Ever since Sister Irene scarfed a whole tiger lily bloom during Nature & Hiking at Camp Marycrest, I have been fascinated by edible flowers.
I was 8, and I knew that food came in cans, boxes or plastic. I thought it awfully brave and adventurous of our gentle teacher to pluck a big orange blossom off its stem and pop it in her mouth.
Flower petal cuisine has gone in and out of style for centuries, enjoying a big surge in popularity during the Victorian era. Some perennial favorites are annuals that may be in your garden now: pansies and violas, dianthus, geraniums, even impatiens.
Their bloom season is ending now, but you might consider planting daylilies (Hemerocallis Fulva) come spring. They're among the most popular edible flowers. Different types have different flavors, which prompted Mississippi State University to host a taste test. Of 15 varieties, Rosie Meyer was the favorite, followed by a tie for second place: Lavender Doll, Jones Senior, and Aztec Goldot.
Be sure to get rid of the flower's green base before you eat - it has a bad taste. If you discover you just can't stop stuffing your face with daylilies, you may have an unpleasant side effect: Large quantities can have a laxative effect. Finally, before you stick a flower (any flower for that matter) in your mouth, know what it is and verify that it's safe to eat.
There are lots of lists of edible flowers online, including one at whatscookingamerica.net; type "edible flowers" into the site search. A number of books have been written about growing and cooking with flowers. One is "Edible Flower Garden" by Rosalind Creasy (Periplus Editions; $19.99.)
A final word of warning: Don't eat your flowers if they're not organically grown or if you've used pesticides. That said, you're probably safest staying out of your neighbors' flowers.
Viola x wittrockiana
A cold-weather annual in the Tampa Bay area, pansies and their cousins, violets and violas, can dress up a punch bowl (freeze blooms in ice cubes) and add flavor and color to salads. Pansy petals have a mild flavor, like lettuce, while the whole flower has more of a minty flavor.
For pretty desserts, sprinkle petals on cakes and custards. Or turn them into candied flowers: Beat an egg white till it's frothy, then coat each bloom with it using a paintbrush. Sprinkle with fine sugar and lay on wax paper to dry and stiffen.
Pansies like bright sun to partial shade. If your soil is sandy, add organic matter to help retain moisture and water when dry.
My personal favorite for flavor (sweet and peppery) and growth preferences (they don't mind a little sand between their toes. In fact, they won't flower if the soil is too rich or fertilized.). Nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed - you can start some in pots now, just protect them from frost and freezes. Their orange-yellow blooms and lily-pad shaped leaves add garden interest, and they help deter aphids and other pests. Plus, you can eat the whole plant!
The next time you're responsible for the appetizer, pluck your nasturtium blooms - don't wash them, and handle gently. Press about a half-teaspoon of cream cheese in the center, and press a caper into the center of the cream cheese. If you can't serve them right away, don't refrigerate for more than an hour.
If you've got shade, you've probably got some of these ubiquitous, brightly colored flowers. Use them to dress up a cake or a salad, the same way you would with pansies, without worrying about competing flavors. The petals are edible with a bland, nondescript taste.