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Flower Power at Your Table

This summer, take time to stop and eat the roses.

And not just the roses: Try some pansies, tulips or begonias.

Eating flowers has been in and out of style since the early days of the Roman Empire, when roses, mallows, violets and gladiolus bulbs were part of the feast on the banquet table.

In the 13th century, Moorish recipes called for syrup flavored with rosewater. Nasturtiums, violets and marigolds have been in English salads since the 17th century, and by the Victorian era, violets were being candied and preserved.

Flowers make colorful garnishes for food and drinks. Larger flowers can be stuffed and fried. They all can be added to brighten the look and flavor of salads, chopped and mixed with butter, used in jellies, infused into vinegars, candied for wedding cakes, frozen in ice cubes or molds, and used to scent sugars or add fragrance to baked goods.

Lavender, lilacs, violets, roses and scented geraniums have a fragrant sweetness. Nasturtiums are peppery, and pansies taste a little like grapes.

The squash blossom was one of the first edible flowers to become relatively common in the United States, thanks to the popularity of Mexican and Italian cooking.

Mexicans eat the delicately flavored squash blossoms in quesadillas and in an elegant soup called sopa de flor de calabaza, which actually translates as pumpkin blossom soup. In Italy, the fragile orange-yellow zucchini blossoms -- fiori di zucca -- are fried, often in a beer batter. They are sometimes stuffed with a soft cheese before frying.

Squash blossoms also can be grilled, poached, steamed or eaten raw in salads. Or just brush them with a little olive oil, pop them in the toaster oven, and spread a little goat cheese on them when they're wilted and hot. They are extremely perishable and will only last about a day.

Other flowers, too, can be battered and fried -- elderflowers, apple blossoms, acacia flowers and lilacs. Nasturtium, violets, marigolds and snapdragons give salads color, texture and cheerfulness. Herb flowers such as those from chives, basil, rosemary and dill are also good in salads and cold soups, or to infuse vinegar.

Day-lily buds are one of the most flavorful of all edible blossoms. They have long been part of Chinese cuisine, in which they are added to soups and stir-fries. They are the only flower to eat unopened.

You can't just go to the florist and get a bunch of flowers to munch on the way home, however. You should only eat flowers that are grown organically. Flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers are likely to have been treated with pesticides not used for food crops.

And like mushrooms, some flowers are poisonous. For example, don't eat azaleas, daffodils or oleander. If you have any doubt, consult a reputable reference book or horticulturist. The Internet, too, has many reputable sites listing poisonous flowers. Many farmers markets carry edible flowers, as do some supermarkets and specialty food stores.

For some flowers, such as tulips and chrysanthemums, only the petals are edible. It's also nice to separate large blooms into petals or florets and remove the sometimes-bitter disks from flowers such as marigolds and daisies.

You can, of course, grow your own edible flowers. Just pick them early in the morning but after the dew has dried. Use flowers soon after they're picked or else they may develop a bitter taste. If they don't taste or smell good, don't use them.

Also, remove the pistils and stamens from flowers before eating, since the pollen can affect the flavor as well as cause an allergic reaction in some people.

If your flowers have stems, keep them in water until you use them. Otherwise, swish them in a little water and spread on a damp towel and refrigerate no longer than overnight.

Flowers are a colorful, happy addition to the summer table. It's true that a rose is a rose is a rose. But in some instances, it also can be a very good dinner.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.