- Author: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Maggie Mah
Flowers: they're not just for centerpieces anymore-
If there's a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it's that many of us turned to cooking and gardening to cope with many more hours at home and enforced isolation. With plenty of inspiration from foodie TV shows and Internet sites, we gained expertise and became more adventurous with meal preparation over the long months of lock down. Now, with daily life returning to some new version of normal, we may be spending less time in the kitchen but making everyday food and beverages a bit more special is something we want to keep on doing. Edible flowers, which have been used for centuries and in many different cuisines, are a great way to add color and flavor to all kinds of dishes. It couldn't be simpler and you might even have the ingredients right outside your kitchen door. Getting started is easy, educational and fun.
Safety first: Do your homework
- Not all flowers or all the parts of an otherwise edible flower are safe to eat and some are poisonous and, if ingested, could cause serious illness. Doing a bit of research up front will help you determine which flowers are safe to consume. Edible flowers can also cause problems with your digestive tract if eaten in large amounts.
- A good practice is to grow your own or purchase from a reputable store. Either way, ensure they are grown without pesticides and other chemicals that could be harmful to ingest.
- Don't take a chance on flowers that are growing in the wild or on the side of the road. The plant that appears to be Queen Anne's Lace could actually be the extremely poisonous Wild Hemlock.
Next: A few easy steps
Treat flowers as you would delicate salad greens by submerging gently in a bowl of water. Swish lightly and allow the flowers to drain before spreading out on a dry kitchen towel. Some flowers, such as nasturtiums and pansies can be eaten whole. For others, you may need to remove the petals from the pistils and stamen because these parts are often very bitter. It's fun to do a bit of tasting ahead of time to get to know the flavors of each edible flower and which will work best in a particular dish.
Most edible flowers are best eaten as soon as possible after picking, preferably fresh from your own garden. If you won't be using them right away, wrap the flowers lightly in a damp paper towel and place in the produce section of your refrigerator where they will keep for 2-3 days.
How much to add and at what stage in the preparation process depends on the type of dish, the variety of flower and your own particular preference. In general, tender blossoms are added to cold foods or as a finishing touch to hot dishes while more fibrous varieties (such as lavender) can withstand longer cooking. Edible flowers also tend to be subtler in flavor so using them in combination with milder ingredients will allow their unique qualities to stand out
A bouquet of choices:
There are many varieties of edible flowers you can grow in your own garden and retail options are on the increase. Here are a few for starters:
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) - You can eat the entire brightly colored Nasturtium plant cooked or raw. They are easy to grow on the coast even in the worst clay soil, and they return year after year. The leaves provide a pepper flavor, but the blossoms are milder. The orange, red, or yellow leaves can be used in salads and as garnishes on cakes and pastries.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – Light purple chive blossoms lend a delicate onion flavor in salads, and egg dishes. Garlic chives have white flowers, which are stronger in flavor than the green chive leaves. Sprinkle both over hot baked potatoes with dollops of sour cream.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – Purslane is one of the most common garden weeds in the world, and even though it is frequently pulled and discarded, it has historically been regarded as a valuable edible and medicinal herb. The small leaves, red stems, seeds, and flower buds of Purslane are all edible. It has a slight salty and sour taste similar to spinach or sorrel and can be used in salads and sandwiches.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) - The small, daisy-like flowers grace gardens during spring and summer growing seasons along the coast. Historically, chamomile has been known for it's curative qualities, and many drink Chamomile tea to relax. The leaves and flowers are safe to eat, but use care if you are allergic to ragweed. The bright yellow centers have a mild, apple-like flavor.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – Often called “poor man's saffron,” calendula has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes and in culinary dishes. The daisy-like orange and yellow flowers have a complex spicy flavor while the leaves are rather bitter. The petals are often used in teas and syrups, added to salads or used as a garnish or seasoning.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) – Anise Hyssop has a mild licorice flavor and can be used in salads, cold soups, with fresh fruit and in cold drinks. It is a great pollinator plant for both bees and Anise Swallowtail butterflies!
Borage (Borago officinalis) - Blue star-shaped borage flowers produce showy blooms for many dishes. They have a sweet, mild flavor similar to cucumber. The flowers and leaves are edible and are a nice addition to cold sandwiches, salads and drinks.
Pansies (Viola V. x wittrockiana) - Due to their many color combinations, pansies are a popular choice for adding visual appeal. They have a mild, fresh flavor with subtle wintergreen notes and are often used as dramatic toppings for cakes and other desserts as well as a contemporary garnish for drinks in place of the old standby umbrella.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) - When sunflowers are first budding, they taste like artichokes. When in full flower, you can pull the leaves off to provide a yellow pop of color in salads and other dishes. Humans and birds love the seeds!
Man has been experimenting with and eating flowers for as long as we have been eating berries. The varieties and uses listed above are just a tiny sample of what we have to choose from. As you explore the world of edible flowers, be sure to check for plants that might cause allergic reactions or cause other health issues before adding these colorful delights to your dishes. Enjoy and bon appétit!
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener experimenting with all types of edibles that can be grown on the coast. This article was edited by UC Master Gardener Maggie Mah.
- Author: Stephanie Erskine
- Editor: Maggie Mah
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
What is a Pollinator?
Bees are famous for spreading pollen from flower to flower but just about anything that helps distribute pollen from one plant to another can be called a “pollinator.” The list of pollinators includes wind, birds, beetles, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and even humans!
Why do we need pollinators?
Imagine a world without chocolate, blueberries, or coffee—unthinkable, right? But that's what would happen if pollinators disappeared. Without pollinators, many flowering plants would not be able to reproduce. In fact, 75% of the world's flowering plants rely on pollinators. A vast majority of the fruit, vegetable, nut and seed crops grown around the world for human consumption depend on pollinators. Unfortunately, bees and other pollinators are having a hard time maintaining their populations due to disease, parasites, loss of habitat and other factors.
What is pollination? It really is about the birds and the bees
Pollination occurs when pollen grains from the male part of one flower (the “anther”) are transferred to the female part (the “stigma”) of another flower. Pollination sets off a chain of events that leads to fertilization and ultimately, to the production of seeds, which enable the plant to reproduce and/or to form fruits, vegetables and other edibles.
Hummingbirds, those colorful, ethereal garden visitors, also have a practical side: they are very good pollinators and are even referred to by some as “feathered bees.” As they flit here and there searching for nectar, the pollen inside the bloom attaches to the bird's feathers and long, slender bill. The hummingbird then transports the pollen to the next flower, repeating the process with each plant it visits. Pollen also gathers on the legs of beetles, bees and other insects. As they go about their business, pollen is distributed from plant to plant, helping to create genetic diversity and a healthier ecosystem.
Our unique and important pollinator habitat
We, along with our pollinators, live in an area known as “The California Floristic Province,” one of only five areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate, which is characterized by warm, dry summers and relatively mild winters. The area adjacent to the Pacific Ocean is called the California Coastal Chaparral Forest and Shrub Province. Our hospitable year round climate supports a wide range of diverse ecosystems and many endemic species of plants and animals. Thanks in large part to hard working pollinators, the California Floristic Province also generates half of all the agricultural products used by U.S. consumers. Despite this abundance, the entire California Floristic Province has been designated a biodiversity “hot spot” due to the number of species that are lost or threatened with extinction from loss of habitat, pollution, pesticides and other impacts caused by human activities. Pollinators help to preserve biodiversity but they could use some help.
How you can help your local pollinators:
- Select a wide variety of plants that will flower in overlapping waves from February/early spring to October/late fall to provide food sources for much of the year.
- Guide pollinators to your garden by planting in groups rather than single plants spaced farther apart.
- Bees and other pollinators like to visit flowers in the sun so use the shady areas of your garden for plants that are less attractive to pollinators.
- Provide a source of clean water, preferably shallow or with a place for pollinators to land and drink without drowning. A few rocks or a “bee raft” made by connecting 5 or 6 wine bottle corks with a bamboo skewer will turn any vessel into a pollinator-friendly drinking spot.
What plants attract pollinators?
Plants that are native to the Bay Area, especially those plants that are native to the particular climate zone of your area, are well suited to our local soil and rainfall amounts. There are also plenty of non-native plants to choose from including a number of plants that do well in containers. Get started, and enjoy your pollinator garden!
Aster (Aster) Native and non-native perennial - Excellent nectar plant
Beard Tongue (Penstemon) native perennial
Bee Balm (Bergamot) non-native perennial
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia) perennial
Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyirchium bellum) native grass
Borage (Borage officinalis) herb
California Fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) native perennial
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) native annual
California Buckwheat (Erigonium) native perennial, important nectar plant for butterflies, bees, and other insects
California Wild Lilac (Ceanothus) native perennial – all bees love this plant.
Catmint (Nepeta faassenii) herb
Cosmos (Cosmos Bipinnatus) annual
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) native shrub
Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) native perennial
Fennel (Foeniclum vulgare)
Lantana (Lantana) non-native perennial
Lavender (Lavandula) non-native perennial
Red Flowering Current (Ribes Sanguineum) native shrub
Salvia (Salvia) native and nonnative perennial
Stephanie Erskine is a UC Master Gardener who enjoys habitat and permaculture gardening, and hiking the coastal trails. This article was edited by UC Master Gardeners Maggie Mah and Cynthia Nations.
- Author: Marvin Goodman
- Author: Judith Dean
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
It's spring and time to be thinking about what you're going to plant in your spring/summer garden. For most of us who like to garden, deciding what to plant focuses on what we hope to harvest, prepare, and eventually serve as part of our home cooked meals. It's so much fun to dream about the bountiful garden we'll have with lots of beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce.
This year, University of California Master Gardeners of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties would like to encourage you to think about something additional as you're dreaming about and planning your garden. Think about your neighbors – the ones you know, as well as the ones you've yet to meet. Think about the pleasure of helping to put some of those dream tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce on their plates as well as yours.
Many of our neighbors don't have gardens, and in too many cases, don't have enough food to feed themselves and their families. Whether you see it or not, hunger is a daily reality for too many people in our communities, especially as we reflect on the impact of the pandemic and its economic fallout. It is a crisis that continues.
Starting this year, our gardens can and will make an impact. They'll do this if enough of us decide to participate in the UC Master Gardener initiative, Harvest for Neighbors. This program seeks to build on the long-standing tradition of gardeners sharing their harvest with others. It is a people-helping-people program to assist in feeding the hungry in our own communities.
One of our goals for this program is to encourage our neighbors who have gardens, to plant one extra row in their gardens, and to harvest those extra fruits and vegetables and provide them to local food pantries. Another goal is to encourage groups of people to participate in this effort together. (i.e. garden clubs, youth groups, seniors, schools, community gardens and faith organizations)
Join us and help make this effort successful. We, UC Master Gardeners, will help and support you. Our mission is to help people garden more sustainably and successfully. To make sure that happens, we are going to be liaisons to garden groups. To support you in this effort, you'll have access to all our UC Master Gardener public talks and website resources, and garden groups will each get their own mentor. We'll support you so you can grow extra, and together we will impact hunger and food insecurity in the Bay Area. We can put you in touch with food pantries that welcome home-grown food in your area.
Here's how you can get involved:
• If you want to organize your organization or friends to become a growing group, we'll share with you what other groups are already doing. Please RSVP to UC Master Gardeners: Marvin Goodman and/or Judith Dean.
And, if you want to get a head start, this is the link to the Master Gardener Program of San Mateo and San Francisco counties: http://smsf-mastergardeners.ucanr.edu. You will find classes and information that will help you get ready to expand your garden for yourself and for your neighbors in need.
Marvin Goodman and Judith Dean are UC Master Gardeners who continuously learn and develop their gardening skills and share their knowledge with others. The article was edited by UC Master Gardeners Susan Kornfeld and Cynthia Nations.
- Author: Cynthia Nations
- Editor: Susan Kornfeld
Are you looking for a showy, drought tolerant plant that blooms profusely and attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators? You might like to try Aloes! They range in size from six-inch houseplants to tall trees. In the past, people mostly grew small aloes indoors for their medicinal properties. Now there are more than 500 popular species and cultivars to choose from, many of which grow wonderfully in our mild coastal winters.
Aloes should be planted in containers or in fast-draining soils. You can use a ready-made succulent mix from a garden center or else mix two parts sand, two parts gardening soil, and one part pumice. Be careful with watering. Aloes store water in their leaves, stems, or roots and therefore need very little water to survive. Too much can harm them.
Some people think succulents don't need fertilizer, but to keep them healthy, strong, and beautiful, provide nutrients in the fall (before it rains) and in the spring (before new growth). Appropriate fertilizing includes a light feeding of compost tea, diluted fish emulsion, or a balanced fertilizer (15-15-15). Be sure to dilute concentrated liquid fertilizers half and half with water.
Great Aloes for the Coast
The Fan Aloe (Aloe plicatilis) blooms in winter with bright orange tubular flowers held on unbranched purple flower stems rising above its distinctive fan-shaped leaves. Plant it in full sun on the coast either in the ground or a large container. It's a slow grower, reaching 4-8 feet tall and wide. The foliage falls off with age revealing its smooth gray bark and stout contorted truck.
Beautiful spikes of the Torch Aloe (Aloe arborescens) light up our neighborhoods, parks, and highways. They grow quickly in the sun and are identified by their orange to bright red winter blooms. Thick clusters of this sturdy Aloe can reach to 8 feet tall and wide. Its lightly-toothed leaves are narrow and dark green. After it has established its roots, it thrives on natural rainfall. Best yet, this beauty is known for its superior medicinal qualities.
Also known for medicinal qualities is Aloe Vera (Aloe Barbadensis), an aloe that grows like a bush without a central trunk. Although it can reach 3 feet tall and wide, indoor plants are much smaller. This aloe prefers bright, indirect sunlight. Its light-green leaves will turn yellow if exposed to the sun. A spring bloomer, its inflorescence can blossom into yellow, orange, pink, or red flowers. Aloe Vera gel is used topically but should not be ingested.
The Tree Aloe (Aloe barberae or Aloe bainesii) is a fast-growing and long-lived 20–30-foot tree. It sports a massive trunk, multiple thick branches, and a high rounded crown that forms an interesting variety of shapes and sizes. Winter blooms in varying shades of pink are held high above the dark-green foliage. It enjoys full sun and is becoming popular in drought-tolerant landscaping.
I have to mention my favorite, the rare and sought-after Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla). Its gray-green leaves radiate in a perfect spiral, and its summer inflorescence grows about one foot high with orange or salmon flowers. This Aloe does not create offshoots so only regenerates by seed. Make sure it has good drainage, more water than other Aloes, and sun/part shade on the coast.
Aloes thrive in our area and are appreciated for their patterns, textured leaves, and amazing silhouettes in the garden. Have fun discovering the many species and cultivars available for your garden!
Cynthia Nations is a UC Master Gardener who has several species of Aloes in her garden. Susan Kornfeld is a UC Master Gardener who enjoys working as a fine gardener in the Bay Area.
- Author: Susan Kornfeld
- Editor: Cynthia Nations
Boxwood. You see it all over – and for good reason. They are oh so versatile, easy to prune and shape, and a lovely bright green. They've been a mainstay of residential and commercial landscapes for as long as I can remember. They are, however, slow-growing, rather fussy about soil, and are susceptible to root rot, branch cankers, and blight. They also need regular water. Let me propose Coyote bush, Baccharis pilularis as a great alternative. Although this sturdy native is typically overlooked, savvy gardeners are discovering it can do most anything boxwood can do and with none of its drawbacks.
First, its landscape usefulness: Coyote bush comes in a variety of sizes, from low and sprawling to rounded to an imposingly large shrub. And while it might look rangy in the wild, it responds well to pruning – like boxwood. A small variety forms an undulating carpet, another can be shaped as a specimen – even topiary, and others placed as privacy screens and hedges. A bit of shearing keeps coyote bush lush and full. If need be, you can hack it to the ground and it will grow back beautifully.
Best of all, it provides terrific habitat in your garden. It's an important and popular source of nectar for bees and butterflies, but even more importantly, it provides food for over a hundred native insect species – which are very important for nesting birds. Many of these insects prey on the aphids, mites and whiteflies that damage other plants in the garden. Coyote bush blooms in fall, making it a critical source of nutrients for over-wintering insects.
Second, Coyote bush doesn't need to be babied. Once established, it needs no supplemental water. It can, however, tolerate moderate summer water so no need to reconfigure your irrigation. Nor is it picky about where you plant it, growing happily in loose, sandy soil or slow-draining clay; in full sun or in partial or light shade.
Third, it's a resistant survivor. Waxy coating on its leaves retards water loss, while resinous oils on the leaves repel deer. The leaves also contain a high concentration of fire-retardant organic compounds, so low-growing coyote bush can be a good choice in fire-safe landscaping. If it does burn, coyote
bush will often re-sprout from the root crown.
The most popular coyote bush in our area is B. pilularis 'Pigeon Point' – a dwarf clone cultivar whose progenitor was reportedly discovered just south of Half Moon Bay. It mounds from one to three feet and quickly spreads out eight to ten feet wide. It only takes a couple of years to fill in, much faster than the prostrate ceanothus or Manzanita varieties that might otherwise be selected.
Another popular subspecies is B. pilularis consanguinea which grows three to six feet tall and is attractive along fence lines or pruned as a hedge or verdant specimen plant. As a specimen, its rounded form should be periodically pruned to keep it full and not leggy. Consanguinea matures in a year or two, so are great plants to begin site restoration.
Whichever coyote bush you choose, hosing it off every couple of weeks in the summer will keep it looking its green and shiny best.
Male coyote plants are typically used in landscaping (Pigeon Point plants are all males), as the fluffy white flowers on the female can create unwanted volunteers. Some people like the fluffy flowers, others find them rather boring but, if you want to grow your own bird seed, plant females.
So, if you have some boxwood you're looking to swap out or a bare spot with a half-day or more of sun that needs some cheery green, plant Coyote!
Susan Kornfeld is a UC Master Gardener who works as a fine gardener in the Bay Area. The article was edited by Cynthia Nations, a UC Master Gardener.