Humans can gain flower power in their diet
Edible flowers are all the rage in the culinary world at the moment. They form an important part of the food revolution in baby leaves and micro greens. Chefs obviously love the way they look, adding them to sweet and savoury dishes, using them to decorate salads and garnishing main courses. At home, I have used elderflowers to make cordial, made capers using the seed of nasturtium and added wild garlic flowers to salads but that has been the sum of my edible flower experiences. As well as using them fresh they can be infused in oils and vinegars, distilled to make liquids like rosewater, crystallised for cake decorations, dried to make tisanes and used as natural food colourings. They can be eaten before the main crop of a vegetable is ready as in the case of peas and courgettes; they provide nectar resources for pollinators and act as partners in companion planting. These floral gems in our gardens are a diverse food group that are often overlooked. Certainly, the use of edible flowers in our cooking is not a new concept. They have been used for millennia. For instance, saffron was used in ancient Egypt and Greece and during Roman times flowers of thyme and mustard were commonly eaten.
But that’s not all. Edible flowers have high levels of phenolic compounds and antioxidant capacity according to a paper in the Journal of Food Science published by the Institute of Food Technologists. The research team examined 10 different edible flowers commonly used in China and found that the total phenolic content (TPC) was strongly linked to the antioxidant activity of the edible flower species investigated. The work highlighted the importance of the potential use of edible flowers as a source of phytochemicals assisting in health promotion and prevention of chronic disease such as certain cancers and heart disease. Phenolics are a highly diverse group of chemicals produced by plants and are used by plants in a number of different ways from plant development and physiology, interaction with their environment, reproductive strategy and defence mechanisms. Phenolics are able to act as powerful antioxidants, ‘mopping’ up harmful free radicals and preventing damage to DNA, lipids and proteins. Although the researchers identified that flowers contained high levels of phenolics, future research assessing the potential health benefits of edible flowers is needed to ascertain their anti-inflammatory abilities.
Across the country many of us are assembling our packets of vegetable seed to plant in garden plots this spring, but we should consider not only growing roots, shoots and leaves but some edible flowers as well. They look beautiful both in the garden and on a dinner plate, provide food for pollinators but may also help to keep us healthy too.
Lina Xiong, Jiajia Yang, Yirong Jiang, Baiyi Lu, Yinzhou Hu, Fei Zhou, Shuqin Mao, & Canxi Shen (2014). Phenolic Compounds and Antioxidant Capacities of 10 Common Edible Flowers from China. Journal of Food Science. 79(4): 517-525.