Monica Nelson has researched and written over one hundred flower biographies for her new book Edible Flowers: How, Why, and When We Eat Flowers. The portraits of the flowers, photographed by Adrianna Glaviano, are entwined with delightful “Flower Eater” essays, written by contributors for whom flowers, edible and decorative, are part of everyday life. Do you ever hesitate before devouring the pretty pansy adorning your cupcake, that delicate arrangement of overlapping petals with a burst of yellow emerging from its heart? Have you ever considered sprinkling wood sorrel flowers on a pizza? Edible Flowers is a thoughtfully assembled collection of stories and facts that reflect our ongoing relationship with the flowers we use to decorate and flavour dishes. It reminds us of the age-old traditions we uphold when planting, harvesting, and eating flowers across the seasons.
Contemplating her earliest memory of being in nature, or in a garden, Monica describes her impression of the American South, and growing up with a particular awareness of beauty in nature, something specific to the South: “Beauty is very subversive in the South; in a certain way it is used to create sentiment. There is a mythology of the South being very beautiful, but often there is a starkness between the beauty and austerity of this part of the country. I am interested in how something is considered beautiful. For example, edible flowers are decorative and often used in cooking, decoratively, and I wanted to break down the idea of that beauty.”
The book takes inspiration from more than just the flowers. It emerges from the entire network of unified beauty, including the pollinators, the gardens, the recipes, the people, the places, and their stories. Monica reveals “Georgia O’Keefe is someone I think about… as part of a thought process.” And Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness, which displays his experiments with the colour and form of coastal plants and flowers such as sea kale, wild peas, and sea holly, is a great example of cultivating beauty in unlikely places.
In her quest to explore the world of edible flowers Monica has gathered intriguing myths and traced the histories of these ephemeral florae, presenting them together with artists, writers and cooks who grow them and eat them. “For me research comes first, to which I take a holistic approach. I would dig deep into the history of a flower, go as far back as I could and that was what I got really excited about. The place where something was native to, and how it moved around the world was fascinating to me.” Monica’s lyrical and reflective writing allows for the notes on symbolism, history, and diverse cultural perspectives, to emerge as thoughtful and wisely considered. You will find as many references to paintings, poetry, and language as you will find references to flavour, aroma and recipes.
The edible flower garden at Chez Panisse restaurant was established by Alice Waters in 1971, and has inspired other projects initiated by the chef, restaurateur and food activist, such as the Edible Schoolyard Project. Alice Waters has spoken widely on the importance of the [edible] garden as pedagogy: she observes that schools (and governments) invest in gymnasiums and athletics tracks without hesitation, and would like to see the same value afforded to gardens in schools. Monica shares this perspective, noting the progress in big cities like New York, where there are so many green spaces. “Brooklyn Bridge Park, for example, places a focus on bees; all those gardens are designed to bring native pollinators back to the city.” In some urban environments the establishment of kitchen gardens is also specially designed to provide support for community groups, especially for the newly arrived and culturally diverse: they offer a space to be productive, to share knowledge, to eat together, drink mint tea and socialise.
The classification of flowers and plants was something that occupied poet Emily Dickinson and saw her compile Herbarium (ca.1839-1846). Encouraged by friend and fellow schoolmate at Amherst Academy, Abby Wood Bliss, Dickinson pressed and labelled over four hundred flowers and specimens. These rare compendia, considered too fragile to handle today, have been digitised by the Houghton Library at Harvard University where they are held, making it possible to “virtually” turn the leaves of each page. Monica’s unique anthology of edible flowers is an equally compelling read, also providing sage advice on picking flowers; be warned if you pluck a strawberry blossom, you will prevent a strawberry! There are also cautions on the danger of eating some flowers - as beautiful as they appear - not all are edible.
Monica’s brilliant account of “borage” includes various tributes and appearances in tapestries, and its fictional iteration in Homer’s Odyssey where it was used as the “anti-sorrow” drug nepenthe to alleviate Helen’s deep sorrow and grief. The spicy clove-like scent of carnations is revived once more as Monica reminds us of Vita Sackville-West’s affection for the sweet, ruffled flowers, and how “according to Christian symbolism the flower first sprang from the tears of the Virgin Mary as she witnessed the plight of Jesus.” To describe the overwhelming impact of encountering a grove of citrus blossom Monica includes a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770), from John McPhee’s book Oranges (1995):
In the full of spring on the banks of a river —
Two big gardens planted with thousands of orange trees.
Their thick leaves are putting the clouds to shame.
Like a wildflower meadow these inspirational passages are scattered among Adrianna Glaviano’s photographs, so vivid they sometimes appear three dimensional. The form and architecture of the flowers, and their connection to the plant and the garden is rendered tangible. The visual descriptions and pictures complement each other in playfulness and colour.
Seasonality is important to Monica, “I live by the seasons. Savannah [Georgia] is a city that is lush, with a tropical climate. There is always something in bloom, so you always tell time based on what is blooming. When all the azaleas in the middle of one street are in bloom it’s April. Right now it’s winter and all the camellia bushes are in bloom.” When asked about her dream garden Monica says, “I would love to have a food-centred garden, with cut flowers in the mix.” Edible Flowers will guide you through the seasons, there is so much sunshine and warmth in this generous book. You will also find a list of suggested further reading on the topic of edible flowers. It is an almanac of sorts to help you discover the edible beauty in your garden, allotment, or balcony, complete with heartfelt personal recipes.
A Recipe for Candied Violets by Fanny Singer
"My favourite thing to do with candied violets is to rim the edge of a lemon curd tart, giving it a candied violet crown. Candying flowers is one of those things that make an enormous, lasting impression on guests, though is quite easily undertaken."
Line a baking tray with waxed paper. In a medium bowl, whisk 1 large egg white just until frothy. Place 1 cup of superfine sugar in a small bowl. Using tweezers, take one violet at a time by the stem (be certain to use the edible common purple violet, which grows both cultivated and wild), dip it into the egg white, covering all surfaces, give it a tap, then carefully dip it into the sugar, being sure to coat the whole flower.
Place each flower on the prepared baking sheet and use a toothpick or a small knife to coax the flower back into its original shape. Fill in any uncoated patches with a tiny additional sprinkle of sugar. Trim the stems. Allow the flowers to dehydrate in a warm, dry area for 24–36 hours. Once completely dry, store them in an airtight container and keep them for up to 2 months.
Interview by Olivia Meehan.
Recipe extracted from Edible Flowers: How, Why, and When We Eat Flowers by Monica Nelson, which is published by Monacelli Press.
Photographs by Adrianna Glaviano, also from Edible Flowers: How, Why, and When We Eat Flowers.