By Valerie Watson

People have been cooking with flowers since at least the days of ancient Rome. And while the ancient Romans got a lot wrong—cruelty, violence, too many men's haircuts with bangs—they were right on the money with this one. Flowers look nice, smell nice, and, yes, they can even taste nice. (Once you get past that whole "But I'm eating a bouquet!" thing.) Keep in mind, though, that edible flowers can be far more than just a garnish or a visual curiosity. In addition to a wide array of flavors from delicate to tangy, they can also provide essential vitamins and nutrients—while generally being delightfully low in calories. Answer the following true-or-false questions to see where you fall on the edible flower knowledge scale.
  1. True: Artichokes, broccoli, and cauliflower are all immature flower buds. It may not be intuitive to think of these three vegetables—strange, spiny-armored green bulbs; tree-like shapes topped with clusters of tiny green nubbins; or a big round off-white thing that looks like nothing so much as a pickled brain—as flower buds, but they all are. It's unlikely that this new bit of information will convince even a small percentage of America's children that these three traditional kid-repellents are OK to eat, but maybe one little Barbie®-loving girl somewhere will think, "Yay, flowers!" and dig in.
  2. False: The flowers of the chamomile and rose plants may only be safely consumed after they've been dried and made into tea. Health food stores sell fresh chamomile flowers, which can be used in that state—the petals in salads, the blooms on baked goods or desserts as a fanciful edible decoration—or dried for longer storage in jars or floral wreaths. And rose petals can make a sweet and lovely addition to salads, as well as being used to make flavorful rosewater, rose syrup, rose butter, and rose petal jam. When you think of it, this whole edible-rose thing has all the cachet of a layer of fine gold leaf on an expensive chocolate dessert without any of the fears one might associate with a gizzard full of precious metal.
  3. True: The flowering chicory plant can be used as a coffee substitute. The roots of the flowering chicory plant, which is related to Belgian endive, are often baked, ground, and brewed to produce a coffee-like beverage that's popular in parts of Europe and Asia, as well as in the American South, particularly New Orleans. While brewed ground-'n'-roasted chicory, which contains no caffeine, is unlikely to assuage the coffee jones of, say, a hardcore Starbucks® junkie, it may have a placebo effect in an emergency.
  4. False: The seeds are the only edible part of the sunflower. While anyone who watches ESPN or the MLB channel knows how thoroughly sunflower seeds have been embraced by many of the nation's baseballers as a substitute for chewing tobacco in the spit-generation process, fewer people are aware that other parts of the plant are also edible. When steamed, the buds of the sunflower taste a bit like artichokes, and the mature fresh petals have a piquant, bittersweet taste when scattered on a salad. Neither seems like it's as dugout-friendly a choice as the seeds, but all it'll take is one rebel player to start things off, and the rest of 'em will follow like lemmings.
  5. True: The entire dandelion plant is edible, including leaves, roots, flower buds, and petals. Dandelion leaves, blossoms, and stems can be used in salads. When fried, the young buds taste similar to mushrooms. The roots are a good source of vitamin C and other nutrients. The petals can be fermented to make dandelion wine. But if you're planning on eating the actual yellow flower part, don't dilly-dally, 'cause if you wait 'til they turn into those little round white puffballs, they'll make the back of your throat feel all tickly.