A “country lawn.” That’s how my grandmother always describes the expanse of lush green grass behind my house. Like describing an apartment in a rental ad as a “charming and vintage” instead of “small and old,” calling ours a “country lawn” is polite way of saying there are weeds in our yard, lots of weeds. Bright tufts of yellow dandelions punctuate the landscape, and in the springtime whole patches of yard take on an amethyst hue, so thick is the carpet of wild violets. The clover gets heavy in the summertime, providing hours of entertainment for anyone interested in making clover necklaces or watching the bees bob lazily from flower to flower.
These “weeds” also provide food, not just for pollinating bees, but also for me. Young dandelion leaves and violet blossoms make up one of my favorite spring salads, garnished perhaps with some blossoms from the redbud tree in the front yard. These charming spring wildflowers, as well as many common garden flowers, can also be used to make jelly. Flower petals are steeped in boiling water and left to cool overnight. The following day the “tea” is strained and is then ready to be made into jelly. This tea can also be used to make unique syrups, perfect for creating a signature cocktail or homemade soda.
Once the spring wildflowers really do turn into weeds in the heat of the summer, leaving only deep tap roots and tall fluffy seed heads, flowers from the garden get their turn on the menu. Pansies and violas can be used similarly to wild violets. Nasturtium leaves and blossoms have a peppery flavor, perfect for salads or used to make spicy nasturtium-red pepper jelly, delicious alongside some fresh goat cheese garnished with purple chive blossoms. Sky blue borage flowers have a slight cucumber flavor and are much loved by bees, and chrysanthemum leaves and flowers are widely used in Japanese cuisine. Gladiolus flowers do not have a notable flavor, but they are perfectly safe to eat and look charming on platters or used as small vessels for dip. Marigold petals have an intense, citrusy flavor and work well in salads or as a garnish (the leaves are not good to eat). Velvety, aromatic rose petals are a natural compliment to anything with strawberries, their botanical cousin.
Petals from summer wildflowers like the common orange daylily, cornflowers (also known as bachelor buttons), and red clover have as sweet flavor and are a lovely accent to any summer spread. All parts of the sunflower are edible. The seeds can be sprouted and used as delicious microgreens, the young stalk can be peeled and sautéed or eaten like celery, the roots can be peeled and roasted or fried, and the petals can be used in salads or as a decorative garnish.
It is critical to note that not all flowers are edible. Some, like true lily morning glories, hydrangeas, lily of the valley and foxgloves are extremely toxic. Do not eat any plant if you’re not totally sure what it is, and ask an expert like the folks at University of Illinois Extension Service if you have any questions. Some flowers, like daylily (which are in a different plant family than the toxic true lilies) can act as a diuretic and should be eaten in moderation. Make sure that the flowers you eat or cook with have not been sprayed or treated, and never eat roadside flowers or those purchased from a florist.
2-3 cups loosely packed flower petals, such as violet, rose, sunflower, dandelion or nasturtium. (Be sure to pinch off only the petals and discard the base of the flower, as it can give the jelly a bitter taste.)
Juice of one lemon
2 ½ cups boiling water
1 package of Sure-Jell pectin (you can certainly use a different kind of pectin, but you may need to adjust the recipe method according to the package directions)
3 ½ cups sugar
Sort through the flower petals and rinse them gently under running water to remove any dirt or bugs. Place the flower petals in a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let the flower “tea” steep for at least two hours or overnight.
Prepare a water bath canner and have ready six half-pint jars with new lids and bands.
After the mixture has steeped, strain it through a fine meshed sieve into a nonreactive saucepan and discard the flower solids. Add the lemon juice (this may cause the color of your tea to brighten or change hue). Slowly stir in the pectin and bring to a full rolling boil. Boil for one minute, then add all the sugar at once. Stirring continuously, return to a boil and cook for one minute. Ladle the hot mixture into the clean, hot jars. Wipe the rim of the jars, then place a lid on top and gently screw on the band (do not put it on super tight). Process in the water bath for five minutes, then remove from the water and set out onto a towel to cool overnight. As the jars cool you should hear an occasional “pop” coming from the jars, indicating a good seal has been achieved.
*for rose jelly, add a tablespoon of rose water to the rose petal tea to enhance flavor
**add a ½ tablespoon or so of crushed red pepper flakes to nasturtium jelly for savory kick
Ashley Meyer is a Springfield-based food writer, cook and avid gardener.