What are the guidelines for munching flowers? Obviously, our ancestors back over the past thousands of years grazed for their food, long before botanists and hybridists brought us commercial agriculture with its named fruits and vegetables. Many of us lack the wisdom of an experienced "elder" to tell us which flowers might be safely edible, so it's good to review some basics. (Also, when we eat something poisonous, we arouse the infuriated gastro-intestinal system, which lets us know by misery how well protected our ancestors were against poisoning themselves.)
If anyone who may be eating the plants has either allergy problems or a compromised immune system, it's best to skip these adventures with edible flowers unless you have absolute control over their production.
Also, don't place a non-edible flower on the edge of a plate. Hungry diners may assume that if they see it on the plate, it's there for eating.
My source for some of this information is a useful one-sheet publication called "Ten Rules of Edible Flowers," published in 1995 by Iowa State University WSU Extension. Much of this information is pure common sense, but it's useful to get all the ideas in one spot.
First, toxicity is a major concern. Some ornamental plants are distinctly poisonous though beautiful; including several adorning gardens at this time of year: narcissus flowers, bleeding hearts, and lily-of-the valley. Even though a lovely daffodil may seem to be just the thing to top a birthday cake, stay away from using those. For a fact sheet on toxic ornamentals, get WSU Extension factsheet #72 "Common Poisonous Plants." To receive it, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope (business-size with 34 cents postage) to King County WSU Extension, Bulletins Department, 500 SW 7th Street, Suite 200, Renton, Washington, 98055-2983. (other beauties to avoid eating in spring include hydrangea, golden chain tree, mountain laurel, and horse-chestnut flowers.)
Identify the flower exactly and eat only edible flowers, and edible parts of those flowers. (Tulips, for instance, can be eaten, but only the petals. Seeds of apples are toxic, as are seeds of peaches, but the fruit is edible. Knowledge on this subject is vital before munching the unknown plant.) Reliably edible flowers include calendulas, dandelions, daylilies, geraniums, nasturiums, pansies, roses, squash blossoms, and sweet violets. ( This is only a partial list of edible flowers. Many others are also non-toxic, some delicious, and others edible but not particularly tasty.) Be sure the flower is free of toxic pesticides before eating it. Regulations for how to use pesticides on food crops differ from regulations for ornamental crops. Be sure that the rose, pansy, or peony you have your eye on has not been treated with any pesticides which are illegal to be used on food. Roses, for example, are sometimes given a granular systemic treatment with an insect killer commonly named disyston. This isn't safe for human consumption and it's present in the vein system of the plant once applied. When choosing flowers for edibility, look for those grown safely. Don't pluck a flower at random from an unknown location or make the assumption that flowers in florist displays are edible (Florists are, after all, not grocery stores.)
Also avoid flowers picked from roadsides where pesticides may have been used. Herbicides to control weeds also affect potentially edible plants.
All this information is definitely related to a common sense approach to selecting flowers as food. Don't eat large quantities of any one flower (especially if allergies are present.) In most cases, the petals are the palatable part of the flowers listed as "edible." Remove the stamens and pistil from larger flowers such as day lilies (the stamens are covered with pollen, which may aggravate allergies.)
Flowers differ in edibility depending on the time of year. Many, such as dandelion leaves and petals, are best in early spring when tender. Later in the season they toughen and become bitter. Once you have established that a flower is safely edible, experiment with its flavor and texture at different times of the year. One of the easiest to use safely in spring is the small pansy, the viola, which is pretty in salads and on plates.
Adding flower petals to a salad or garnishing a stack of pancakes with a small rose can be fun and effective, but it's necessary to become informed before acting on your spring design impulses.
Hortsense: Managing plant problems with Integrated Pest Management