‘Orange Balsam’ Thyme
AIMÉE DAMMAN

This is the first story in a series about edibles. Look for the next article in the January 2017 issue of Garden Center magazine.

Eating the blossoms from ornamental plants isn’t a new concept. History reveals that combining flowers and food was once the norm, but munching on blooms somehow fell out of favor. That began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as cutting-edge chefs replaced their parsley garnish with edible petals, and adventurous diners took note. Fast forward to today, and edible flowers are enjoying a renaissance.

Flowers have moved from the plate edge into the midst of culinary creations, contributing flavors and scents as integral as those of herbs or vegetables. Bartenders have resurrected the moniker “mixologists,” a term dating back to the 1800s, incorporating flowers and floral infusions into their brews. Food shows and social media are spreading the news, and interest in edible flowers is growing. But today’s consumers don’t just want to eat them; they want to grow them — and they’re interested in taste as much or more than looks.

Trends underway in Europe

Peter van Wijgerden, a nurseryman from the Netherlands, latched onto the idea of promoting edible flowers in 2009. He introduced his Look & Taste concept at trade shows with a single plant — potted nasturtiums — and emphasized their culinary attributes. Though some in the industry didn’t take the idea seriously at first, interest has changed dramatically in recent years. European consumers are actively seeking edible flowers, and growers and traders are responding.

For van Wijgerden’s Look & Taste line, the concept comes first and foremost. Then the flower and ornamental attributes come next. “Our concept is very good. It definitely is a growing market,” van Wijgerden says. The line has expanded from nasturtiums to include eight additional varieties with two more being tested for 2017. Grown with minimal or no chemicals and certified for consumption, the plants are all offered at a single price point in 12 centimeter pots (roughly 4.7 inches).

“This year, the orders were 300 percent more than the year before, so it is trending in Europe,” van Wijgerden says. “It is a small group of people who buy edible flowers, but they give a much better price than for normal bedding plants.” The line is sold in Finland, Denmark, France, Switzerland, England, Germany and the Netherlands, reaching consumers through flower auctions, floral shops, garden centers and culinary/kitchen specialty stores. Other European growers are now following suit and adding edible flowers to their lines.

U.S. interest on the rise

The allure of edible flowers in the burgeoning edibles segment hasn’t been lost on U.S. growers and garden centers. Pleasant View Gardens marketing manager Nathan Keil notes that customers and end consumers of their Savor Edibles and Fragrants line are very interested in edible flowers.

“Our Savor consumers are kicking their healthy, tasty, and satisfying dishes up a notch by experimenting with edible flowers,” Keil says. “And they’re creating adventurous beverages like teas and cocktails that are infused with herbs and edible flowers.”

At Seattle-based Swansons Nursery, where edible flowers are a long-standing offering, annual and edible buyer Liane Smith acknowledges edible flowers are gaining traction and attention. “Interest in edible flowers is still small, but definitely growing. Our edible flower sales easily doubled from 2015,” she says.

Smith credits increasing interests in “foodie culture” and recipe sharing on social media as prime forces behind growing awareness of edible blooms and their use. “Customers are using them mostly in salads and in baking,” Smith says. “Candied flowers to decorate baked treats is becoming much more popular. Nasturtiums are incredibly popular as a salad addition.”

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Consumer needs and expectations

Educating consumers on how to safely grow and use edible flowers is essential to successful sales. Meeting their expectations for growing methods is, too. Smith notes that customers are very concerned that edible flowers starts be organically grown, and Swansons shares that concern. “We merchandise the edible flowers in our veggie start section with the salad greens,” Smith says. “We only offer naturally grown varieties in that section, even though there are many other varieties of flowers we carry that are technically edible.”

Swansons also offers a very thorough listing of edible and non-edible flowers on their website and in the store, coupled with educational efforts. “We use a large ‘Edible Flowers’ sign on the table, and our handouts are available on a podium right next to them,” Smith says. The IGC writes an edible flower blog post in spring, and they’ve held edible flower seminars, complete with demonstrations and recipes. As a final flourish, the onsite café often uses lavender in their baked goods, too.

Keil stresses the importance of meeting consumer needs as they venture into new avenues of edibles. “Our consumers crave adventure in the kitchen, and with that comes the desire to learn fun, new and healthy ways to prepare and eat their herbs and vegetables,” he says. “In order to stay on top of their cravings for new and exciting ideas, we’re focused on providing them with the products and information they need to experiment with concepts like edible flowers.”

While current Savor expansion plans don’t include plants sold exclusively for edible flowers, plans are in the works for an edible flower category within the brand. Consumers shopping solely for plants with edible flowers will be able to spot them easily. A “How To” section of a new consumer website set to launch at the end of 2016 will include options for edible flowers that grow on plants in the line, as well.

Flowers and guidance to get started

Edible flowers present numerous options, but some staples have proven to be favorites for chefs and consumers alike. At Swansons, the offering varies little from year to year. “Our core selections include violas, pansies, bachelor buttons, calendula, marigolds and nasturtiums,” Smith says. “Violas and nasturtiums are the best sellers.” She notes that limited availability of organically grown flower starts also restricts the breadth of offerings.

At van Wijgerden, the Look & Taste line for 2017 will offer nasturtiums, borage, violas, agastache, Salvia officinalis, calendula, flowering basil, centaurea and begonia. The nursery is also testing red-leaved oxalis and the Middle Eastern herb known as zatáar.

Along with plants, some simple, common-sense guidelines help. Consumers do well to heed Swansons’ suggestion to treat edible flowers like mushrooms, and go slowly. IGC staff should be armed with a good understanding of edible blooms, and keep these basic admonitions in mind: Not all blooms are edible or palatable. As with berries on shrubs, flowers can be disagreeable or even poisonous.

Stick with Latin, and never trust common names. Consider all the plants commonly known as “lilies” — you’ll find flowers from tasty to unsafe.

On most edible flowers, only the petals are eaten. One notable exception is the nasturtium, which has edible leaves, seedpods and whole blooms.

People with pollen allergies should avoid eating flowers, even with stamens and other flower parts removed.

Unless you’re sure it’s safe, don’t put it on a plate — even as a garnish.

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional based in Madison, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.