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Would you eat your dahlias?

Foraged flowers and yarrow There are plenty of flowers you could be feasting on...

April is when gardeners plant herb and vegetable crops, and fruit blossoms begin to come out. But are there other edible plants in your garden you should try eating?

Sprinkling flower petals into a dish can add a touch of colour and fragrance.

The Romans used mallow, rose and violets extensively in their cuisine, and Himalayan balsam has been used for centuries in Indian cooking.

But it seems there is a hidden source of food, we've come to overlook.

The roots of many garden plants are also edible, and extremely delicious if prepared properly, says ethno-botanist and presenter James Wong in Radio 4's On Your Farm.

Would you consider digging up your dahlias to tuck into their roots?

Dip into your garden:

Torta pasquale

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Tuck into octopus, chorizo and nasturtium salad

Prepare a rose petal masala-spiced halibut

Dahlias were brought to Europe from Mexico in the 16th Century, as an alternative to the potato, says Mr Wong.

Their roots are closely related to Jerusalem artichokes and can be eaten either cooked or raw.

"Once you get up the gumption to eat them, they taste really familiar," he says. "They're like a cross between carrot, celery, and potatoes."

Mr Wong recommends grating them into rosti, where their crisp, apple-like texture shines.

So when did they fall out of fashion?

Known for their big, blousy flowers, dahlias stopped being thought of as a food source during Queen Victoria's reign.

"As soon as we realised how beautiful the blooms are, which was around the middle of the Victorian period, we stopped eating them," says food historian Dr Annie Gray.

"The Victorians are mad at that point for growing ornamental flowers and you can see why that aspect really took over."

Dahlia burgers Dahlia roots have a crisp apple-like texture - a feature of this rosti, says James Wong

Hostas are infamous to gardeners for being ravaged by slugs.

But this just adds to their creditability as a tasty vegetable, says James Wong.

"Slugs always know if something is tasty.

"If something doesn't have high fibre or bitter chemicals they somehow go to it straight away."

In Japanese garden catalogues hostas are listed in the edible section, not the ornamental section.

In Japan young shoots are eaten with a fatty sauce made with miso. They taste somewhere between asparagus and artichokes.

Asparagus and artichokes are relatively hard to grow in the UK, but hostas thrive in its climate.

Could it be time to start growing commercial hosta crops?

Fiddlehead ferns are also commonly found in British gardens, and considered a delicacy in the US.

But on the other side of the pond, the British don't know how to cook them.

"The tricky thing is, that once something crosses the horticultural apartheid and becomes just pretty, you forget how to grow it and how to prepare it," says Mr Wong.

"If you didn't know that it was the rhubarb stem that you eat and you bit into a leaf, you wouldn't think it was very tasty.

Find out more:

James Wong, Dr Annie Gray and Dr Tim Upson

Listen to the Flowers vs Crops story on BBC Radio 4's On Your Farm Programme on Sunday 21 April at 18:30 BST or catch up on iPlayer

"You need to know to boil it up with lots of sugar before it is palatable," he explains.

Perhaps more people would eat these garden plants if they were re-branded, says Dr Gray.

"If you imagine those dahlia roots re-named as 'Victorian artichoke plant' and put into beautiful packaging, high-end supermarkets would easily be able to charge £10 for a small packet."

Before you rush out to your garden with a knife and fork, remember that for the past couple of centuries these plants have been bred to look good - and not necessarily to taste good.

Even if cook Delia Smith started waxing lyrical about dahlia roots or fuchsia fruits, it would be quite hard to breed a variety for its tastiness, says Nick Belfield-Smith, a plant breeder for Floranova in Dereham, Norfolk.

"Aesthetic factors are mostly controlled by heritable genes which aren't affected by the environment," he says.

"Whereas taste and yield are more subject to the environment."

If you are looking for garden plants that can be harvested for eating, you could try growing bamboo.

All bamboo varieties are edible and they thrive in most soil types.

Try growing these edibles:


Agastache - A flowering herbaceous plant also known as Korean mint. Try making an infusion out of the plant tips.

Cardoon - An old Victorian favourite, similar to celery but with more bite when cooked.

Tansy - Young leaves of this aromatic plant are edible cooked or raw. Try adding them in small quantities to salads.

Violets - All varieties are edible with sweet, floral flavours. Try candying the flowers in sugar.

Phyllostachys dulcis is a green bamboo, prized for its sweet-tasting early spring shoots, ideal for a stir-fry or noodle soup.

Or if you're looking for a more ornamental plant, try the growing one of the "cactus" dahlia varieties such as 'Lemon Chiffon' or 'Inland Dynasty'.

They have a similar taste to a Jerusalem artichoke and can be substituted for potato in many recipes.

My Wong suggests planting them on a sunny spot and then harvesting after the first frost.You can then plant a handful in damp compost for storage over winter.

For a Japanese inspired edible garden, why not substitute your garden spinach for hosta varieties such as 'montana' or 'sieboldii', known for their tender and less bitter leaves.

Eating flowers like dahlias and hostas is not a novelty reserved only for posh restaurants, says James Wong.

"These aren't hippy foods. Most people in the world would think of these as common supermarket vegetables.

"But in this country no-one can ever consider them to be tasty and pretty at the same time."

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