When our Creative Director Kristen sat down to dinner at the legendary eatery NOMA on a recent trip to Copenhagen, she was probably thinking about anywhere but home. One of the dishes she was served, however, featured little triangular purple petals fluttered atop it. The shape was familiar; she looked back at the menu. Oxalis. Where had she heard of that?
Oh, right. Her windowsill in Brooklyn.
Kristen says the Oxalis leaves taste lemony and bright; the plant is actually a kind of "sourgrass," and often referred to as "wood sorrel." Its citrusy flavor is due to high levels of oxalic acid—which is also found in vegetables like broccoli and spinach—and vitamin C. (While edible, yes, Oxalis leaves should only be consumed in moderation due to the fact that oxalic acid can inhibit calcium absorption, and people who are prone to kidney stone or who have gout or rheumatism should avoid it entirely.)
But this curious realization—that a common houseplant could also double as an accent in your next dinner—made us wonder: What other common garden varietals are edible? I consulted Atlethea Harampolis, one of the authors of Harvest: Unexpected Projects Using 47 Extraordinary Garden Plants, who made a very good first point: If you're planning to eat any garden or houseplant, grow it from seed yourself—you really never know what chemicals might have been used on it at a nursery.
The following are 8 garden plants from Harvest that I hadn't realized were edible before reading it. Plant your own for harvesting, and pick up the book for more ideas on how to cook with them.
Breadseed Poppy, Papaver somniferum
- Where they'll grow: All zones; heeds full sun and moderate water.
- What to eat: Just the seeds! (All other parts are poisonous.) Harvest when the pods are "dry and plump."
- How to use them: Baked into [lemony muffins], or stir into salad dressings and ice creams.
Lilac, Syringa vulgaris
- Where they'll grow: USDA zones 3 to 7; needs full sun and cold winter nights.
- What to eat: the flower petals. Harvest in the morning and place stems in cold water until used.
- How to use them: In salads, steeped into a neutral oil for accenting dishes, or blended into sugar.
Scented Geraniums, Pelargonium
- Where they'll grow: USDA zones 8 to 11; requires full sun or part shade, and moist soil.
- What to eat: the leaves.
- How to use them: Dried, minced, and mixed into an herbal sugar, or added to salads fresh. (Or rub a leaf directly on your skin as a bug repellant.)
Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
- Where they'll grow: USDA zones 3 to 10; full sun to part shade, in well-draining soil.
- What to eat: the flower petals (the roots have medicinal properties, but then you lose the plants!).
- How to use them: Dried and steeped into tea or hand salve.
Gem Marigolds, Tagetes tenuifolia
- Where they'll grow: All USDA zones; needs full sun.
- What to eat: the flower petals and, if desired, flower heads.
- How to use them: Petals can be sprinkled over salads, while heads can be infused into bitters ("where their bitter centers are appreciated") or amaro.
- Where they'll grow: USDA zones 3 and up (there are many types and growing habits!).
- What to eat: the flower petals; harvest in the morning, before the heat of the day wilts them.
- How to use them: In jams, teas, baked goods, or ice creams.
Viola (Pansy!), Viola adorata and Viola tricolor
- Where they'll grow: USDA zones 2 to 9; full sun in cooler climates and part to light shade in warmer climates.
- What to eat: the flower petals, stems, and leaves.
- How to use them: Petals can be mixed into salads or compound butters; stems and leaves can be eaten raw or steamed/sautéed/creamed as you would with greens.
Calendula (Marigold), Calendula officinalis
- Where they'll grow: Prefers full sun over partial shade.
- What to eat: the flower petals.
- How to use them: Raw in salads or steeped to make tea.
The images above are reprinted with permission from Harvest, by Stefani Bittner and Alethea Harampolis, copyright © 2017, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2017 by David Fenton.