ZUCCHINI blossoms with cheese filling, tulip petals stuffed with shrimp salad, lavender ice cream, and rose butter scones are only a few ``representatives'' of today's wonderful ``flower generation'' of foods. Rosalind Creasy, a California garden writer, lecturer, and landscaping consultant, says eating flowers is the trendy thing these days. But she points out that there's validity in serving flowers for food as well as for colorful garnishes.
``Many blossoms are delicious in flavor,'' Ms. Creasy says; ``and there are great opportunities in the future for flowers in our cuisine. But cooks and restaurant owners must learn which flowers are safe when offering flowers to the public.
``Blossoms are not edible if they've been grown with pesticides. They should be checked for safety by a qualified person [like an agricultural extension agent]. Not all flowers are edible.''
For the last four years, Creasy has been testing and tasting edible flowers in a scholarly manner, starting with those that have been recorded as being edible for hundreds of years, such as roses, squash blossoms, and violets.
``I'm amazed at some of the articles I read that are not correct,'' says this woman, who is fast becoming the guru of edible flowers in the United States.
``Available information is a strange hodgepodge, with its genesis mostly in the old herbals of medieval Europe when eating flowers was commonplace,'' she explains. ``But in those days, foods often had medicinal as well as nutritional uses. Often flowers with potent chemicals and strong flavors were included in old recipes.''
Taking a practical approach, Creasy has researched and also taste-tested everything she recommends. ``Certainly, there are a lot of things you can eat that won't poison you, but why bother if they don't taste good?'' she says.
Some blossoms she doesn't like at all. ``Hollyhocks, gladioluses, and hibiscus are slimy,'' she reports. ``Maybe you'd like them if you like the rather slippery quality of okra.''
Some marigolds, often used in recipes, ``have a nice lemony taste; others are tasteless. But most taste like they smell.'' Creasy is the author of ``The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping'' and ``Earthly Delights.'' Her newest book, ``Cooking From the Garden,'' will be published in September. They're all by Sierra Books.
Creasy's most recent tests have been with rose petals. ``I recommend the old-fashioned, fragrant types for strongest flavor,'' she comments. ``They make simply delicious rose syrup honey and are so nice in other desserts. But for heaven's sake, don't just use any rose petals! Try them first.
``We are looking for alternatives to salt and sugar as seasonings, and here we have an excellent one. Not only do flowers add aesthetic value as decorations, but they add a whole new dimension of interesting seasonings.''
Even very simple uses of flowers can be quite spectacular - chopping up nasturtiums and mixing them into sweet butter or decorating baked pears with white lilac florets.
``Use your imagination, for there is much ground to explore. Consider making such dishes as baklava flavored with rose petal honey, herb pizza sprinkled with nasturtium and herb flowers, a wedding cake strewn with fresh violets, or orange blossoms or lavender ice cream.''
Creasy admits that eye appeal is the primary contribution flowers make. But she emphasizes that many flowers actually give us new flavors that will enrich our cooking. ``With some flowers, only the petals are available - such as roses, calendulas, tulips, chrysanthemums, and lavender.
``With some others - violets, Johnny-jump-ups, pea and runner bean blossoms - the whole flower can be eaten.
``While it is not an absolute rule, sweet flowers are used in, or as garnishes to, desserts and fruits, while savory flowers, such as chive and mustard blossoms, go better with soups and salads,'' she says.
Here are some Rosalind Creasy words of advice if you decide to pick up on the flower food trend:
Grow your flowers organically if possible. If you must use a pesticide, always read the label carefully to make sure it can be used on edible plants.
Before planting your own edible garden, visit friends' gardens and taste as many flowers as you can. But beware of poisons. There are plenty of lists of poisonous plants, but few that are completely reliable.
Use discretion with garnishes. The flavor of the flower shouldn't overpower the dish. Lavender, for example, is very strong, and a whole flower on a light cream soup would look lovely, but might cancel out the taste of the soup.
All the cabbage and broccoli family are fine when they start to get little flowers, and so are arugula flowers.
Anise hyssop is fantastic, with a flavor somewhere between fennel and root beer. Sprinkle it over ice cream, fruits, salads, or steep in tea.
Nasturtiums have a flavor similar to watercress, but use only petals, not the blossom base. Chop in salads; stuff with cream cheese, chives, or shrimp.
``Others that I like especially are the blue borage flowers and pansies. The borage taste sort of like cucumber. Pansies don't have much flavor, but when candied with egg white and confectioners' sugar, they are so pretty.''
Squash blossoms stuffed Italian style with ricotta cheese mixed with eggs, herbs, and garlic are excellent. Remove base of flower and chop petals in salads and in soup for a sweet, cucumber-like flavor.
Calendula petals are best used for color, not flavor. Called ``poor man's saffron,'' they can be used either fresh or dried.
With all the trendiness of edible flowers - as with mushrooms - it's particularly important to make quite certain you are avoiding toxic conditions.
Creasey reports that ``there are two crucial factors - the chemical content and the dosage. Plants are potentially poisonous if they contain alkaloids, glycosides, resins, alcohols, phenols, phytotoxins, and oxalates. But their toxicity depends on the amounts of these substances they contain.
``Spinach contains oxalic acid, which is poisonous in large quantities, but not in spinach.
``In many cases, not all the parts of toxic plants are poisonous. For example, rhubarb stalks and potatoes are edible, but the leaves of both plants are poisonous.
``Some plants, such as pokeweed, are poisonous at certain times of the year.
``Birds and animals are unharmed by some plants that are poisonous to humans. The gray squirrel, for example, can eat the deadly amanita mushroom without harm, and birds love to gorge on the irritating red elderberry berries. So don't use animals as a guide.''