Vegetables and herbs are seldom grown for their flowers – but they could be! Every year, I am astonished anew by the unique flowers that come as a bonus of beauty on our family farm. Herb and vegetable flowers offer exquisite color, memorable form and…of course…a life-giving harvest. Sometimes, when my husband is deeply engaged in a task too tough for me, I make a comfortable nest on the warm earth at eye level with our food crops and drink in their aesthetic loveliness. If you’ve never dedicated time to admiring a vegetable flower at close range, I’d like to show you some of the pretty things I see on our farm.
When you think of the bulky, lumpy potato, it may be hard to connect it with such an ethereal fragile bloom as the one pictured above, but this lovely lavender star is indeed a potato flower. Remember, potatoes are part of the nightshade family – the same group as the solanum vines so many people grow on fences and arbors for their starry display. If you’ve got potato vine growing in your flower garden, chances are, you can recognize the relationship between your ornamental and this food-producing vegetable flower from my russet potato crop. When the potato flowers appear, it’s time to start digging up those unforgettable, creamy new potatoes, and there’s nothing better than serving them alongside a jade green dish of succulent snow peas!
Peas are another example of an edible form of a plant that has its ornamental counterpart in many flower gardens. Big difference: snow pea pods are great to eat, but ornamental sweet pea plants are poisonous. Never plant them next to one another, lest you confuse the two. This snow pea flower is as white and gleaming as a summer cloud, and within a few days of blooming, a crisp, delicious pea will grow from it with the finished flower dried up at the bottom tip of it. Amazing!
Here’s something you may never have seen before – a tomatillo flower, looking for all the world like a velvety little butterfly or moth, all spotted and fluttery. What interesting plants tomatillos are. They are related to goose berries, but are most like tomatoes. When their papery husks dry, you can harvest the green, seedy fruits for making unbeatable salsa verde. When fully ripe, they are yellow or purple, depending upon the variety you grow. Plant them once and old farmers say you will have them forever because of their ability to re-seed themselves. My husband loses his head over the salsa I make him, but I am in love with the flowers – truly unique on our farm.
Here’s one that even greenhorn gardeners are sure to recognize: a hybrid tomato flower. This one is from an Early Girl plant – a popular tomato for our semi-coastal climate. This simple yellow star will produce what I think of as a standard, red tomato, super in sandwiches and salads. A healthy tomato plant will produce loads and loads of these pretty little flowers and as soon as we see the first blossom, we start counting the days until we can bite into our first sweet, tangy homegrown tomato.
Here’s one that might be less familiar to you – an heirloom tomato flower. Like a perfect sun symbol in form, the heirloom tomato flower has more petals and is, I think, even more beautiful than the flowers of hybrids. I was really surprised the first time I saw an heirloom tomato blossom, because it looked so different. Best of all, heirloom tomato flowers produce heirloom fruits with seeds that can be saved year after year – an essential part of sustainable farming. The photo shown is of a Pruden’s Purple tomato flower. This is our first year growing this variety and the plants are looking very promising. I love the sunny yellow of these special flowers.
When some vegetables flower, you can’t help but stop to enjoy the display. Look at these charming bi-colored bean flowers on our bush string bean plants. I love those pretty soft shades of pink with the dark green leaves as a foil. I’m not a botanist, but what’s going on in the construction of a green bean flower looks really complex to me and worthy of up-close study. Both bush and pole beans have appealing flowers. Some, like the scarlet runner bean, have really vibrant red blooms and add so much interest to the family farm landscape.
Here’s one of my all-time favorites: the squash blossom. Both summer and winter squash have very similar blossoms in the yellow-orange color range. The trumpet-like shape opens up into a star and here come the bees! In fact, I once had to help a fat, licorice black bumble bee get out of a squash blossom that had closed around him. At least, I think he needed my help. Maybe he could have squeezed back out on his own, but I didn’t want to leave it to chance. Many cooks prize squash blossoms for soups and fried dishes. I love to sit amongst them in their forest of large leaves, where I can sing to them.
Here’s another very pretty flower – that of the bell pepper. The simple, white shape may remind you of impatiens, but make no mistake; when the flower is finished, a big boxy green pepper will appear. In our coastal climate, bell peppers can be hard to grow, but we’re trying them again this year, along with chiles. Because they are chancy, every flower is precious for the hope it represents of fruit to come, but for their flowers alone, they are special.
I’m finishing up our vegetable flower gallery with an herb flower, because on our farm, herbs, vegetables and fruits all grow together, creating a feast for the eyes as well as the belly. Is there anything prettier than a pink chive flower, held aloft above shining emerald green leaves? I’m not sure there is. I love the clover blossom shape of it, and on close inspection, one can see that the round head is made up of dozens of tiny pink stars. All members of the allium family (chives, onions, garlic, various natives and ornamentals) have wonderful flowers, but the diminutive chive is a favorite of mine. In addition to the long, tubular leaves being a peerless herb for countless dishes, the flowers are themselves edible and can be added raw to salads for a really pretty touch and an onion-y snap. Our chives have done so well this year, and with luck, they will keep coming back for us again and again.
I’d like to add more vegetable flower images to this article as I have time, but I hope what I’ve shared here will give you a sense of the variety of blossoms that can be enjoyed on the family farm. Growing food for our loved ones, we spend so many hours amongst the plants, becoming intimately familiar with their habits and needs. If we look closely, we can also derive great enjoyment from their appearance, too. Stars and trumpets, puffballs and mysteriously complicated petals…there is so much to see and learn as we work to re-skill ourselves in caring for man’s primary food plants. To some folks, a weed-free lawn is the height of garden appeal; for me, it is a scene of well-tended land replete with the flowers, leaves and fruits of plants that provide me not only visual delight, but fine organic eating. The blessings here are numberless.
Do you have a favorite vegetable flower? We’d love to hear about it!