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edible flowers

13 august 2017

Forget Stephen King, forget The Walking Dead: in the opinion of my partner, the gardener, the scariest book I could bring into the house was Constance Kirker and Mary Newman's Edible Flowers.

It's not that I've really decimated the yard over the years. Some of the flowers she grows, like saffron crocus, are intended for the kitchen. Figs are more strictly flowers than fruits. Daylilies are important ingredients in Chinese dishes, especially Mu Shu Pork (Kirker & Newman provide a recipe), and the nice thing about daylilies is that the flowers are at their most edible just as they start to wilt and become unsightly anyway.

But columbine are at their best when in freshest flower, and I have made many inroads on our columbines for my salad bowls. I don't know how I figured out that columbines are edible. Googling actually brings some mixed messages on the subject; Kirker & Newman don't mention columbine at all. To specify, I am thinking of Aquilegia flowers, delicate and spindly; ours are yellow and white. They are dissolvingly-textured, with a little snap of sweetness. Kirker & Newman say that stamens of flowers must be removed before eating (125), but I've never done that with columbines, and I lived to write this. There's not enough to a columbine flower to risk removing much of it.

Kirker & Newman organize their book in an elegant and readable manner. After some attention to ancient and medieval culinary flowers, they associate a few typical edible flowers with each of the world's continents (except Australia). These keynote flowers have for the most part tumbled across world cuisine during several centuries of globalization. Cloves, capers, and saffron were integral to the spice-trading networks that connected the Old World. Kirker & Newman locate cloves in the medieval world, capers and saffron in the Middle East, and this helps them organize their book. Some flowers, like artichokes, we scarcely think of as such. Others, like roses, violets, and orange blossom, are showier and stand at the junctures between coffee table and dining-room table, Islamic and Christian cuisines.

Marigold, nasturtium, hibiscus, and squash blossoms are native to the Americas. The first I know best as an herb; Mexican marigold leaves contain the same chemical as tarragon, but are much hardier in Texas. Hibiscus I know from tea, but squash flowers I first ate in New Jersey decades ago. When you have too many zucchini on the way, intercept some by eating the flowers. They can be fried, or wilted as vegetables in sauce. I've seen them sold in cans at Mexican markets.

Flowers would seem too insubstantial to form the basis of a diet. Kirker & Newman do report that the "Mavesi and Guand people" of Uttar Pradesh "have a diet largely consisting of mahua flowers" (69). These seem to be plump, fleshy flowers, distantly analogous (if unrelated) to banana flowers, another substantial foodstuff. I can see living on mahua flowers, though probably not on redbud blossoms or magnolia petals. Certainly not on redbud and magnolia, if my partner has anything to say about it.

I do live substantially on broccoli, which I eat 5-6 times a week. Like cauliflower, broccoli is a flowerhead, or a collection of many, harvested before it bolts. These cruciforms are among the most nutritious items in the American food supply. If you add hops, a flower rarely seen but very frequently consumed in the U.S., you begin to see the importance of flowers even to diets we consider pedestrian and unexotic.

Kirker, Constance L., and Mary Newman. Edible Flowers. London: Reaktion, 2016.