The need to identify “new” edible plants has grown in the recent years even as a reaction to the increasingly greater standardization of food consumption that has been reported by many. FAO (2010), for example, estimates that, out of the 10,000 species used for food at the origin of agriculture, only 150-200 species are widely used today, and of these, only four (rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes) supply 50% of the world population’s calorie requirements. However, agro-biodiversity is an important aspect of agricultural system sustainability. Therefore, identifying edible plants is considered an efficient strategy for food security. Neglected and underutilized plants, “poor people’s food”, have become important tools for enriching the diet with useful healthful substances.
Among the “edible” products, special attention is being given to flowers whose consumption is increasing worldwide. Their popularity is evidenced by their spread within gastronomy, the publication of informative books on the use of edible flowers, and the many sites and web pages dedicated to them.
At first sight, flowers would also seem the least likely edible plants because they are short-lived and lack the calorie content that was the base for assessing food quality in the past. However, nowadays it is frequently pointed out how these organs are a valuable source of mineral and other elements, to the point of being considered a new and interesting source of nutraceuticals and medicinal principles. Recent research has shown the presence of bio-active or phytochemical substances, especially antioxidants, with a high therapeutic potential, able to prevent diseases or promote immune defense mechanisms. A product’s quality, freshness and hygienic-sanitary safety depend on the attention paid during cultivation, harvesting and preservation. Many of the minor edible flowers, not subject to specific cultivation, can be gathered in nature while the best known (e.g., roses, chrysanthemums, carnations, marigolds, cornflowers) come from gardens or specialized cultivations.
Edible flowers can be eaten raw or cooked, as a garnish or an integral part of a dish, and in green or fruit salads. Fritters can be made with many flowers (from the traditional cucurbitaceous flowers to some acacia species). Others can be steamed, boiled, fried, sautéed, used in soups, or to make curry. They can also be candied or frozen in ice cubes to be used in drinks. In addition, they are often used to flavor tea or wine. In any case, edible flowers are a truly fascinating food source, able to combine a plant’s decorative and food qualities at the utmost level.