At first, the concept of eating flowers may seem somewhat unusual, but if you have ever had broccoli or cauliflower then you’ve eaten flowers! Humans have been eating flowers for millennia, in many different cultures and in some truly tasty dishes. Desert peoples are no exception. They found many ways to use the desert plants around them.
Ocotillo blooms are delightful. Pluck them from the plant and sip the sweet nectar from the base. You can then chew on the whole flower, a very mild somewhat rose-like floral flavor. (Rose petals and rose water have long been used in European cuisine.) I add fresh ocotillo blooms to green salads - a handful adds a bright splash of color. I add them to cake batter for a glimmer of color and mild floral note. A popular and easy way to enjoy ocotillo blooms is as ocotillo ice tea. Dry the ocotillo flowers on a flat screen or in a terra cotta saucer. Use one teaspoon dried blooms per cup of water for a delectable, lightly flavored “herbal” ice tea. No need to add sugar.
Desert willow trees also provide blooms for a tasty herbal tea. Select blooms in the prime of growth. Once they start to fade, they become bitter. I dry them for later use. Come to think of it, I have never tried them fresh. Something to try this spring.
One of my favorite tea flowers belongs to the genus I did my dissertation on, Tagetes. The local member of the genus is the Mount Lemmon Marigold (Tagetes lemmoni), still in bloom in many yards in the area. Harvest the blooms and use them fresh, tossing the petals in salad or dry them for future use as a tea. They have a mild anise-like flavor.
Barrel cactus petals. Cut just the petals off the flower, leaving the base of the flower and all the pollen covered stamens and the stigma on the plant. This way you can eat your flowers and still get fruit later on. Cactus petals are fairly thick and can even be somewhat stringy, like celery. For this reason, I use them in cooking. These are good in stir fry, with a flavor and texture reminiscent of bok choy. Note that the cacti themselves can be poisonous, but the flower petals and fruits are safe.
Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) flowers can be used for cooking, much like barrel cactus petals. They are tasty sautéed with onions and included in an omelet. They can also be used in salads with the swollen base cut off.
The Tohono O’odham harvest cholla buds in March. They harvest them in the 21st century much as they have done for centuries past. Pick, remove spines, boil the buds, and eat them much like steamed broccoli. As well as enjoying cholla buds in season, the O’odham dry them for later use. (If you prefer shopping over harvesting, cholla buds are available at the Native Seeds/SEARCH Store, and in some Farmer’s Markets.)
There are other desert plants with edible flowers, but these are some of the common ones growing in many area landscapes. This ought to get you started savoring the flavors of your desert home. Your landscape is more than just a pretty face, it can also feed you!
(Editor’s Note: As well as writing about plants, Jacqueline works as a garden coach - making house calls to help you with your plants or landscape design. For a private consultation about your landscape call 909-3474.)