Springtime is here, and that means an abundance of flowers to delight the senses: sight, smell, taste… Wait, taste? Can you even eat flowers? Certainly! Welcome to the world of edible landscapes.
Edible landscaping involves growing plants for more than aesthetic pleasure alone. Flowers are a colorful and flavorful part of the edible landscape. They look beautiful, yet edible flowers can also serve as sources of nutrients. Gwynn and Bert Hamilton, owners of Stonecrop Farm and a flower CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Newport, have tried their hands at growing and selling edible flowers. Gwynn shares: “Edible flowers aren’t always profitable, but they are always classy.” There are many types of flowers that people may never have considered as delightful garnishes. Daylilies and rose petals are edible, and they look wonderful on a plate. Gwynn adds these flowers to wedding cakes to contribute color and zest to the traditional look.
Nasturtiums seem to be the most popular edible flower. Holly Scoggins, Ph.D., Virginia Tech horticulture professor and director of the Hahn Horticulture Garden, explains: “They have a nice pepper kick with a little hint of citrus.” If that’s not convincing enough, they are easy to grow, and plants reseed themselves. Dr. Scoggins says most people think you can only eat the petals, but, in fact, the entire nasturtium plant is edible.
Growing what you eat is interesting and beneficial because you to know exactly what you’re putting into your body. “Don’t eat anything that has potentially been sprayed,” warns Bert. Rose petals from your garden are edible, but anything coming from a florist has been sprayed and should absolutely be avoided. Some poisonous flowers exist that you should never eat, including foxglove and morning glories. Be very sure you do some serious research before chomping down on a pretty plant.
Other common edible flowers are borage and violets. In a Michigan State University consumer survey, chefs tried to describe the taste of both flowers. Borage was described as sweet or clam-like, and violets as bland and similar to vegetables. These chefs agreed that they would use both flowers in salads due to their appeasing appearance and fragrance.
If the flower garnishes are not enticing, maybe adding them to drinks is your cup of tea. Lavender, chamomile and mint make great flavor combinations with lemonade, hot or iced tea, and fruit juices.
Edible landscaping surpasses flowers and fruit trees. Herbs are more common in edible landscaping than flowers. People are slowly realizing that the taste of dried herbs from the store is never as flavorful as fresh herbs from the garden. Kelly Connoley-Phillips, sales and marketing manager of Riverbend Nursery in Riner, explains that you do not have to separate herbs when planting them, but you do need to be mindful of where you place them. “ Mint,” for example, she says, “is an aggressive spreader, and small herbs, like chive and garlic, can easily be dwarfed by nearby flowers.” For this reason, planting herbs in a window box or raised garden bed might be preferable.
At Stonecrop Farm, Gwynn allows herbs to have their own spaces and notes that they can grow in existing flower gardens. She frequently includes mint and dill in flower bouquets. “Combining flowers and herbs makes a floral arrangement smell great and look pretty, so the two work well together.”
Scoggins notes that herbs have a Mediterranean origin and, grow best in that type of climate. Herb gardens need adequate drainage, good soil and full sun. Until the plants are established, the most important thing to do is water them. “The better the soil, the better they will grow and thrive,” she says. Though the climate of the New River Valley doesn’t replicate the Mediterranean, it only gets cool, not cold, at night in spring and summer. If you’re worried about herb plants toughing it out, plant evergreen herbs, such as rosemary, which can be used year-round.
Because herbs can be difficult to start from seed, Gwynn suggests buying small plants. Some of the New River Valley farmer’s market vendors sell herb plants, and every April, Virginia Tech’s Horticulture Club holds a plant sale where herbs are available for purchase, along with typical plants and flowers.
Edible landscaping gives you the chance to grow some fruits, flavor enhancers and beautiful garnishes without a major commitment to gardening on a full scale. Fruit trees take years to yield, so think ahead – plant them as early as you can. Berry bushes can yield in the first year of planting, but may take a couple years of reseeding and expanding to give buckets of berries.
Along with fresh herb flavors, beautiful flowers, berries and fresh apples, peaches and more, edible landscaping has one big reward: you always reap what you sow!
Some Edible Flowers
Bachelor’s button, Begonia, Carnation, Chrysanthemum, Clover, Cornflower, Dandelion, Day lilies, Fuchsia, Honeysuckle, Impatiens, Lilac, Marigold, Nasturtiums, Pansy, Peony, Primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, Rose, Snapdragon, Sunflower, Tulip petals, Violets.
By Meg Selby
Meg Selby is a Virginia Tech senior interning at New River Valley Magazine for a second semester.♦ End