By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Did you know that certain flowers can reduce varicose veins, lower blood pressure and reduce swelling caused by fluid build up? Yes, flowers are not just feasts for the eyes --- they are feasts for your health also.
Using edible flowers in cooking has been traced back to Roman times and cultures as diverse as the Chinese and Indian populations have traditionally garnished food with flowers and cooked with petals and blossoms.
Today the trend for adding a flowery touch to your food is in vogue - many chefs garnish ice cream, toss salads, make tea, and blend pasta with florals. Flowers in your food may look pretty and can taste great but do they also have health benefits? Can that flower garnish help ward off disease or treat health conditions?
How to Eat Edible Flowers
Flowers are hugely versatile when it comes to adding flavor and a touch of class to your food. Eat only the petals of the flower and discard any stems and leaves. Use edible flowers in salads, as a topping for cakes or ice cream, in homemade pasta dishes, or made into syrups or sauces for cocktails and smoothies. You can also freeze whole small petals into ice cubes and add to drinks for a decorative touch.
Edible Flowers: Dos and Don'ts
Using flowers in cooking is an ideal way to flavor dishes and add a splash of color but amateur chefs need to be careful their floral dishes bring health benefits and not health dangers. Remember that not every flower is edible - some flowers can make you sick. Consult a reference book if you are unsure which flowers are edible. Here are a few tips to observe before you start to munch on that bunch of pretties.
If you are growing flowers in the garden for food purposes never use any chemicals or pesticides on the plants. If you buy flowers for cookery make sure they are specifically for eating and haven't been grown in a way that could be potentially damaging to your health.
Wash flowers thoroughly before eating and don't pick flowers growing by the roadside and put them in your pasta. Use a small amount of each flower because eating large amounts of any blossom can cause stomach complaints. Too much of a good thing, too quickly, can be bad for your digestion.
We've looked at 10 commonly used edible flowers to see how they can benefit your health in ways as diverse as lowering blood pressure and reducing fluid retention. Take a look at the scientific evidence for edible flower health benefits.
1. Calendula for Inflamed Skin and Wounds
Calendula, or marigold, commonly helps your health when it is used in a cream but you can also use this flower in cookery where it is believed to impart certain health benefits.
The marigold flower is bright orange and can be added to the top of pasta and rice dishes plus soups for impact and flavor. The petals also add color to spreads and scrambled eggs. Marigolds taste peppery and bitter and a little like the more expensive herb saffron.
According to the book "Rational Phytotherapy: A Physicians' Guide to Herbal Medicine" by V Schulz and R Hansel certain volatile oils in the marigold plant acting in harmony with components called xanthophylls may be responsible for the plant's skin-healing and anti-inflammatory properties, although experts are not completely certain.
2. Clover for Varicose Veins
Red and white clover blossoms have traditionally been used to counter the effects of gout and rheumatism and Native Americans used clover flowers for coughs and colds.
Modern use of the compounds in clover may help cure venous insufficiency, a condition that closely resembles varicose veins, according to Germany's Commission E ("The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines" by M Blumenthal, ed.) Clover is also used to treat hemorrhoids when combined with other bioflavonoids such as oxerutin.
Choose the brightest clover flowers and avoid those that are turning brown as they will be too bitter. Sprinkle the flowers in salads or use in a tea.
3. Dandelion Helps Relieve Fluid Retention
Dandelions are a member of the daisy family and the flowers have a honey-like flavor which work well raw or steamed. Scatter dandelion petals over rice dishes or use them in pickles.
You can also make dandelion wine. Dandelion leaves are also edible and add nutritious benefits to salads including a mild diuretic effect according to a 1974 study by Racz-Kotilla E, Racz G, and Solomon A entitled "The action of Taraxacum officinale extracts on the body weight and diureses of laboratory animals."
Some scientists claim dandelions are therefore useful for treating people with mild fluid retention due to premenstrual syndrome.
4. Elderberry Strengthens the Immune System?
Elderberry blossoms are an attractive creamy color and have a distinctive perfumed taste.
Once you've used the flowers to decorate cakes and desserts you can use the berries to make wine.
But be careful --- uncooked berries can cause stomach upsets. According to a 2001 study from Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel a mixture of elderberry, Echinacea and bee propolis is used effectively as a cold and flu remedy because it helps stimulate the immune system.
Evidence is lacking on this count, however, and it is not clear that the flowers are the most nutritious part of the plant.
5. Dandelion Flowers Treat Liver Problems
Golden dandelion flowers are also used to treat liver and gallbladder problems. According to traditional uses, dandelion is a liver tonic and helps conditions caused by a poorly functioning liver such as headaches, constipation, skin problems, and gout.
This traditional use for dandelions led the authors of "The Healing Power of Herbs: The Enlightened Person's Guide to the Wonders of Medicinal Plants" (Murray MT) to conclude that dandelion helps detoxify the liver.
Some studies, such as a 1999 study from Lymphoedema Association of Australia, Henry Thomas Laboratory, University of Adelaide, claim these substances can help treat various forms of edema although it is not clear whether the actual clover flowers are as beneficial as these isolated components in synthetic form.
7. Sorrel Helps Treat Sinusitis
Garden sorrel flowers are slightly bitter and taste of lemon so you can use them where you would use lemons - in sauces, as a salad dressing, or as a salad topping. In a 2006 study from the Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland a combination of sorrel, primrose, elderberry, gentian root, and vervain effectively treated the symptoms of sinusitis when tested on 300 people. (Read more about natural remedies for allergies caused by tree pollen and grass pollen.)
8. Hibiscus Flowers Lower Blood Pressure?
The flowers of the hibiscus plant taste a little like cranberries and are slightly acidic. Use a few of the flowers in a salad or as a garnish.
The flowers can also be used for making tea with an exotic flavor. In the past people ate hibiscus to treat digestive complaints, as well as fever and anxiety.
Recent studies suggest that hibiscus could have a blood pressure lowering effect. In particular, animal studies including a 1999 report from the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Nigeria and a 1999 study from the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria prompted recent human studies but there are difficulties with drawing firm conclusions based on the existing study data.
9. Eat Nasturtiums to Prevent Bladder Infection
These bright and cheerful flowers come in a range of colors and are therefore suitable for adorning salads, cheese platters, sandwiches and appetizers. The blooms taste peppery and spicy - a little like watercress.
What's more, nasturtiums could help sufferers prevent bladder infections. A 2007 study from Mediconomics GmbH, Hannover, Germany tested a combination therapy of nasturtium and horseradish and discovered that the treatment helped prevent new bladder infections in people who suffered the condition frequently.
10. Do Linden Flowers Lower Anxiety?
The linden plant has small, whitish-yellow flowers that have a delicate scent and taste a little like honey.
Use linden flowers in cocktails, or as a treatment for anxiety. According to a 1994 study from Instituto de Biología Celular, Facultad de Medicina, Paraguay, Buenos Aires, Argentina the linden flower has a sedative and anti-anxiety effect.
A 2001 study from the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Coimbra, Portugal found different results, leading researchers to wonder if the linden flower is indeed helpful for anxiety conditions.
And there you have it. Evidence is mounting that flowers are not just little pretty things. Some of these little pretty things pack a powerful punch for your health.