As we heard at Cultivate’18 during several sessions, consumers want their plants to have benefits beyond ornamental beauty. Because of this, it may be no surprise that edible flowers are garnering interest. Some varieties can be infused in drinks and dressings to add taste or boast medicinal benefits, or they can be used to complement a dish or beverage by adding color and texture. In November 2017, Whole Foods Market revealed edible flowers as the No. 1 food trend for 2018, and according to Ontario-based Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a nonprofit organization for horticultural science, research so far supports this.
Vineland Research and Innovation Centre has partnered with Freeman Herbs, an Ontario-based grower and distributor of fresh herbs, to research consumer preferences for edible flowers and their position in the marketplace, and in 2019, Freeman Herbs plans to launch edible flowers in 4-inch pots in the produce aisle of supermarkets based on these findings.
How it started
Vineland started researching trends on edible garden plants in 2015. “It wasn’t specifically about edible flowers, it was about edible plants in general,” says Dr. Alexandra Grygorczyk, Vineland’s research scientist on consumer trends.
Grygorczyk conducted research that surveyed consumers on their preferences for edible garden plants like strawberries, raspberries or gooseberries. “We kind of threw in edible flowers just to see what would happen, and we were actually surprised because there was quite a number of people who were very interested in edible flowers,” Grygorczyk says.
Vineland’s survey found that 35 percent of participants were interested in edible flowers, and said they would purchase them over more traditional edible garden plants.
“We thought that was kind of surprising, and so we decided to look into it a little further,” Grygorczyk says.
In 2017, Vineland reached out to Freeman Herbs because of the potted herbs they grow and sell, and Vineland thought it could be a possible expansion for the company. It turns out that Freeman Herbs and Vineland were on the same page.
Marco de Leonardis, manager of research and development at Freeman Herbs, says the grower was already experimenting with edible flowers by letting some of their herbs grow to flower, so when Vineland talked to him about the project, he was on board with it.
Vineland and Freeman partnered in 2017, and Freeman Herbs began production trials on more than 25 types of edible flowers. Ten varieties that performed best in production trials were eventually selected for the initial stage of the preference study with 200 Greater Toronto Area consumers: petunia, dianthus, pansy, impatiens, marigold, anise hyssop, nasturtium, peach sage, candy pop mint and snapdragon.
“Varieties that we are going to produce are varieties that are compact enough to be grown in a four-and-a-half-inch pot and they produce an abundance of flowers,” de Leonardis says. “The other thing is that [it needs] to be an ornamental flower, meaning that it needs to look good.”
De Leonardis says that the aesthetic of having edible flowers at home is also a strong motivator for the project, along with positioning edible flowers in the marketplace.
In the initial stage of research, Vineland found that the 200 consumers could be separated into two segments: bold flavor fans and smooth texture fans.
Those who preferred bold flavors and strong aromas made up 56 percent of participants, whereas 44 percent of participants preferred modest flavor and smooth texture. Grygorczyk says participants who fell into the smooth texture category disliked any flavor in the flowers whatsoever.
“Results also showed edible flowers such as nasturtium and candy pop mint should be marketed to the bold [flavor] fan group while impatiens and dianthus are of interest to smooth texture lovers,” according to Vineland's research report.
Edible flowers as a foodie trend
While Grygorczyk says she doesn’t think consumers would use edible flowers every day, she speculates their popularity as a foodie trend has to do with their ability to make meals and drinks photogenic.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it has to do with the fact that edible flowers are very Instagram-able. They just look beautiful,” she says. “[You can have] pictures of edible flowers in dishes. I don’t know if it’s really taste that’s driving it, rather it’s more of the look.”
When asked if the color of the flowers would influence a consumer’s buying decision over the taste or texture, Grygorczyk says that although it’s possible, that won’t be a part of the formal study.
Research will continue over the summer, comparing American consumers to Canadian consumers with possible results at the end of the season. Grygorczyk says an online survey will follow this to better understand consumer preferences for flower colors.
American consumers vs. Canadian consumers
The research so far has only focused on Canadian consumers, but both Vineland and Freeman Herbs are confident that edible flowers are trending in the U.S., too.
“From talking to Freeman Herbs, their perspective is that the American market is more accustomed to things like edible flowers,” Grygorczyk says. “They’re more accustomed to seeing edible flowers on the market, whereas you don’t see that very much on the Canadian market.”
De Leonardis says because of this, Freeman will likely start selling edible flowers to U.S. markets before Canadian markets.
“I think that American consumers are more advanced on the use of edible flowers. It’s already something that exists. Canadians [still need] educated about it,” de Leonardis says.
Price and production: what’s the difference?
The biggest difference in producing edible flowers is the “organic premium.”
De Leonardis and Grygorczyk both emphasize that the entire process of growing edible flowers must be organic.
“There [are] very different regulations when it comes to what kind of crop inputs you can use on [edible flowers],” Grygorczyk says. “You can’t spray them; you can’t put pesticides on them.”
De Leonardis explains that it is important to have a designated spot for the flowers to keep them organic, just like you would with herbs and vegetables.
“I have a spot in my garden where I grow my herbs, I grow my tomatoes, that is 100 percent organic,” he says. “I don’t spray them, I use organic fertilizers. If I have to use a pest control, it would be an organic pest control.”
The need for organic production could influence prices, he says.
“I would say that probably it would be more expensive than your ornamental varieties for various reasons. One is the organic premium,” de Leonardis says. “The seeds are more expensive. The whole process — the cost itself of producing an organic flower rather than a conventional ornamental — it makes that cost higher.”
Supplying to garden centers
While Freeman Herbs will initially be supplying its edible flowers to supermarkets, it is possible the company could supply them to garden centers in pots as an addition to the herbs and vegetables they already sell. De Leonardis says Freeman Herbs would not supply seeds of the edible flowers to garden centers, focusing first on supermarkets.
How to educate consumers
De Leonardis says garden centers should focus on the care of edible flowers when educating consumers on the trend.
“I would say that the information that the garden center would need to give is to reinforce what our instructions are,” he says. Freeman Herbs will supply instruction labels on the pots because the flowers will initially be supplied to supermarkets, which de Leonardis says don’t typically have experts in plants like a garden center.
Freeman Herbs is still working on the marketing plans for the edible flowers, but de Leonardis says the labels could contain information on the care of the flowers, what flavors consumers could expect from them and possible recipes in which the flowers can be used.
Grygorczyk says garden centers should educate consumers on how to use the flowers, not just the care.
“[Consumers] just need more help with understanding what to do with them,” she says. “Even having a poster with meal ideas [or] with pictures of edible flowers in meals would probably help.”
De Leonardis also stresses that garden centers educate consumers on how to transplant the edible flowers if they wish to have them in their garden instead of keeping them in the pot.
“[Consumers] could definitely put them into their garden. Obviously, if the weather permits it,” he says. “If you put [the flowers] in the garden in the good weather and you do not use chemicals they will stay organic. You will not want to put them in a place where you use weed killers.”
However, de Leonardis says keeping the flowers in their pots would be best.
“It’s easier to look after them in the pot than in the ground because of the diseases and things like that,” he says. Consumers could even repot the flowers and use sterile potting mixes supplied by garden centers if they wish. “The idea is that you buy the pot, you bring it into your house, it’s beautiful to look at, and at your need, you’ll be able to harvest and use it as a food or as a decoration for your dishes.”
De Leonardis also emphasizes that using edible flowers can also be beneficial for people's health.
“People need to understand that flowers often have medical benefits as well,” he says. Some edible flowers contain carotenoids, which have vitamins and can act as antioxidants.
“It’s not just a fancy way to make a plate or a dish colorful and eclectic,” de Leonardis says. “It’s not just because it looks good, it’s because it’s good for you.”