Eating flowers to promote health and prevent disease

Do people eat flowers? Yes, many of them. Experts say that the Greeks, Romans and French in the Middle Ages and the English in the Victorian era included edible flowers in their cuisine either as appetizers or to enhance the taste of the dish.

A new review looks at a number of edible flowers used in some countries around the Mediterranean, their incorporation into various traditional forms of food and medicine, their health effects and their commercial potential.

Survey: Edible flowers used in some countries of the Mediterranean basin: An ethnobotanical review. Image credit: fotofantasia / Shutterstock

Introduction

Flowers have been used as food in various cultures throughout the ages. Examples include saffron, part of the flowers of Crocus sativus, impaired by wine or pinkreferring to Italian violet and rosé wines respectively, and marigold or dandelion flower salads.

As a garnish, flowers not only improve the appearance of food, but also add specific aromas and tastes. Therefore, they are used in sweets, drinks, liqueurs and teas. Because of their nectar, fresh flowers are sometimes used as sweet snacks in certain regions.

Flowers are also known to contain antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds in their pigments that can positively affect human health. This motivates the present review of edible flowers published in the journal MDPI plants, which addresses the safety and nutritional aspects of this type of food. The aim is to preserve the traditional knowledge of plants in the Mediterranean region – an ethnobotanical study.

What did the study show?

The present review includes data on over 250 plant species falling into 45 families comprising about 140 genera. The most significant number, about one in five, come from Asteraceae, closely followed by Lamiaceae and Fabaceae. Among the first, Viola is the most richly represented genus with 12 species.

The Echinacea group of flowers belongs to the Asteraceae or Asteraceae family.  ​​​​​​​Image credit: Kyliki / ShutterstockThe Echinacea group of flowers belongs to the Asteraceae or Asteraceae family. ​​​​​​​Image credit: Kyliki / Shutterstock

However, the most cited plant was from Caprifoliaceaelike The black old man L., the elder flower. This was used in various ways: “Fried as jam, omelette, pancake, juice, condiment, jam, jellies, drinks, vinegar flavoring,” according to documents from five countries. It was native to Europe but can now be found in East Asia, North America, New Zealand and South Australia.

Elderberry seeds are dispersed by birds and grow along roadsides, railway lines, fences and forest borders. They bear large clusters of intensely scented white flowers from June to August. They are rich in plant phenols and their use in nutraceuticals and dietary supplements is becoming fashionable.

Elderflowers are now said to fight cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, boost the immune system, while counteracting inflammation and preventing atherosclerosis. They are traditionally used to treat respiratory ailments, colds and stomach aches, as well as to fight fever and inflammation and a host of other uses. They are also applied topically to treat conjunctivitis, burns and wounds, and joint pain.

Other interesting edible flowers include the false acacia (grasshopper), originally from North America but now considered highly invasive in some parts of the world. It is currently growing in Europe, South Africa and Asia. Its flowers are rich in polyphenols with antioxidant and antitumor properties and have been used to treat flu, induce calmness, or improve general health.

False Acacia (Acacia).  Image credit: Artur Sinenko / ShutterstockFalse Acacia (Acacia). Image credit: Artur Sinenko / Shutterstock

Borage is also widely used in many of the ways elderberry is used, but not for making wines or liqueurs. Containing terpenes, aldehydes and many fatty acids, they can help fight inflammation and bacterial infections, as well as preserve food and cosmetic products. It is traditionally used in Spain and Italy for colds, inflammation of the respiratory tract, sore throat and to increase the flow of urine, as well as for joint pain and stomach irritation.

Dandelions are found all over the world except the southern ice continent. They are used for diseases of the respiratory tract and the genitourinary system and are applied to wounds. They are also used in salads, jams, tea, risotto and fried.

Dandelion flowers. Image credit: tinnko / Shutterstock

Dandelion flowers contain numerous phytochemicals, including luteolin and its 7-glucoside, with antioxidant and cytotoxic properties.

Clover, both red and white, are also important edible flowers grown as forage or wild. They contain luteolin, kaempferol (red clover), rutin and quercetin (white clover). They are used to treat stomach ailments, coughs and menopausal ailments. Calendula is used for a variety of ailments and skin conditions due to its anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and wound-healing properties. However, according to observed pharmacological properties, they can also reduce blood sugar and lipid levels.

Scientists also cover violets, both English and wild; corn poppies; and large-leaved linden blossoms. They are used in different settings, in the form of teas, liqueurs, spices, salads, with eggs or vegetables, patties or sorbets. They contain compounds such as anthocyanidins, flavonoids, alkaloids, vitamins and essential oils. They confer antimicrobial, antidepressant, wound healing, hypoglycemic, hypolipidemic antioxidant and cytotoxic properties to various flowers.

What are the conclusions?

This interesting study reveals the potential of edible flowers to promote health and prevent disease in many ways. For example, they can help scavenge or prevent the release of free radicals that underlie many degenerative conditions such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, after their traditional dietary use at naturally low concentrations, the phytochemicals found in them exert a protective effect, accounting for the benefits associated with dietary supplements.

Edible flowers can also be used to produce a range of therapies to rejuvenate the skin, boost immunity in the elderly and prevent or mitigate neurodegeneration.

Some flowers can be toxic and thus further studies should aim to understand, identify and recommend useful edible flowers while taking into account those that may be contaminated, high in pesticides or contaminated from microbes. Besides these uses, their use in traditional foods can help increase the economic potential for farmers in some at-risk agricultural areas, providing an outlet for endangered farmers to continue living and farming there. “The potential of edible flowers should be further explored for the possible economic opportunities that can be generated for local pickers and communities.”

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