Fitting wildflowers in your food

Photo by Yelena Kisler – This fresh summer salad includes wild orange daylily flowers for a pop of color and delicate flavor. Many parts of this wild, invasive plant are edible and delicious.
Yelena Kisler
Staff Writer

Early area settlers knew it, and so did Native American tribes before them, this area is rich with food sources, including many plants. Every local has their favorite spot to find blackberries in the summer and leeks in the winter. But did you know there are also a number of edible flowers that might be growing right next to your house?
Most of us don't think to include flowers in the meals we prepare, but they can add a pop of color and flavor to an otherwise boring salad, or a plain cake.
One of the most common, and overlooked flowers is the dandelion. Every portion of the plant is edible, and the flowers, while still in the yellow stage, can add a nice bit of color to a spring salad.
Mallow and wild radishes, which can both be found in disturbed areas, can also add a nice bit of color and flavor to a dish when eaten raw. The wild radish has a spicy kick to its flavor.
Area native and horticultural expert based out of UC Davis in California, Rachel Spaeth, said disturbed areas are "usually road cuts or other places that are frequently agitated by humans."
Another widespread flower is the orange daylily which can be found in many spring ditches throughout the area and is often mistaken for a tiger lily. Both flowers are part of the Hemerocallis family and are not true lilies. Their flower petals can be added to a salad, or to decorate the top of a cake or pie while fresh. They can also be dried and added to clear broth soups.
Spaeth cautioned to beware when foraging for lilies.
"Avoid Asiatic lilies, as those are toxic," she said. "Tiger lilies grow in clumps that look like bunch grasses. Asiatic lilies have stems with leaves on the flower stalk."
DCNR lists orange daylilies in their invasive species watch list noting that, "infestations often occur near plantings and at old home sites. Habitats commonly invaded include meadows, forests, floodplains, ditches and forest edges."
Like daylilies, many parts of wild radishes and dandelions can be eaten. Roots can be made into tea, leaves, and stalks can be sautéed or added to salad when young. But in the cases of all these plants, it is best to have an idea of the health quality of their soil.
“[Wild radishes] will sequester toxic minerals if it's growing in submarginal soil," said Spaeth. She added that this goes for the majority of wild plants with edible roots and leaves.
"If you're not eating an actual fruit, you might want to be careful if it is in an area where there might have been led or something like that. These types of [toxins], can get taken up into the body of the plant, but it is not usually stored in fruit," Spaeth said.
While one should always be careful while foraging for wild foods, don't let these warnings deter you from giving some of these flowers a try as there are many ways to enjoy them.
In a 2013 article, Mother Earth News suggested trying other parts of the daylily.
"In early spring, harvest the shoots when they first emerge and are completely tender," the article stated. "Chop them up and use them in stir-fries or pasta."
The article also suggested trying the flower buds before they open, "harvested while they are still green and firm, these can be steamed, boiled, or stir-fried. They also make great pickles."
One native flower that was a favorite of a number of Native American tribes is the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia, V. papilionacea). Violets will add a burst of blue to your dish and can be found in shaded areas in early spring and all Viola species have edible leaves and flowers.
A 2014 Mother Earth News article suggests sautéing the leaves similar to how you would with spinach. As for the flowers, "in addition to sprinkling them fresh on salads and using them as colorful garnishes, violets may be candied and made into syrup," the article stated.
So get out there and add some color to your next summer salad with one of these tasty wildflowers.