By Guest Author John Whitman
The importance of flowers of many vegetables, herbs, and berries is often overlooked. They are an essential part of a vegetable garden’s beauty. Many of them are edible and can be used to add color and flavor to a wide variety of dishes, used as cut flowers, or added to a potpourri for an exquisite scent. Flowers offer the added bonus of drawing in a wide variety of beneficial insects critical to proper pollination of numerous plants in the landscape as well as the control of insect pests.
Probably the most beautiful individual flower of any garden vegetable is that of the scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus). It forms a cone-shaped cluster of small flowers with brilliant crimson petals. An added bonus is that the flower is edible. By the way, it’s a hummingbird magnet.
The giant sunflowers of Helianthus annuus “Mammoth’ tower over gardeners and are a total delight to kids. The flowers attract pollinators. The seeds are a favorite of birds and can be roasted as a highly nutritious treat.
Just for fun try growing true gourds in the Lagenaria species. At night the white flowers are breathtaking. The bottle gourd can be made into numerous artifacts, birdhouses being the favorite of many.
Vegetable and fruit flowers support bee habitat
While there are 20,000 species of bees, the home gardener quickly recognizes bumblebees and honeybees. The former have become increasingly important as honey bee populations have declined. They are tireless workers, often pollinating flowers in cool weather when honey bees are scarce. Entice them into the garden with a plant like borage (Borago officinalis), which can be grown from seed into a large plant with hanging clusters of star-shaped either blue or white flowers. The plant has the nickname of “bee bread.” If you don’t have time to start this indoors, buy a plant from a local nursery that specializes in herbs.
The organic gardener will want to encourage a population explosion of beneficial insects by avoiding the use of pesticides . The flowers of coriander (small, white, delicate) and the dainty yellowish flowers of dill, fennel, and lovage attract numerous beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, hoverflies (syrphid flies), parasitic wasps, and lacewings. These help control the spread of damaging insects. For example, the larvae of hoverflies feast on aphids.
As for eating, one of the favorites are the blossoms of squash flowers, especially zucchini (Cucurbita pepo). They can be baked, battered and fried as tempura, shredded into salads and soups, or stuffed. Blossoms are most commonly filled with cheese, before being cooked. But, don’t overlook adding the flowers of asparagus pea, basil, garlic chives, and nasturtiums to butter, spreads, and vinegar for taste and color. Or, add them to salads or use as garnishes to please the eye. The asparagus pea, which may be new to you, forms soft delicate crimson flowers before developing into a fluted fruit. Crystallize fresh strawberry and violet blossoms with superfine sugar for a sweet treat or to decorate desserts, especially cakes.
The scent of many blossoms is unforgettable. While scent is difficult to define, once you have smelled nasturtiums or lavender you will be hooked into growing them year after year. The large irregular seeds of nasturtiums have to be planted each year, but lavender with some winter protection may last for years. Mature lavender plants produce a limited number of flower stems with dainty blue flowers. Enjoy the scent while working in the garden or cut off sprigs and add them to a potpourri, noted for a calming effect and, possibly, a more restful sleep.
This is a limited introduction to the value of flowers, many more of which are outlined in the new book Fresh from the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates, published in January 2017 by the University of Minnesota Press.
Guest Author Bio:
All of John Whitman’s gardening knowledge comes from hands-on experience acquired as a professional grower and an avid backyard vegetable gardener for more than fifty years. His book, Starting from Scratch: A Guide to Indoor Gardening, was a main selection of the Organic Gardening Book Club. He wrote the vegetable section of the Better Homes and Gardens New Garden Book and was the sole author of the Better Homes and Gardens New Houseplants Book. Whitman is the creator and coauthor of the other three volumes in the cold climate gardening series: Growing Perennials in Cold Climates: Revised and Updated Edition , Growing Shrubs and Small Trees in Cold Climates: Revised and Updated Edition, and Growing Roses in Cold Climates: Revised and Updated Edition