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North Hills Monthly

The Gourmet Garden: Edible Plants and Flowers Growing in Popularity

Jun 30, 2019 12:07PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Edible flower, flowering crab apples

Flowers are beautiful in a garden, in an arrangement, in a vase, and even decorating food. They can also be quite tasty. 

Ally Slayden, owner and head baker at The Butterwood Bake Consortium, likes edible flowers for both their colors and their taste.

“Edible flowers look gorgeous on desserts, so we use them primarily for décor. We use them to decorate cakes, tarts and other desserts. We also bake flowers directly into our cakes, primarily lavender, rose and chamomile,” she said.

An important issue with edible flowers and plants is safety, so Slayden uses plants from local vendors that they know and trust or from their own small shop garden whenever possible. 

“We use organic ingredients in our baked goods, so we never use artificial coloring additives, which makes flowers our primary source of color. Providing beautiful confections is very important to us at the Butterwood,” she said. 

Since they are a bakery, taste is of upmost importance, but aesthetics are also a factor, Slayden added. 

“A huge part of the experience occurs before one even takes the first bite,” she said. “It’s common to see guests photograph our pastry case and their desserts just before eating.” 

Veteran master gardener Denise Schreiber, author of Eat Your Roses…Pansies, Lavender and 49 Other Delicious Flowers, started researching edible flowers in 1999 during a trip to England and Wales. As Schreiber and her friends toured gardens throughout the visit, they realized that there were edible flowers in many foods and teas.

“At every public garden and museum, they had afternoon tea–that is what they do, of course–and there were flowers in everything,” she said.

There was one special food that caught Schreiber’s immediate attention.

“They had rose petal ice cream, and I adore ice cream. When I put it in my mouth, I literally thought, ‘This is good enough to eat.’” 

When she returned home, Schreiber soon began trying her own recipes and ideas. “I love to bake so it seemed natural to try. It’s fun and it’s something different,” she said.

In her role as the gardener for the Allegheny County Parks, Schreiber launched the first Edible Flower Foodfest, expecting 25 attendees. When more than 200 showed up, Schreiber knew she was on to something.

Now retired, Schreiber shares her wisdom with others at presentations and talks where she not only provides information on what flowers are edible and safe, but dozens of ideas and recipes for serving. 

Schreiber suggests starting off with familiar flowers such as roses, lavender, mint, pansies and bee balm, experimenting or following recipes such as those she has included in her book. For those who may not have their own gardens, several grocery stores and farm markets have fresh edible flowers for sale. Schreiber stresses using only plants and flowers that are pesticide-free and safe to eat. 

Another component of edible plants is foraging—finding edible plants in the backyard or local woods. Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve hosts programs on foraging for those interested in learning more. 

There are many reasons someone may be interested in foraging, according to Communication Director Rachel Handel. 

“Once the item is known to be safe, people are interested in eating wild plants because it connects them to nature and where their food is coming from,” she explained. “Much like growing your own vegetable garden, there’s something very satisfying about picking something fresh and adding it into your diet.”  

In western Pennsylvania, there are many safe plants to add to your diet including garlic mustard. Although it is an invasive species that Audubon is working hard to eradicate, according to Handel, it can also be tasty. 

“One of the ways to use the plant in a positive way is by adding it as a substitute for garlic in cooking,” she said. “The plants may be used to create a pesto or cut up into additions for salad greens. There are a number of recipes utilizing garlic mustard online.” 

Of course, Audubon strongly suggests that people only pick and eat foods that they can identify and know are safe.

“This is especially true with mushrooms. Many varieties look similar to one another and while one may be safe, the others may be poisonous and lead to a visit to the emergency room,” Handel said.

Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve is hosting a workshop, Foraging Your Backyard on August 17 from 10 a.m. to noon, where participants can discover native plants that not only provide beauty and resources for wildlife but are also a delight on the dinner table. The event will include a cooking demo and samples to taste what an edible backyard can offer. 

The cost is $6 per member, $10 per nonmember. Register at http://www.aswp.org.