to the uneducated palate. Violets taste like bubble gum and all squash blossoms are edible, but nothing else out there in the veggie garden (not cucumbers, melon or gourd flowers). Squash blossoms are handy edible cups that can be stuffed with tuna or chicken salad.

Blossoms have an unripe, overripe and just right stage for picking, just like other produce does. If you encounter creepy crawlies on your flowers, just brush them off; we don't wash flowers, they're way to delicate for that. Besides if you eat a thrip or aphid while gobbling a blossom, you can consider it a little protein.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or to sbell@uidaho.edu

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