COVID has drawn out the urge for many of us to “get back to nature,” foraging for and harvesting wild plants. In my book, Eating Wild, I listed fifty different wild plants that we can consume safely, along with numerous recipes. However, the truth is that there are dozens of plants in our own gardens that we ignore, even though they are perfectly safe and often very tasty.
Heading the list for me is the nasturtium. Flowers, seeds and leaves all are uniquely delicious. I pick the leaves to use in sandwiches (tuna is my favourite with this plant) and in salads. The leaves are broad and crunchy, imparting a peppery taste to any dish. Be sure to harvest them though, before the bugs get to them and start dotting the leaves with white acne bumps. The flowers are excellent in chilled drinks, add colour and taste to salads and appetizer trays and have a tart and sweet taste on their own. The seeds are particularly valuable. Use them fresh and green as an accent to fish dishes or pickle them in vinegar (apple cider vinegar seems to coordinate well) to pop as snacks during the winter.
Of course, the purple coneflower (echinacea) is both healthy and edible, its root substituting for seneca root as a cold and cough remedy. Of the nine North American varieties, three definitely are edible while the others are not known to be toxic or poisonous. Make a tea from the roots or flowers, and use grated dried root as a somewhat bitter topping for beef. Steeped in vinegar, it acts a little like horseradish!
Who hates the scent of marigolds? (personally, I love the scent) However, marigold flowers provide the colour of turmeric and a somewhat similar taste to saffron in meals. The tender, green part of the leaves adds a sharp taste to salads and can be mixed with boiled vegetables for a unique taste. Sprinkle flower petals on ice cream and custards, or in cold drinks such as 7-Up or Sprite. Even gin can be improved with a few sprigs of marigold flower. As an added benefit, marigold petals in a closet can freshen it up for weeks.
One of my favourite show flowers is portulaca. Purslane, a weed, is a close relative and both are edible. Portulaca buds and flowers, like most edible flowers, go great in salads. It is quite high in Vitamin A, as well.
Pansies, dahlias and roses also are edible. Dahlias are interesting in that flowers and tuber roots are the most edible portions and both taste much the same. I find they remind me of Christmas, with a chestnut flavour. I slice the root thin and use a tartar sauce with it, or a mayo (not a whipped dressing). Pansies, like their wild relatives, the viola, are edible, but, since they are so tiny, impart little taste on their own. Oddly, they have a slight minty taste but are not members of the mint family (which can be identified by its square stem). Roses in the wild or in the garden have both edible flowers and edible leaves.
Too often, we ignore that which is right under our noses as food, which is peculiar, given that one of the primary attractions of flowers is, well, the joy they give to our sense of smell!