Tasty or Toxic? Beware of the Trend for Edible Flowers

Watch out for cakes decorated with pretty, but dangerous, flowers - not all are edible


Before sprinkling your food with flowers, make sure they are safe to eat. Picture / 123RF

I am such a sucker for a glossy Instagram foodie picture, I really am. Whether it’s marvelling at avocados sliced into intricate, swirling fans (how does anyone have the patience?) or the “unicorn” smoothies in churned up shades of lurid pink and blue (an instant nostalgia flashback to 1980s cartoons), I find each and every bonkers food fad endlessly fascinating. However, as a botanist, one recent #instatrend is causing me concern: the growing obsession with “edible” flowers that aren’t actually edible.

Once it was just pansies atop cupcakes and rose petals floating in cocktails that popped up as I scrolled though my feed. Now it increasingly seems that in the pursuit of the perfect picture a generation of bright-eyed foodies have been ransacking the flower borders for anything pretty to top their smoothie bowls – even if it is quite toxic.

A five-minute search of the words “edible flowers” drew up, for starters, a cake strewn with pretty narcissi – whose toxic crystals can cause incredibly painful swelling and sores. Such an irritant are these flowers that gatherers of them can come out in severe rashes on their arms and hands. Just imagine the consequences on your guts.

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This was quickly beaten by a smoothie topped with catharanthus, containing acutely toxic alkaloids used in chemotherapy. Then there was a delicious dessert adorned with a pile of rhododendrons, the consumption of which would be life-threateningly toxic. But these were all outshone by chocolate pudding laced with lantana flowers, a frequent cause of death from liver failure in grazing livestock in warmer climes.

This handful of examples was just the tip of the iceberg. Many appeared on blogs that eulogise the evils of sugar, gluten and – gasp – dairy. I can’t help but think, not just as a botanist, but as someone with a keen interest in impressionable kids not getting sick, that Insta-influencers need to be far more responsible with their recommendations. One can only hope they never eat their own creations.

If, like me, you love the glossy food images online and long to capture some of their colourful quirkiness, here is a list to help you out when telling tasty flowers from the toxic.

The blooms in this list are perfectly edible, and the plants are easy to track down as well as super simple to grow. Just be sure you have your ID correct and avoid applying gardening chemicals not intended for edible plants: amaranth; borage; calendula; daisies (bellis); elderflower (sambucus); fuchsias; gardenia; hemerocallis; lavender; nasturtium; primulas; roses; sweet William (dianthus); tagetes, and violets (viola). Be careful with elderflower as the stems are very toxic, and lots of plants look like daisies, so make sure they definitely are the right flowers.

– The Observer

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