Valerie O’Connor visits a garden in Limerick and is prompted to add edible flowers to her recipes.
It’s always been said that gardening is good for the soul, therapeutic, and just a really nice thing to do.
I’ve always attributed gardening to being a gentle pastime for later in life, and, like all people, I’m in complete denial that I might be anywhere near ‘later in life’.
However, when the prospect of a Sunday up to my elbows in earth excites me much more than a flooded tent at an over-priced, overrun music festival, I can accept that I’m there.
I spent two years at the height of the recession (the second one I’ve lived through) studying horticulture at the Organic College in Drumcollagher, Co Limerick, under the guidance of the wonderfully eccentric and warm Jim McNamara.
We learned about bees, seeds, soil, composting, and how to slow down and be patient.
If gardening teaches you one thing, it’s that things take time.
The first things I grew at home were edibles, as I eschewed tending flowers as some kind of elderly frivolity that yielded nothing.
This snobbery left me with a dull little garden with depressed looking boxes of seedlings and plenty of slugs who were going wild on my lack of experience.
So I brought some flowers in to attract the bees and now my little yard is almost entirely packed with lilies, daisies of different types, and Montbretia, probably my favourite flower of all with its furious red, flaming flowers.
After the blooms there are lots of herbs to nibble on and of course, the most fun of all plants to grow, courgettes, cucumber, and squashes.
The flowers from squashes can be eaten as they are, or dipped in a light batter and fried, tempura style or stuffed with ricotta as the Italians might fancy, then battered and deep-fried.
You have to respect any nation that comes up with something so wildly decadent from a short-lived yellow blossom.
Edible flowers are highly prized on the chef’s table and nasturtium blooms can be costly out of season so they’re handled with lots of care.
The leaves from this creeping summer flower, give great coverage and can be blitzed in the blender with a light oil to make a delicious nasturium dressing with a vivid green hue, perfect for drizzling over some grilled or barbecued fish.
The peppery leaves and the blooms are high in vitamin C and considered by people in their original home of South America to be a natural antibiotic.
The flowers are very low maintenance; just scatter some seeds in early spring, or press them into the soil where you have spaces in the ground or in pots. They will self seed at the end of the summer, giving you even greater abundance the following year.
You will probably have so many seeds that you can even collect some and pickle or ferment them to make ‘poor man’s capers’, which are great again with fish, fresh or smoked.
A fellow student at Drumcollagher was Maggie Hanley who tends her organic garden at her home in Limerick. Maggie is a living example of how getting soil under your fingers makes you smile.
She is as sunny as the flowers she grows and bursting with energy too. A walk in Maggie’s garden opens up a whole new world of things we can eat, that we probably didn’t know we could.
Calendula or marigolds are in full bloom now and can be picked and eaten as they are, or scattered on a mixed green salad for added colour, they have a mildly sweet flavour.
Calendula is better known for its medicinal properties, hailed as a therapy for muscle spasms including eye twitching when taken as a tea or eaten raw.
A cream from this wonderful plant is widely used to treat nappy rash (available from health food shops) and is much better for your baby as it contains no harmful chemicals.
Calendula flowers also self seed and will grow back every year. You can easily collect the dried seeds from the flower heads and store them or share them with friends.
The borage plant is a real beauty, with thick stems covered in tiny hairs it looks almost luminous. The flowers are the most intoxicating purplish blue hue, with a tiny but proud central stamen.
The whole plant has a scent of cucumber, (it’s a staple in a Pimm’s), and the leaves can be eaten raw in salads.
Make talking points from the ice cubes in your drinks by freezing the flower heads in water in your ice cube trays, or adding them to home-made ice pops. These flowers also look great scattered on a cake covered in a pale cream-cheese frosting. Borage flowers, also known as starflowers are high in vitamin A, which is great for your skin and eyesight.
The allium family is a group of plants we couldn’t live without in the kitchen, imagine a world without onions, garlic, leeks, spring onions or chives. Alliums not only make up the basis of almost every soup, stew, or curry known to humanity, they are also credited with warding off colds and flus and clearing up respiratory infections.
Chives are the more delicate variety of this family, yet they still pack a flavour punch.
The pretty purple flowers are delicious sprinkled over scrambled eggs or smoked salmon and their intensity shouldn’t be under-rated either as they can lift the sweetness of some foie gras and raise it to yet another level.
Feverfew, with its delicate daisy-like white blooms, is regarded as a superb prophylactic for migraines.
Taking three leaves a day can ward off attacks and the flower heads or leaves are available in tablet and tincture form for the treatment of severe headaches. You can also make a tea of the flowers and leaves, but feverfew has a very intense and bitter flavour, so be warned.
Honeysuckle is a divine smelling plant, the clue is in the name and its many medicinal properties include its ability to fight bladder infections when taken as a tea.
A cream made from honeysuckle can relieve rashes and sunburn too. The next time you stroll around your garden, admiring the pretty flowers, be sure to pick a few and sprinkle them on your salad.
As well as a feast for the eyes, you don’t know what gifts you are giving to your health.
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