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Edible flowers

Ginny Coyle

drawing of lavender

Lavender species

Current interest in herb growing and adventurous cooking has led to increased use of edible flowers. Floral ingredients add flavor, texture, color and excitement to many recipes. The addition of vibrant nasturtiums or pansies can transform an ordinary salad.

There are several things to keep in mind however when cooking or garnishing with flowers:

To ensure that your plants are pesticide-free, grow them yourself from seed or buy organically grown plants. Edible flowers may also be found in the produce department at some grocery stores.

It will be easier to care for culinary flowers if they are grown in containers. If you are vigilant, you can eliminate the need for chemical applications. Common insect problems such as slugs or spittlebugs can be controlled by handpicking. Aphids and mites may be washed off with water from your hose.

Precautions: Many plants create toxins to discourage animal or insect damage. The same toxic chemicals can also injure humans. Never experiment by eating plant parts unless you are sure they are harmless. Often only a particular part of the plant is edible. For example, rhubarb stems may be eaten, but not its leaves, roots or flowers.

If you know one part of a plant is safe to eat, do not assume that all parts will be. Check a reliable reference such as those listed at the end of this Brief or the AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, published by the American Medical Association.

The source of flowers to be eaten is also very important. Garden center plants may have been treated with systemic pesticides to prevent insect damage or diseases. Older gardening books may not address previous chemical applications or may just suggest washing the flowers. Current recommendations are that flowers never be eaten unless the plant was grown "organically."

Serving suggestions: The word "edible" means you may safely consume the flower. Unfortunately it does not always mean the flavor is appealing. Some flowers (eg. lavender) have a bitter or astringent taste and are best used as a garnish.

When seasoning with edible flowers, taste test and try to match the flavor to the recipe. Sweet or floral scented blossoms can be used to decorate desserts or garnish cold drinks. Peppery nasturiums, cucumber- flavored burnet and chive blossoms add interest to salads.

Blossoms should be harvested the day they'll be used; try to pick no more than one day early. Wash the fresh flowers gently and set them aside to dry. Refrigerate them in plastic sandwich bags until you use them.

Remove interior flower parts such as stamens and styles of larger flowers (i.e. squash or tulips). These are tart tasting in some flowers. The white part at the base of hollyhocks (the calyx) is bitter and should also be removed. When serving flowers fresh, add them to your dish just before serving.

The flowers are edible on all of these plants
Scientific name Additional comments
Alpine Strawberry Fragaria alpina Leaves often used in tea
Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum
Apple or plum Malus species
Beebalm Monarda didyma Taste may differ by cultivar; avoid 'Panorama' as the taste is too astringent
Begonia Begonia x tuberhybrida
Borage Borage officinalis Leaves also
Calendula Calendula officinalis
Chamomile Matricaria recutita Flowers have an apple scent and flavor
Chives Allium schoenoprasum Blossoms and stems
Daylilies Hemerocallis species Buds are good stir-fried
Dill Anethum graveolens Flowers, seeds and foliage
English Daisy Bellis perennis
Gladiolus Gladiolus species
Hollyhocks Alcea rosea
Honeysuckle Lonicera species
Lavender Lavandula angustifolia or officinalis Bitter taste to flowers, but wonderfully scented. Neither is fully hardy in Minnesota, but either may be grown as an annual.
Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis Leaves and flowers are scented
Lilac Syringa species
Marjoram Origanum majorana Leaves are often dried, but can also be served fresh.
Mint Mentha species Leaves can be used fresh or dried
Mustard Brassica juncea Leaves and young seed pods can be eaten.
Nasturtium Tropaeloum majus Both flowers and leaves have a peppery taste, so use sparingly.
Pansy Viola species
Petunia Petunia x hybrida or species
Pinks Dianthus species
Rose Rosa species Use petals
Scarlet Runner Beans Phaseolus coccineus Bean pods toughen as they age, so make use of young pods as well as flowers. Please note: Sweet Pea flowers are not edible.
Sage Salvia elegans Leaves fresh or dried.
Squash Curcurbita species Flowers can be stuffed or fried. If female blossoms are picked, however, the fruit will not develop.
Tulip Tulip species Use petals

Sources for further information or recipes:

Lambert, Elisabeth Ortiz, Ed. Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices and Flavorings. Dorling Kindersly, 1992.

Mackin, Jeanne. The Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers. Cornell Cooperative Extension: 1993. (Can be ordered from Resource Center, Cornell University, 7 Business and Technology Park, Ithaca, NY 14850)

Reilly, Ann, Ed. Taylor's Pocket Guide to Herbs and Edible Flowers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.; 1990.

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