Yes, you can eat dandelions in your salad, and other edible weeds and flowers, too

Contributing writerAugust 22, 2014 

  • Learn about edible plants

    Get familiar with edible plants by doing a bit of reading. Here are two reference books packed with information about identification and use of edible flowers and commonly found weeds.

    Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, Third Edition. Steven Foster & James A. Duke. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 480pp; $21.

    Released in April, this guide includes findings from scientific research generated over the last 13 years, which Foster says is five times the amount previously available. Over 700 color photographs, sorted by petal color for easy identification, illustrate the distinguishing features of each plant. History and ethnobotanical sections are included for many of the plants home gardeners will encounter. Common as well as botanical names are listed, as are caution symbols for poisonous or irritating features. All this, in a book about the size of a hand.

    Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer's Market with 88 Recipes. Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux. Clarkson Potter; 224 pp; $25

    When Wong brought one of her finds — anise hyssop — to the New York City restaurant Daniel in Manhattan, and asked if it could be incorporated into her dinner, head chef de cuisine Leroux enthusiastically obliged. Thus began an extended collaboration which can be witnessed in this book, as well as on Wong's website, Meadowsandmore.com, where foragers can gain inspiration and insight into exploring what she calls a "botanical smorgasbord."

    Arranged by season, about 70 tasty plants commonly encountered in the field are illustrated, described, and used in tempting recipes.

Chances are, somewhere in your yard there are dozens of plants you've never considered as possibilities for enjoyable eating.

Take a closer look. A few of your beautiful flowers, as well as those beastly weeds, could bring some zing to your daily cuisine. From square-stemmed mints for your juleps to Queen Anne's lace, carrot's wild cousin, you may discover some surprises.

Floral bouquets are great for the table, but some blossoms are tasty, too. Consider a few:

Nasturtium Vibrant. The hot-orange, yellow, and red petals of this annual favorite, easily grown from seed, have a peppery taste, and form a natural canapé-sized pocket which can be stuffed uncooked with a filling like tuna salad.

Borage Delicate. These star-shaped blue flowers can be candied for decorating pastries, or added fresh with small new leaves to green salads for a melon-like flavor.

Anise hyssop. Spikes of this small purple perennial flowers have a strong licorice taste.

Marigold Deep. The yellow ray-petals of pot marigolds are a saffron substitute, as well as colorful sprinkle in salads and atop soups.

Pansy. These little yellow, white and purple spring beauties are sweet floating in a cool drink, or sprinkled on top of a fruit salad. Rose petals also can be used this way.

Bee balm. Glowing purple or red, these tall fragrant flowers have a taste reminiscent of Earl Grey tea.

Garlic chives. In late summer, starburst spheres of tiny white garlic-flavored flowers bloom atop two-foot bulb stalks in patches. Sprinkle them in salads, soups and dips.

Daylily, squash and pumpkin blossoms. Snack on fresh petals; stir-fry or stuff with cheese and batter fry buds for light summer appetizers.

Dandelion, common violet and purslane are weeds that spring up everywhere. Tender young dandelion and violet leaves, as well as their flowers, can be eaten fresh in salads. Lesser known, but easily found, is purslane. Lexington Farmers Market vendor Mark Henkle of Henkle's Herbs and Heirlooms finds that purslane is particularly plentiful this year.

"You walk down tomato rows and it's everywhere," he says. Henkle adds that because it's high in Omega-3 fatty acids, purslane is in demand as a healthy food choice.

Progressive local chefs have a few ideas about using these greens, too.

"I like the bitterness that most 'backyard greens' bring, but there are a few that you should pay closer attention to," says chef John Foster, culinary chair at Sullivan University's Lexington campus.

"One of the best is purslane which has texture, moisture and flavor all tied up in a tidy package. Most greens suffer from wilt once they are harvested; they just don't present enough volume to retain the moisture. Purslane is moderately spicy, reminiscent of rocket or arugula, meaty like watercress, which is another favorite, and hardy enough to stand up to sauté, cream sauces and even a braise," he said.

Chef Mark Jensen, whose Fork in the Road Mobile Galley food truck is renowned for serving innovative and well-crafted cuisine, uses purslane as a fresh component.

"I simply add the leaves near the end, as the dish comes together. Its acidity or sourness and succulent-like texture is a great counterpoint in a dish that is heavier in umami, brine, and/or sweet," he said.

"I find it's best to treat an ingredient less as a garnish and more as an integral component. Let purslane's natural tart qualities add depth to an otherwise unbalanced dish," said Jensen, who is currently renovating space for a restaurant, the Middle Fork Kitchen Bar, at the historic James Pepper Distillery on Manchester Street.

It's best to do some research to ascertain which plants are edible and which are not. Identify carefully, as some plants are poisonous.

Even if a particular plant is edible, you may not like its taste, and as with any food, certain individuals may have allergies to them. Take small bites at first. Avoid eating plants that have had long-lasting pesticide, herbicide and other chemical treatments, and those which may have been contaminated by animal waste or unclean water. Flowers from commercial florists should be avoided unless you know they are untreated.

Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: durisek@aol.com. Blog: Gardening.bloginky.com.

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