Edible Flowers for the Permaculture Garden

Edible and useful Flowers for the Permaculture Garden

One of my favourite permaculture principles reminds us that “Yield is limited only by your imagination.” Indeed, the kitchen gardener often tends to think of ‘yield’ as the quantity of potatoes, beans or berries grown on the plot, thus favouring vegetable and fruit crops over ‘space wasting’ ornamentals. But this spring why not consider giving that mindset a bit of a nudge to the side by widening your definition of ‘yield’ and include a few more flowers into your planting schemes? These don’t just make the eco-gardener’s plot look prettier, they are also invaluable in terms of attracting pollinators and pest predators such as bees, hoverflies and lacewings, and many are delicious to eat, especially in salads or preserved in wine or cider vinegar, and have medicinal as well as nutritional value.

Even if space is limited it needn’t be a case of ‘either/or’ – Why not integrate flowers, fruits and vegetables together to create polycultural plant ‘guilds’ that are at once productive, wildlife friendly and beautiful? After all, nature does not artificially compartmentalise her landscapes with ornamentals in one place, vegetables in another and fruit trees in yet a third location. The Day Lily (Hemerocallis sp) for example will fit into a perennial planting scheme, and has bright orange petals that are crisp and juicy with a mild sweet flavour – the nectar at the base of the flower is particularly sweet. Other perennials include the Three Cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum), an allium that grows and spreads especially abundantly in shadier gardens in springtime. Its leaves and white flowers have a mild garlic flavour that can be added to the salad bowl. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a close relative, yielding small purple globe-shaped flowers with a distinctive mild onion flavour similar to the leaves. Mallow (Malva sylvestris), a very common garden ornamental, has large, pretty pink flowers with a slightly glutinous texture with a number of healing properties, whilst the blue or pink flowers of chicory (Cichorium intybus) have a slight taste of coffee, and indeed the roots can be dried and used as a coffee substitute (does anybody still remember those little bottles of ‘Camp Coffee’ complete with its colonialist label once sold in corner shops?)

Violets form spreading clumps and thus are an excellent weed suppressing ground cover. Sweet violet (Viola odorata) in particular has an attractive flavour, often flowering in late winter to early spring, and is often the only edible flower available at this time of the year. Rose (Rosa spp.) petals can be crystallised in caster sugar or used to make rose petal jam – I even came across rose petal doughnuts on the internet the other day! The hips that follow the flowers in late summer and autumn are incredibly rich in vitamin C and were gathered from the wild during World War II to produce a syrup in order to counter the shortage of imported citrus fruits.

Many annuals are self seeders – Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) will spring up all over the place without needing to be invited, attracting beneficial insects and cheering up any garden all year round with its yellow to orange flowers. These have a delicate saffron like flavour, although the leaves are not edible. Borage (Borago officinalis) with its delicate blue cucumber flavoured flowers is another plant that you won’t get rid of once you’ve got it, although why would you want to? Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is a spreading annual that tolerates most soils, though it prefers a rich light well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. It has peppery flavoured leaves that can be eaten in salads along with the flowers. Nasturtium seeds can also be pickled as a substitute for capers. Just a few other common garden flowers suitable for brightening up salads include geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), pansies (Viola wittrockiana), lavender (Lavandula spp.), cowslip (Primula veris) and primrose (Primula vulgaris).

Flowering plants that are often considered as ‘weeds’ can also have many uses – in fact a definition of ‘weed’ that I particularly like is “Any plant who’s virtues have not yet been discovered.” The whole flowers of the daisy (Bellis perennis) for instance can be used as a salad garnish, and should be picked just before they are to be used. All parts of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are edible – The roots can be roasted as a coffee substitute, the mineral-rich bitter leaves used in salads as a counterpoint to blander lettuce flavours, and the bright yellow flowers are an attractive garnish, or can be made into wine. The flowers of the elder bush (Sambucus nigra) have a lovely delicate flavour, these can be eaten whole (make sure there are no insects on them first!) or sprinkled over a salad. They can also used for making elderflower champagne and cordial, or else leave the sprays of flowers on the bush to form berries later in the summer, from which you can make extremely potent elderberry wine.

Graham Burnett

This article originally appeared in a slightly edited form in ‘The Idler’ magazine.

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