On the edge of Ace of Spades Farm's quarter-acre plot, now bursting with summer's bounty of beans, squash, tomatoes and more, is a colorful row of familiar flowers.
Leafy calendula plants wave in the hot afternoon breeze as bees buzz by, relishing in the sweet, abundant food source. Fluffy bachelor's buttons in hues of pink, purple and blue are partially shaded by an adjacent row of towering sunflowers. Nearby, stout-headed marigolds sport sunny yellow, deep orange and rusty red.
While these diverse blossoms are a beautiful display of nature at work, they're also an intentional crop on the farm. The petals or whole blossoms of each flower cultivated by Ace of Spades' owners Amy Dolomont and Alexander Ekins can all be eaten.
Petals of the marigold, calendula and bachelor's button — all plants commonly found in planters and garden beds across the region each summer — are often featured in Ace of Spades' popular Homestead Salad, sold at local farmers markets, and on the menus of several Spokane-area restaurants. Central Food serves the fresh salad throughout the summer, a baby greens mix dotted with confetti-like flecks of orange, blue, pink and yellow petals.
"We're the first to put [flowers] in our salad mixes, and that's a trend that seems to be being followed by others," Ekins asserts. "We definitely grow the most diverse array of edible flowers in Spokane."
Other flowers grown on the farm for consumption in salads or as dish garnishes include pansies and their miniature cousin, the Johnny jump-up, as well as cosmos, borage, violets, alyssum and nasturtium.
Once they've matured, the blossoms of greens such as kale, arugula, radishes and squash are also harvested for consumption.
While most of the edible flowers commonly grown in the Northwest are easily found at commercial nurseries and big box home and garden stores, Ekins cautions against using those starts for consumption because they've most likely been treated with chemical pesticides and herbicides. Home gardeners are better off starting their own from seed, he adds.
Most edible blossoms and petals have subtle — if at all discernible — flavors, making them easy to incorporate into a variety of dishes, savory or sweet. Standard variety marigolds blossoms (Ace of Spades also grows miniature marigolds), from which the petals are pulled when used in a dish, are slightly spicy, with a taste not unlike their pungent aroma. The tiny star-shaped blooms of borage — ranging from sky blue to swirls of pink and lavender — meanwhile, have a flavor reminiscent of cucumber, and are served as whole flower heads.
"Something unique about how we cultivate them is we allowed them to open pollinate and reseed themselves in place, and that provides us with the most diversity and unique outcomes," Ekins says. "So the calendula have colors you wouldn't otherwise find."
This practice reflects the farm's overall commitment to sustainability — Ace of Spades doesn't use tillage, tractors or synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Aside from its beautiful edible blooms, Ace of Spades is perhaps better known for its heirloom tomatoes. The farm grows more than 100 varieties that are sold to local restaurant kitchens and to consumers at the Kendall Yards and South Perry farmers markets.
To see Ace of Spades' edible flowers in use, local diners can visit Durkin's Liquor Bar, where sous chef Brigitte Kiefling employs the colorful blooms in everything from heirloom tomato salads to the week's fresh sheet.
"We use them for pretty much everything, especially if it can liven up an entree dish," Kiefling says. "It's nice to elevate all that with a little pop of color. Like blue in the pansies and bachelor's buttons, that is a hard color to find in nature."
Durkin's sister restaurants Casper Fry and Madeleine's Cafe also regularly feature the edible flowers throughout the summer growing season, including in pastries and craft cocktails.
Other area restaurants grow their own edible flowers in on-site gardens, like Central Food and Clover.
"We grow flowers edible and not in the garden," says Central Food chef-owner David Blaine. "The edible flowers end up in something we call garden garnish, a combination of flowers and buds from mint, anise, hyssop, several kinds of basil, fennel, nasturtium and thyme."
Across town at Clover in Spokane's Logan Neighborhood, chef Kory Schimanski harvests a variety of blooms each day from the restaurant's greenhouse located adjacent to its patio.
Clover's flower garden currently features nasturtium — in gold, fiery red, burgundy and other warm shades — pansy, marigold and a plethora of blooming herbs, he says.
"We love using them for the nutrients and just because they're so darn pretty and really jazz up a dish," Schimanski says. "We pick before dinner service and put them on just about everything."
Vibrant orange squash blossoms are another of the chef's favorite to use in the kitchen.
While local farmers and chefs are both embracing the versatility and beauty of edible blossoms, how do diners react to seeing a full flower or sprinkling of petals atop their entree, or mixed into a green salad?
Durkin's chef Kiefling says she's always happy when customers ask questions about their food, and recalls a recent customer, a young girl, who was delighted and surprised upon learning the flowers on her oysters could be eaten, too.
"When I plate stuff, I break up the pansies and sprinkle them in artistically so people are kind of forced, hopefully, to eat them," Kiefling says. "Some people still pick them off."
At Clover, guests' reactions to flowers in their food have been positive.
"I feel the plates come back empty more than they come back with the flowers on them," Schimanski says. "I think some people just have to try it because it's an edible flower." ♦