Thursday, June 17, 2010

Flower Power

This sixties' slogan, used to express passive resistance, perfectly describes the organic-garden flower. Flowers in these gardens are more than mere eye-candy. Companioned with other plants, they are part of a seemingly innocuous force working diligently to create a holistic environment.

For me, the most delightful things about certain flowers are their culinary prospects! Sweet or spicy, mild or bold flavoured, flowers add colourful zing and exotic flair to any plate. Just be certain the flowers come from a safe environment. Foraging is fine, but don't use plants found along a busy highway where exhaust fumes contaminate them, or city parks where chemical treatments are frequently applied. If you use pesticides or herbicides in the garden, then, for goodness sake, don't eat your daisies!

Some edible flowers have the brilliant ability to repel garden pests, too. Anise Hyssop keeps cabbage moths away, and its flowers add a delicate licorice flavour to dishes. Nasturtiums add vibrant colour and pepper to salads but, in the garden, aphids and squash bugs avoid them. Calendula or marigolds, poster-children for passive pest resistance, repel mosquitoes, moles, tomato horn worms and bean beetles, to name a few. Edible flowers beautify the garden while defending against most garden nibblers...all except the gardener who enjoys their spice and colour on the dinner plate.

Not all flowers are repellent to pests; some just taste good. Alliums lend a mild oniony-garlic flavour to the breakfast scramble. A salad gets a colourful pop and flavourful zing with a few violets or rose petals Edible flowers, whether mild, sweet, peppery, savoury or bitter, take an everyday dish and elevate it to the extraordinary. Some flowers, such as squash blossoms, will even stand up to cooking. Others, like hibiscus blooms, are best when brewed into teas. Many edible flowers are those of the edible herbs, including basil, chervil, cilantro, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, rosemary and sage. These herbal flowers, though tasting similar, are more delicately flavoured than the leaves or seeds.

The paradox of garden flowers is their ability to either attract or repel. Flowers like delphiniums or honeysuckle attract pollinators like hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The poisonous delphinium should never be eaten, but the beautiful creatures they attract are necessary to any natural habitat. Those critters do little to control harmful pests, though. For that purpose there are flowers, such as those in the daisy family, which attract the innocuous ladybug, who then dines on destructive mites and aphids. Asters or black-eyed Susans attract lacewings which gobble aphids and caterpillars. Sunflowers attract insect eating birds. Sweet smelling peonies will attract predators of root-eaters such as grubs. So, by strategically placing certain flowers among vegetables and herbs, gardens can flourish without using pesticides.

The third quality of the flower power trifecta is their nutritional and medicinal properties. The effects of some flowers are subtle, while others can be very potent. For this reason, it's advisable to thoroughly research the flowers you plan to consume to better understand their active properties and applications. Some can be ingested while others are used only topically. Your research may prove surprising: Echinacea is commonly known to have medicinal properties, but did you know day lily tea is also therapeutic? It's surprising the number of common flowers and herbs – and some weeds, too – which have healing and/or soothing qualities. There are even flowers higher in anti-oxidant vitamins (like Vitamin C) than commonly eaten fruits and vegetables.

So liberate your flowers from their ornamental status. Put them to work in your garden and kitchen. Their passive resistance to pests of all stripes will at least reduce or at best eliminate the need for pesticides. Then, while enjoying their floral beauty, you can count your savings, dine on the fruits of their labour, and perhaps even attain healing. Now that's flower power!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Wild Thing, I Think I Love You

Foraging is seasonal eating at its most primal. It's also a gastronomic dividend for hiking the wilderness. Not only can foraging provide fresh foods at their peak, those foods (if sold commercially), sell for premium prices. Fine dining restaurants pay top dollar for morel mushrooms, fresh brook trout, tender ramps, or wild strawberries. So, for the eager forager, a day's hike and exploration can yield culinary gold.

Fishing and/or hunting provide one of the costliest items for many grocery budgets: meat for the table (or freezer.) Licensing and fuel costs can be off-set by the successful enthusiast who brings home a catch of fish, a brace of fowl, or fresh game. But, these activities aren't for everyone.

For those who don't hunt, nor enjoy flaying the water for fish, there are other foods to forage which don't require a gun, rod or license. Wild vegetables like onions, leeks (ramps), dandelions (roots, greens and flowers,) pigweed (also known as Lamb's Quarters), fiddlehead ferns, horseradish and skunk cabbage are all exotic ingredients which bring powerful flavour profiles to the larder. Various berries and nuts grow in different regions, and are available from spring through fall. Mushrooms, too, have a range of seasons and locales, though you'll want to use extreme caution when picking the wild varieties. Know exactly which mushrooms you're picking – if you don't, they're not worth the poisoning risk. Spruce buds, rose-hips, and other herbage and flowers, fresh or dried, can be used in tasty and nutritious teas and tisanes, or as cooking ingredients. Some have medicinal properties so you'll want to carefully research your foraged foods to be sure of their effects. Wild honey and honeycomb are rare and golden treasures, but only for adventurous scavengers who don't suffer anaphylaxis.

Most local governments (provincial, state, and regional) offer informational web-sites on native foods, where they can be legally gathered, how to properly identify them, when they are in season, and what their ideal environs are. Here's a web-site I stumbled upon (Herbal Odyssey) which offers several books by Jim Meuninck on foraging and other related topics, and provides links to comprehensive information on a wide variety of edible plants. Once the research is done, you can mark your calendar with the various scavenging opportunities you've discovered for your area.

So, if you enjoy the wilderness, enjoy getting out into the back country for a hike, try foraging during your next outdoor adventure. Not every scavenging hunt will meet with success, but when you do find forage, you'll bring home some very exclusive culinary delights for your pantry.