I give many tours and talks throughout the year, and it always surprises me that regardless of whether I am talking to beginning gardeners or gardeners with many years of dirt under their nails, many are surprised how many herbs have flowers that are edible.  I admit I didn’t pay much attention to edible flowers for many years until a little old Italian woman at a farmers market told me she never used Italian oregano leaves, only the flowers, for cooking.   She showed me her little jar of dried flowers, and we tasted some, both fresh and dried.  You know, the flowers are delicious, both more robust and sweeter than the leaves.  Most of us don’t chew on oregano leaves because they are very strong flavored, but the flowers have a delicate complexity.  Blooms of many ordinary herbs like thyme, oregano, fennel and sage, and annuals like dill and basil will all impart a slightly gentler and sweeter seasoning than the foliage.

So, the first question I always seem to get has to do with allowing herbs to go to flower.  We have all been trained to remove the flowers of basil to keep the plant in ‘vegetative’ mode, so many gardeners also go through their gardens with scissors in hand, removing the flowers of perennial herbs such as thyme, oregano, sage, mint and chives.   But these flowers serve a number of purposes.  If you stop and watch the flowers for a bit you will notice many visitors to them.  Of course, there are hummingbirds, butterflies and honeybees, all of whom we gladly invite into the gardens.  But also there are many smaller insects that love herbal flowers.  Syrphid flies, for example, look like little yellow striped bees or flies – the adults eat flower pollen and the larval stages eat aphids.   And there are many species of parasitic mini-wasps , the adults eat pollen and they lay their eggs inside of pest eggs, such as aphids, and when they hatch they parasitize the aphid eggs (go to and use the drop down menu under ‘Identify and Manage Pests’ to find the natural enemies gallery for photos and information on these important friends for the garden).  All of these beneficial insects depend on flower pollen for part of their life cycle.  

The rule is ‘If you can eat the leaves, you can eat the flowers’, and this turns out to be very exciting and a new idea for many of us!  So, if you can brush away the birds, bees, butterflies, pollinating insects and beneficials off of your herbal flowers, you can enjoy them fresh out of your garden, added to salads and drinks, and in your cooking and baking.  As with the all herbs, use only plants that have not been sprayed with harmful pesticides.  Most of us grow herbs organically, but many herbal flowers end up in our cutting or perennial  gardens where we may use chemicals.

So, let’s start with some of the obvious herbs.  

Basil is a plant we have a tendency to cut back often to remove the flowers, so why not eat the flowers!  Not just the traditional Genovese variety, but the flowers of lemon, thai and cinnamon basil are excellent.  Toss into veggie salads or sprinkle on top of caprese salad, or use as an edible garnish with pasta and steamed vegetables.  

Chives produce a lovely lavender globe of flowers, which can be used for garnish or flavor.  Try infusing the flowers in a glass jar with white wine vinegar to produce a rosy pink sweet oniony flavored vinegar.  Garlic chives are a white flower, with a mild garlic flavor, that can be used the same way.

Borage is a big happy annual that produces a pretty blue flower.  It is often grown around vegetable gardens because it invites so many pollinators into the garden.  The blue flowers (remove the base of the flower) have a mild cucumber flavor.  Borage is said to make ‘the heart joyful’ – try floating the flowers on top of a bloody Mary for some extra happiness!  

Lavender flowers can be used fresh or dried.  The fresh flower petals are very delicate and sweet flavored, while the ‘bud’ portion has a bit more of a punch.  Try the English lavenders, Lavandula angustifolia, for sweet dishes like ice cream, jelly and cookies.  ‘Hidcote Blue’ is a favorite at Morningsun, but the pinkish white variety ‘Melissa’ is also delicious, as is the dark varieties such as ‘Folgate’, and ‘Big Time Blue’.   The more robust Lavandula x intermedia (lavandins such as ‘Grosso’, ‘Phenomenal’ or ‘Provence’) are used for cooking hearty foods.

Oregano is a flavor more than just a plant, so expect the flowers of the different varieties and species of lavender to vary also.  For the true oreganos such as Italian and Greek, the entire flower head can be chopped up and used.  Just like the leaves, expect the flowers to vary greatly in flavor, with the Italian being very sweet and the Greek being hot and spicy.  Use the flowers as you would the leaves in recipes, or include the flowers as part of your salad mix.  The ornamental oreganos like ‘Kent Beauty’ won’t have much flavor but could still be used for garnish.  

Rosemary flowers most heavily in late winter and early spring, and all of those delicious little blooms can be used for cooking, especially in egg and cheese dishes.

Thyme flowers are so small that they may seem like a lot of work to harvest, but the entire head of blooms can be chopped up and added to recipes without adding any bitterness.

Sage has more than 750 species, and many have delicious and unusual flavors.  Of course, the traditional culinary sage, Salvia officinalis, can be eaten, but my favorite is pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, or even tastier, dwarf pineapple sage, Salvia elegans ‘Honey Melon’, which produces red blooms that are sweet and citrus flavored.  Also interesting is Salvia melissodora, grape scented sage, which produces flowers December through June, that smell and taste like grapes.  Yum!

Fennel and dill both produce big fluffy umbels of blooms in the summer.  Usually we prune these off (don’t, the butterflies love them) or let them go to seed, but both can also be used to flavor vinegar and salad.

Nasturtium produces beautiful flowers of yellow, orange or red with a peppery watercress like flavor.  Try using single blossoms stuffed with small dollops of whipped cream cheese containing finely minced shrimp and some chopped chervil.

Mint….I know, it is a weed, and if you let the flowers go to seed you will have an out of control mint garden, but the flowers are delicious, and if you like adult libations they can be great fun to use as garnishes!   Besides the usual spearmint or peppermint, the flowers from banana mint, Hillary’s sweet lemon mint, and strawberry mint are all unexpectedly delightful

And what about our more unusual herbs?

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) produces fuzzy lavender spikes that impart a sweet anise flavor.  Many other members of this genus are delicious as well, especially Agastache rupestris ‘Apache Sunset’ and Agastache ‘Sunset’, which have the flavor of sweet anise and root beer!  These are fun to add to cooking because they come in a huge range of colors, flavors and sizes, from soft yellow (Agastache ‘Sunrise White’) to bright coral red (Agastache ’ Kudos Red’).  You will have to fight off the hummingbirds for these plants, as they are big nectar producers.

Bee balm, or Monarda didyma, is not widely grown in our gardens, but should be grown wherever there is adequate water, because the flowers are outrageous!!  Big whorls of blooms in shades of pink, purple or red that attract not just honeybees, but hummingbirds galore!  Flowers have a light minty flavor – I especially like the red varieties like  ‘Raspberry Wine’ and ‘Jacob Kline’.  Purple varieties like the dwarf ‘Balmy Purple’ or ‘Blue Stocking’ are butterfly favorites.

Scented geraniums (Pelargonium) are usually grown for the scented foliage, but the flowers can be used for cooking also.  The traditional rose scented geranium has sweet flowers that are scented and flavored lightly of roses.

Roses, of course, are delicious for cooking, so long as they have not been sprayed.   Many of the heirloom roses have a delicate flavor that is excellent for desserts such as ice cream or crème brulee. 

Elderberry (Sambucus)flowers are often thought of as a medicinal herb, but the spring flowers can be used fresh in teas or cordials, makes a lovely and refreshing carbonated drink and can be deep fried as a fritter.

Winter savory and summer savory (Satureja), and many members of the genus, have delicious and spicy white flowers that have a pepper flavor.   They are great for sprinkling over appetizers, with potatoes, or in soups.   Anywhere actually, that you would use pepper.  The closely related Za’atar (Thymbra spicata) has a striking violet bloom that carries a real flavor punch – kind of like oregano, but with some heat and some undertones of thyme and mint.  Very unusual and beautiful in the garden, and on the plate as well!

Chamomile flowers are the portion of the plant used for sleep aid teas, but we don’t often think of using the flowers for cooking.  They have a slight pineapple flavor and are a pretty addition to a salad.  They can also be used to flavor honey, and for desserts.

Learn more about using flowers in tea blends in our upcoming class ‘The Fragrant Tea Garden’ on May 18th at 11 am.  Taught by Morningsun owner Rose Loveall and Homestead Design Collective owner and author Stefani Bittner, this will be interactive hand on class to learn about the properties of our fragrant herbs and flowers.