“Don’t eat the flowers” comes as sound advice. Some are edible and good, others are poisonous

Edible flowers from our flower beds can give us some interesting and tasty fare, as long as we know which ones to pick. Others, not so much. In fact, some of our beloved ornamentals are downright toxic.

Let’s first consider edible flowers. Most every garden has at least one, perhaps more, plants that serve dual roles as both edibles and ornamentals.

The common orange daylily, the kind that lines country roads and continues to grow around old foundations and manicured gardens alike, was a favorite of the early settlers. It seems quite likely that the old-timers, while appreciating daylilies' beauty, were also aware of their esculent properties.

Daylilies, so-called because each day a new bloom opens as the previous day’s flower fades, give us not only form and beauty, but also four different food products. The first, available now, are the newly erupted shoots. These can be snipped with scissors and simmered in water until tender.

The second are the unopened buds. Each cluster holds a large number of buds, or unopened flowers. We can pick several from each cluster without harming the plant. Then, after the tightly packed buds are boiled in water until tender, they are ready to serve. Taste is subjective, but I detect a note of peppery sharpness, not overpowering, but present nonetheless.

Also, those spent blossoms from yesterday can be dried and saved as a natural thickener for soups and stews.

But that’s not all. The tubers, little potato-like root crops, can be rinsed and boiled in the same manner as potatoes. These are quite small, but tasty and well worth trying. All in all, daylilies offer a whale of a deal for gardeners. Easy to grow and lending themselves to root division, they serve up the best in looks and taste.

Sedum

As a forager, I enjoy nibbling on orpine, a wild sedum closely linked to the cultivated variety used in rock gardens. In early spring, the emerging plant closely resembles a miniature cabbage. To eat, just break off the “cabbage” and nibble away. Most everyone I have introduced to this plant has responded favorably to its taste.

Besides using the entire immature plant as a nibble, it can also be chopped and added to salads. And as with daylilies, the tubers are edible. One plant can produce a pound or so of tubers. It doesn’t hurt to harvest a few meals' worth, either. By doing so, you are also cultivating the plant and encouraging further growth.

Oxeye daisies

Oxeye daisies, our wild daisies, share something with their domestic counterparts. Both feature edible parts. The young leaves make an interesting addition to salads. My favorite part, though, is the unopened flower bud.

The third edition of my book "Wild Plants of Maine," which is slated to go on  shelves within weeks, now features a chapter on daisies. The smiles on people’s faces when they try the unopened buds were enough to convince me that daisies should have a place in my book.

The tightly packed buds have a somewhat crispy texture and a taste exactly like carrots. Those who like carrots will surely enjoy daisy buds. Eat them out of hand or sprinkle in salads.

Since daisies have a long season, they keep on putting out flower buds for an extended time, and that allows us to enjoy these carrot-tasting treats for a good portion of the summer.

Calendula

Calendula, or pot marigold, a two-foot-tall flowering plant, has the brightest yellow flowers of all. Equally at home in the flower garden and in the herb garden, calendula, besides being a pretty flower, has a number of medicinal uses. It also has culinary features. The petals add a saffron-yellow color to dishes and complement salads nicely.

Adding this pretty annual to your garden has the dual benefit of color and edibility, a pretty good deal for a common flower.

Toxic plants

My list of edible flowers just touches the surface, since there are many more out there. Likewise, the toxic plants mentioned here are only a few examples. The main takeaway from this, then, is to never, ever ingest any plant, flower or otherwise, unless you are absolutely sure that it is safe to eat. So here are some “bad guys,” flowers that while pretty and charming, are poisonous.

Foxglove

Foxglove, a biennial plant from which the heart drug digitalis is made, has a place in every garden. A tall, stately plant, every part of foxglove is toxic, and the slightest nibble may cause extreme side effects, including death. For foxglove, the rule is “look, but don’t touch.”

Arnica

Arnica, a 1- to 2-foot-tall plant with an attractive yellow flower, made more interesting by the spaces between the upturned petals, looks great in rock gardens. But here again, look but don’t even think of eating.

Those unfortunates who have nibbled on arnica have experienced dizziness, lowered heartbeat followed by increased heartbeat, tremors, digestive and kidney damage.

Wormwood

Wormwood, an herb as well as a garden plant, lends a soft, pastel green to any setting and it is for that reason that we grow this tenacious perennial.

Known to the ancients, wormwood is mentioned in the Bible, and not in a good way. That’s because wormwood, when consumed, elicits an altered state of consciousness. Wormwood contains thujone, an addictive substance once used in the alcoholic beverage absinthe. And while herbalists around the globe use wormwood medicinally, it is definitely too dangerous for unsupervised use.

Hydrangea

Who hasn’t enjoyed the white or blue pom-pom flowerheads of hydrangea? Hydrangea stands as one of the more popular ornamental shrubs and is a favorite of both homeowners and landscapers.

But even the “friendly” hydrangea has a dark side. Ingesting any part of the shrub can cause dizziness and indigestion, as well as something similar to food poisoning. So here again, look, but absolutely do not touch.

Daphne

Even my favorite little springtime shrub, daphne, is toxic when ingested. How can something so attractive and sweet-smelling have toxic properties? Well, looks are deceiving and more so in this case. So enjoy your flowering daphne, but as with the other toxic plants, never even nibble on it.

Tom’s tips

At the risk of being redundant, this week’s tip is to never, ever eat any plant or any part of a plant, unless you know for certain that it is safe to eat. It simply isn’t worth the risk.

And for the edible plants, why not take some time this spring and check into some edible flowers? They may become a big hit in your garden in more ways than one.