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Literally Psyched

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A bite of fresh lilac: The age-old allure of edible flowers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Don't they look appetizing?

When I was little, I ate lilac petals. With zest. I don’t remember too much about our Moscow apartment, but I do recall with absolutely clarity the large vase overflowing with lilac petals that would appear, like clockwork, every May, along with the long-elusive warmth of spring that was, at long last, allowed to flow into our rooms through the newly opened windows. To me, the flowers were synonymous with the end of winter gloom.

They were also synonymous with a certain face and smile: my mom’s close friend, Yulia. I’m not sure of the details—and I’d like to keep them purposefully blurry, lest the clear-cut reality somehow shatter an already perfect memory, so I haven’t asked my mom to weigh in—but in mind, Yulia always arrived with a fresh bouquet of the fragrant, pale purple blossoms. I don’t recall much about her—the last time I saw her, I was four years old—but I remember the soft hands, the gleaming smile, and the lilac blossoms coming my way, one tantalizing branch at a time. I’m fairly certain it was she who taught me to take my first bite.

With that, I was hooked. It seemed somehow illicit. A shared secret that the rest of the world was too slow to catch on to. There they were, eating the same boring old fruit and vegetables, while here I was, supping on luxurious petals. To be quite honest, I have very little, if any, memory of the actual taste of the lilac (though I’ve read that it’s faintly reminiscent of citrus) but in my mind, it will always be something altogether glorious. The forbidden nectar of the gods.

A Pompeii family feast. Many ancient depictions included flowers on the banquet plates.

Indeed, the gods, at least as far as their artistic depictions go, did indulge regularly in flower consumption, dining on blossoms in the mosaics of Pompeii, sent off on floral missions in the myths and legends of old. So, too, did their terrestrial followers. In ancient Greece and Rome, flowers were used regularly to enhance the flavor of food—and decorate the odd plate or two. In medieval France, flowers (especially marigolds) formed a regular addition to salads, while all over Europe, saffron, violets, and the like were often used to add color and flavor to syrups, sugars, potions, drinks, and salads. Rose formed a popular flavor in Roman diets, and continued for centuries to be valued for its sensual addition to foods that ranged from omelets and purées to pastries and beverages. Today, we’re seeing quite a renaissance in the old traditions: flowers are suddenly appearing everywhere from molecular gastronomy to the pages of hip cookbooks—and even BuzzFeed lists, the true mark of popular distinction.

There’s even, as I found out, some actual psychological research on our floral consumption preferences. In 1999, a group of researchers at Michigan State decided to investigate why people might buy edible flowers—and what would lead them to prefer one blossom over another. Over two days in April, they surveyed groups of attendees at Bloomfest, an international horticultural exhibition, about their theoretical flower-eating preferences, asking them to rate certain floral attributes as well as choose their preferred flower from among numerous alternatives.

Participants were asked to imagine that they would be serving edible flowers to family and friends (a stretch, I know—but a rather picturesque one, no?). Which options would they go for—and how, comparatively speaking, would they weight the flowers’ various attributes in making their choice? Not that surprisingly, color ended up being the single most important factor. In the first experiment, a flower’s color accounted for up to 63% of the final decision; in the second (where price was not included as a factor), for as much as 95%. People do care about how much the flowers cost—but not as much as they care about how pretty they are.

As it turns out, this concern for color may actually have a nutritional advantage. Among the major determinants of floral color are carotenoids (organic pigments found predominantly in plants), lutein chief among them. In flowers, the lutein is contained in a highly specific, rare form that is not found in many other foods. It has, in turn, been linked to improved eye health, specifically, a reduced risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. When we choose flowers for their aesthetic properties, we may inadvertently also be selecting those that offer some unique health advantages—advantages that, it so happens, aren’t confined to optical health.

The lilacs that I bought this weekend, in full bloom on my living room table.

For me, though, the lilacs were less about the color and more about the smell. How could something that smelled like that not taste good? The surprising thing, to me, wasn’t that I wanted to eat them. It was that no one else seemed to share my predilection.

This past weekend, I bought a bunch of late-blooming lilacs. I put them right by my desk, so that I could smell and see them out of the corner of my eye as I typed the hours away, a much-needed contrast to the constancy of the computer screen. (Alas, I had to move them shortly after, when I realized they were provoking a massive allergy attack. Oh, lilacs, how could you betray me so?)

As always, the smell transported me to my childhood and to memories that don’t really come up in any other context. I looked over at the vase. I reached out to snap off a petal, for old time’s sake. I brought it up to my nose and inhaled. To take a bite?

I couldn’t do it, not today, not knowing everything I now know about pesticides and the dangers of eating any flower that is not specially grown for the purpose—least of all one purchased from the corner bodega. I wanted to, I really did, but somehow, that petal couldn’t make it from hand to tongue. I grew awed at my toddler brazenness. Who knows what I ingested along with those Soviet blossoms? Back then, that never seemed to matter.

The vase still stands, now in the center of the living room that doubles as my office, tempting me with every whiff. Will I dare take a bite? I wish I could, but somehow, I doubt it. That sweet texture will remain forever in the world of childhood memory.

Image credits: Lilac bush, RichardBH Flickr, Creative Commons. Pompeii family feast: Unknown painter before 79 AD [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
 


Kelley, K. M., Behe, B. K., Biernbaum, J. A., & Poff, K. L. (2001). Consumer Preference for Edible-flower Color, Container Size, and Price HortScience, 36 (4), 801-804
Mlcek, J., & Rop, O. (2011). Fresh edible flowers of ornamental plants – A new source of nutraceutical foods Trends in Food Science & Technology, 22 (10), 561-569 DOI: 10.1016/j.tifs.2011.04.006
Rop, O., Mlcek, J., Jurikova, T., Neugebauerova, J., & Vabkova, J. (2012). Edible Flowers—A New Promising Source of Mineral Elements in Human Nutrition Molecules, 17 (12), 6672-6683 DOI: 10.3390/molecules17066672

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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