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GOURMET GARDENER

Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 20, 2000; Page H13
It might not occur to a person to taste a tulip, add redbud to the salad, make a sandwich of pansies or saute a bouquet of day lilies.
Indeed, the notion of eating flowers at all seems a little creepy, even alarming: Couldn't they be poisonous? Yet flowers have joined with verve the vernacular of cooking, a trend that provides a long-awaited rationalization to the food grower who insists on making room in the garden for color and beauty.
Not all plants are edible, and neither are all flowers; they range from the tasty to the unsavory and even unhealthy.
Because flowers as foods are still relatively new, the gourmet gardener interested in trying these should plan to do a little research. Edible-plant doyenne Rosalind Creasy's wonderful new book on the subject, "The Edible Flower Garden" (Periplus, $12.95), lists enough edible flowers to fill even a large garden and shares some tempting recipes.
Marigolds, for example, often are listed as an edible flower. In fact, many varieties of marigolds are decidedly unappetizing, even if their petals do add great beauty to a green salad.
Likewise, day lilies, which have long been used in Asian cuisine in their juvenile bud stage, can range from sweet to bitter, depending on variety.
But a surprising number of flowers common to many gardens are edible and delicious. In the spring, pansies and Johnny-jump-ups or violas, the miniature version of pansies, can be served whole or chopped and folded into a spring salad; the flavor of the petals is similar to lettuce itself. The large petals of brilliant-hued tulips can replace or complement the lettuce garnish in a sandwich; whole blooms, pollen and stigma removed, might be stuffed with chicken or shrimp salad. Tulips have a pealike flavor and crisp texture, which is why the deer love them so much. (Daffodils, by contrast, contain poisons).
Redbuds grow wild in the woods of the Piedmont and are common in Washington-area gardens. The tart, applelike flavor of the flowers, whether buds or fully opened, make them well suited to garnishing soups, salads and vegetables. Whole clusters can be added to steamed peas just before serving, laid between asparagus spears or added to a grilled vegetable medley after the veggies have been pulled from the heat.
In May, lilacs grace garden walls and corners and the newly opened blooms add their distinctively sweet fragrance to cookies, cakes and cream cheeses. In June, the rose season opens up a whole new world of scent and sweetness to summer fruit and vegetable salads alike. Hardy, light-toned, well-perfumed roses are the best for eating: Their scent will dictate the flavor they impart. Fresh strawberries served on a bed of rose petals are achingly beautiful and utterly delectable.
Lavender, blooming in June, is used as an ingredient in the intensely aromatic herbes de Provences, the flavor in many of France's best hearty stews and soups. But infused into a creme brulee or custard or ice cream, lavender takes center stage in the dessert course.
Flowers can be used lavishly to mimic the flavor of both sweet and spice; nowhere is this better demonstrated than in any dish that includes the peppery beauty of jewel-toned nasturtiums. The lovely annuals clamber over and out of any place that they are sown. Their abundant good spirits and tangy bite enliven many a summer dish, from plain salads to dips, chilled soups, hearty grilled steaks, smoked salmon canapes, bread and cheese.
In the heat of the summer, marigolds and day lilies are solid performers, producing masses of stunning blooms. For the palate, only Tangerine Gem and Lemon Gem are reliable among marigolds. The two varieties are well-named: Citrusy in flavor, they are real garden gems in their compact behavior and dainty beauty. Among day lilies, the wild orange ones that grow along roadsides and have been known to invade gardens are especially tasty. Don't, however, harvest flowers from roadsides or any other person's property: It's antisocial, and you don't know if chemicals or pollutants contaminate the plants.
There are endless combinations of flowers and herbs to make summer recipes sparkle. Most herb flowers, for example, are edible, as are many vegetable flowers: squash, broccoli (don't throw out those stubs of plants in mid-July--let them bloom for another kind of flavor), fennel, bean and pea.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company