A quick guide to flowers in food
By: St. Luke’s Health - The Woodlands Hospital | Published 05/31/2022
The steady march of the seasons brings a more blistering sun, heavier rain showers, and longer days as our world progresses into the depth of summer. Bears start feasting for hibernation, people dive deep into the cool waters of local rivers, lakes, and the Gulf, and flower buds that grew from tiny seeds break free and bloom into gorgeous colorful blossoms. You might start seeing this change as you drive to work or a place for your summer vacation: rows of pinks, whites, oranges, blues, and yellows—summertime flowers dotting through green grasses.
At local restaurants, coffee shops, and teahouses, you might notice the subtle changes on the menus to include floral seasonal drinks or desserts—rose macarons and lavender lemonades; a refreshing hibiscus tea or geranium sherbert—but sometimes, it can be challenging to know what flowers you can eat, which ones you should avoid in your garden, and how to buy edible flowers for your DIY teas. We’ve put together a handy guide to common and local flowers—those edible and toxic—to distinguish their differences and various uses and effects.
What common flowers can you consume?
Where do floral garnishes end and food begin? Everyone has had a moment where they’ve seen a flower in a salad, on a dessert, or topping a drink. There’s the split-second moment of confusion. Should you eat it? Stuff it down in your glass with a straw? Remove it and continue eating the cake? The good news is that while some flowers might be used just as garnishes, most of what you’ll find in food or drinks is perfectly edible and can give them a refreshing, natural sweetness and flavor.
Always remember when buying edible flowers:
- To get organically grown flowers, as these aren’t produced with pesticides that are harmful to your body when ingested.
- That other types of store-bought flowers are raised with more dangerous pesticides.
When in doubt, read the package to make sure that these flowers are edible, or grow them yourself and only use safe pesticides approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
With their velvety petals and sharp edges, roses are the perfect symbol of the sweet and bitter parts of love. The rose’s duality, beauty, and fragrance have garnered its use as a cultural symbol across the world and its continued expansion into many, many varieties.
While most species are native to Asia, there are many types of roses that are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and North America. Roses have been cultivated for perfume, medicine, beauty, flavor, and decorations for hundreds of years. Almost every part of the rose can be used and consumed.
- Rose oils
- Rose flowers
- Rose leaves
Unlike roses, which have been used as a cultural symbol throughout history, lavender has always been prized for its scent and flavor. In the ancient world, it could cost an entire month’s pay to buy one bundle of lavender. The word lavender has two debated etymologies: coming from Latin lavare, meaning “to wash”—indicating the history of lavender’s use as soap in the ancient world—or from Latin livere, meaning “bluish”—showing the importance of lavender’s unique hue.
Native to the Mediterranean and other parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, lavender thrives in more temperate climates. A little-known fact is that lavender is a part of the mint family of plants—along with sage—though perhaps that’s not too surprising considering its strong fragrance. We’ve talked before about the health benefits of peppermint. In some limited clinical trials, it seems like lavender might not be far behind.
For the most part, lavender oil is used in cooking, for oil, tea, and honey cultivation. During the summer season, lavender lattes or lemonades are all the rage as these flowers enter their season. When cooking, the leaves can be used, not unlike rosemary and sage, to provide a richer flavor to meats and savory loaves of bread, and they can also be used for added floral sweetness to desserts and other baked goods. The F.D.A. recognizes these varieties of lavender products as safe to eat:
- Lavender oil
- Lavender spike oil
- Lavender spike
- Lavender absolute
There are two types of geraniums—pelargonium and geranium. The one that you are likely to be familiar with is pelargonium, a kind of geranium used in decor, for oil, and its citrusy flavor. These geraniums are one of the highest-selling ornamental plants in the U.S. They have become more frequently used as a flavor additive, despite there being little history behind this usage, as with rose and lavender.
While not as commonly used in food as roses and lavender, some will, at times, use geranium as a flavor additive in ice creams, lemonades, and pastries, if a lighter citrus flavor is desired. The tartness of geraniums makes them distinct from the sweeter flavors of other flowers and the savory flavors of some herbs. The F.D.A. recognizes these varieties of geranium products as generally safe to eat:
- Geranium extract
- Geranium oil
- East Indian geranium extract
- East Indian geranium oil
- Rose geranium oil
An important thing to note is that while humans can consume edible geraniums, this type of plant is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.
Roses, lavender, and geraniums aren’t the only flowers that have been used for food. There are many flowers whose petals have been harvested to create tea and spice blends and oils. A few of our favorite honorable mentions that we love adding to teas and relaxing bath time scrubs include hibiscus, chamomile, and jasmine.
Are flowers dangerous for you to eat?
The edibility of flowers is not a one-size-fits-all situation—just as there are many edible flowers, there are many toxic ones as well. When shopping for edible flowers, you’re unlikely to come across deadly flowers; however, stores aren’t the only places you may find flowers. Nature is all around us, and so many flowers bloom in the summer months. We’ve looked through flora that grows in this area and found which ones are edible flower lookalikes. Is that really a geranium in your yard, or is it oleander?
Part of the ranunculus—coming from the Latin word rana for “frog”—genus, over 600 different species of buttercups are grown and cultivated throughout the world. These flowers are primarily used as decorations and in gardens. Buttercups start blooming in spring and continue growing throughout the summer months. They are colonizing flowers, not unlike garden weeds, and bud opportunistically in any space they can find.
All types of ranunculus are toxic to humans and animals. Eating a buttercup will cause blisters to grow on your mouth and cause dermatitis and gastrointestinal symptoms. Buttercup toxins are much more potent when the plant is fresh rather than dry—however, it is still dangerous to eat a dried buttercup.
How do you tell the difference between buttercups and roses? The best indicator you’ll find is the buttercup’s lack of thorns on its stem. However, because touching a buttercup can end up in a rash, an even more visible indicator is in the visual texture of the petals—buttercup varieties have a luster to them, making them look wet or shiny, while rose petals have a velvet texture that causes their leaves to not shine when catching the light.
Wolfsbane or Monkshood
Wolfsbane—or monkshood—is well known not for its toxicity but for its folkloric use as a deterrent to werewolves in medieval times. In ancient Greece, hunters used to coat their arrows in wolfsbane, thinking it was highly deadly for wolves. This plant has been used and mentioned as a potent poison throughout the world—from Europe to Japan—in myths and legends. Shared understanding of its toxicity has waned due to its use as a mystical tool in popular media.
While native to the Northern Hemisphere, wolfsbane can grow anywhere with moist but well-draining soil in shady areas. The toxicity of wolfsbane comes from the substantial amount of aconite—a cardiotoxin and neurotoxin—in their roots and tubers. Consuming aconite causes convulsions, ventricular arrhythmia, and death. In higher doses, it is fatal instantly upon consumption. When less is ingested, symptoms still appear virtually instantly, marked with nausea and vomiting, tingling and burning sensations in the face and extremities, and burning in the abdomen.
While wolfsbane looks like lavender, there are a few key things to remember, so you can always tell the difference. Firstly, wolfsbane and lavender prefer to grow in different environments and soil types. Both plants need moist and well-draining soil, but wolfsbane needs shade while lavender grows best in full sunlight. Secondly, wolfsbane has a helmet-shaped flower with 2-10 petals, while lavender flowers are whorls—where the petals extend around the center of the bulb in a circle—which branch out like spikes. Finally, the leaves of lavender are covered in fine hair.
Popular in historical texts and urban legends, oleander has quite a bit of significance worldwide. Most parts of oleander are toxic when consumed; however, the level of toxicity is lower than wolfsbane. Oleander has been cultivated in so many world regions for so many centuries that it has become impossible for scientists to determine this plant’s origin. However, it grows best in temperate or tropical climates, like the Mediterranean or here in Houston. Oleander is commonly found lining streets or neighborhoods as an ornamental plant.
The overall toxicity of oleander has been studied extensively. All parts of the plant are toxic, and in some cases chewing a single leaf can have fatal consequences. In some plants, toxicity can decrease when the plant is fried or boiled—this is not the case with oleander, which retains its toxicity in any type of preparation.
What are the tell-tale differences between these flowers? Geranium and oleander flowers grow in similar colors and bundles of multiple flowers on one stalk. The most evident difference between them is that you will find oleander on a large shrub or bush, while geraniums can be perennials, succulents, or small shrubs. Leaves on an oleander shrub are in whorls—where the leaves extend around the stem from the same place in a circle—while leaves on geraniums tend to be palmate—where the leaves resemble palm trees in shape—or pinnate—where the leaves are segmented instead of whole.
What to remember when buying edible flowers
Flowers are an essential part of our lives. They are significant to our cultures, inspiring us to create stories, and their flavors lead us to use them for foods and teas. Toxic flowers also provide beauty to enrich our lives. Before eating or gardening flowers, remember to always:
- Do your research on which flowers are safe to consume.
- Look into which pesticides are considered safe to eat by the USDA.
- Never place edible and non-edible plants near one another in your garden.
If you believe you have consumed a poisonous plant, call poison control at (800) 222-1222 or go immediately to a St. Luke’s Health ER. If you want to talk with your physician about when to be worried, a Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care doctor would be happy to answer your questions.