It’s said that we “eat with our eyes”, and the current floral abundance being served up by restaurants, across a variety of dishes, drinks and desserts, would certainly feed into that idea. Edible flowers aren’t a new idea, but they’re enjoying something of a resurgence.
These pretty florals are a gift to foodie Instagram accounts. The healthy-food blogger and founder of Secret Squirrel Food, Karen McLean, loves using edible flowers to garnish the salads, yogurts and smoothie bowls presented in her food posts, because they “add a wow factor to any dish”. Her favourites are pansies.
Anyone can spruce up a hand-cooked meal, particularly when it comes to salads and garnishes, using readily available blooms. We spoke to Carol Hyland, the founder of Little Leaves, a small-scale edible-flower and microgreens grower, to get her top tips for growing edible flowers.
Hyland likes to describe her small business as a “hobby gone mad”, and it’s certainly the epitome of a cottage industry. Her plants are grown in the garden of her Fujairah home, and she drives to Dubai a couple of times a week during the season to make deliveries to a few local chefs, the Ripe Market and Lootah Premium Foods.
Growing edible flowers is a “pure indulgence”, Hyland says; getting up at 7am to harvest an assortment of pretty blooms and arrange them into punnets is something that “she would do for nothing”.
Read more: 10 popular edible flowers to try
A graphic artist by profession, Hyland came to the UAE after graduating from art college in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s. This probably accounts for some of the aesthetic pleasure she derives from working with these tiny plants.
“Plants need just three things to grow: light, water and love. There’s no such thing as green fingers. It’s just a matter of being interested enough to get the balance of these three things right,” she stresses. “All flowers have their preferences. Nasturtium, for instance, generally don’t like rich soils, and they don’t like to flower unless the temperature has dipped below 15°C for at least a few days.”
While the local growing season is almost at an end, now is a good time to start thinking about what you might like to grow after the heat subsides – and to perhaps look for seed options if you’re travelling overseas in the next few months.
Seed viability varies. Some are seemingly indestructible – tomato seeds, for example, can go through the gut of a farm animal and still produce tomatoes. But others have a very short shelf life. Generally, if you buy seed that’s produced in the same year that you plant, you’re fairly safe.
Keep opened seed packets in the fridge to preserve freshness if you’re not planting out in one session – this will extend their shelf life. The supermarket chain Carrefour has a good selection of seeds – look out for its Italian Franchi series.
Hyland uses the Desert Group’s potting soil as a base for her flowers, but any good potting soil mixed with a little red sand will do the job.
She also sometimes mixes in a little cow manure. “When you rub the soil between your hands and brush it off, there should be no damp, slightly muddy residue,” she observes.
Read more: Two floral recipes to try
Seeds can be planted into the pots that they will ultimately grow in, or directly into the ground (dig through a little organic material), but don’t place plants outside until the weather is cool enough, or your fledglings will wither and die. If you have a sheltered area or space indoors, you can get a head start on the season, but be aware that you’re probably not going to get anything outside until October.
A group of plants and pots will create its own microclimate, to a certain extent, but keep track of when they get the midday sun, and perhaps put up a little light shade netting if they’re getting fried.
Key dos and don’ts to help your edible flowers grow:
• Do check dates on the seed packs you purchase, and try to buy from reputable sources. Sadly, not all seed varieties have a shelf life beyond a year, and seeds may not germinate if they’re past their sell-by date. Alternatively, collect seeds from friends who have plants.
• Do use large unglazed pots where possible. They will retain water better, and terracotta helps to keep roots and soil cool.
• Do feel free to experiment and mix different flowers in your pots for a blended meadow look.
• Do aim for a carpet of flowers that completely covers the soil. You can opt for individual colours or species, or mix them. It isn’t necessary to widely space the plants – the look should be naturalistic.
• Don’t be tempted to eat any flower you find on the roadside, or elsewhere, if you don’t know its provenance or whether it has been grown commercially. It’s unlikely that it will have been cultivated for human consumption, and it may have been sprayed with pesticides.
• Do strip down your plant to a little stub when you plant it (removing flowers and leaves). If you have bought small plants from a nursery or garden centre, and they have an unknown or non-organic source, strip the plant down to a little stub when you plant it (removing flowers and leaves). The new growth should be free from chemical residue.
• Do deadhead your flowers to stimulate new growth. When fading blooms are removed, plants will redirect their energy towards developing fresh flowers, which ensures you have a good display and a ready stock across the season.
• Do allow some of your herbs (mint, basil, rocket, coriander, etc) to go to seed – the flowers produced are also flavoursome and attractive, and can be used in dishes and garnishes.
• Do experiment with microgreens in shallow trays. While technically not flowers, they can be used for garnishes. Try coriander shoots – they’re pretty and delicious – as well as mustard and beetroot. Expect results within a few days for some types of plants. Sprinkle seeds over a shallow layer of soil. Once sprouted, use scissors to snip off the top.
• Do feed your flowers with organic fertiliser across the season to optimise flower growth, or seek organic products designed for vegetables at garden centres.
• Don’t assume that because a plant produces edible vegetables or fruit, that its flowers are edible, too. Plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers have highly toxic leaves and flowers.
• Don’t be tempted to ingest any flower or leaf if you’re uncertain of its provenance or species. Look at combinations of flowers, formation of petals and leaves for correct identification. If you’re growing your own, check proper botanical names of plants on seed packets to be sure – don’t rely on the plant’s common name, because these can vary from place to place. The botanical name is an international identifier.
Source: art & life