Casual Gardener: Petals on the plate

A new book explores the delights of edible flowers...

Jo Facer and Erin Bunting with their twin girls Frida and Forrest. Picture by Sharon Cosgrove

IN gardening there’s usually a distinction between edibles and ornamentals but in a newly-published book a Co Down-based couple have fun blurring that often arbitrary line. The Edible Flower by Jo Facer and Erin Bunting is a book for gardeners and cooks alike, as well as for those who enjoy both.

The pair’s debut includes not only a range of recipes utilising seasonal blooms but also a step-by-step guide on how to grow your key ingredients. There’s also useful tips on collecting flowers from the wild and turning them into gastronomic marvels. From primrose, honey and parsnip cakes to courgette flower tacos, dill flower aquavit, pickled magnolia katsu curry and more, The Edible Flower invites readers to feast, celebrate and entertain with more than 50 recipes for small plates, mains, desserts, snacks and drinks.

Co Down-born Erin met Jo at university in Cambridge. The couple lived in London for the best part of decade before moving to a seven-acre small holding near Hillsborough. While there’s no strict division of labour in the relationship, Jo tends to do the growing, while Erin takes care of the cooking.

“I've always been interested in plants and soil and the intersections in life between nature and humans,” says Jo, “but plunging into growing things full-time has just been fairly recently, since moving to Northern Ireland in 2016.”


Cornflowers of different colours in bloom


So what’s the attraction with edible flowers? “Beauty and joy - on the plate and in the garden,” says Jo succinctly, before Erin adds: “And so much surprising flavour - you can use many edible flowers like herbs in your dishes.” Jo explains that growing edible flowers doesn’t differ that much from raising vegetables.

“I often tell people I don't grow vegetables or edible flowers,” she says. “I just look after the soil, make compost, sow a few seeds and the vegetables grow themselves.”

For beginners, Jo reckons nasturtiums are hard to beat: “The flowers, leaves and seeds are all edible and delicious.

“They are beautiful in the garden and will self-seed profusely so you'll never be short of them again.”

Erin recommends cornflowers: “They are hardy so you don't have to worry about a late frost, they flower for a long time and the more you pick the more flowers you get.

“We grow a whole mix of colours - not just the cerulean blue - though that is my favourite. Pick off the petals and stir through rice of grains or sprinkle over a cake.”

Jo’s favourite both for its display in the garden and for cooking is calendula – AKA pot marigold.

“It’s so easy to grow and it's a jolly orange, daisy-like flower that brings me such joy,” she says.

“The smell of the leaves and flowers are so distinctive. I'm no herbalist but I feel like brushing past the calendula in the garden is doing me good.”

It’s also versatile, she says, with petals added to green salads and soup, or cooked “into or onto breads”.

“The more you pick calendula flowers, the more they will produce, so over the summer we end up eating them by the handful - and my life feels a lot more colourful and joyful,” says Jo.

Erin is more inclusive – “I love them all,” she says before settling on magnolia with its “delicious gingery flavour”.

In terms of the best wildflowers to eat, Jo goes with elderflower and hawthorn, mainstays of Irish hedgerows. Erin opts for wild garlic flowers before professing a love of gorse – though neither feature in the book. "Maybe next time,” she says.

The Edible Flower is out now, published by Laurence King Publishing.