Edible flowers delight the eye as well as the palate and are becoming quite popular with adventurous cooks. But people have used flowers as food for thousands of years-and so have parrots! A glance through the pages of Parrots of the World, alerts one to the huge variety of parrot species that feed on flowering trees. Perhaps the many colorful blossoms are the very reason for the irresistibly beautiful colors that adorn parrots. Just imagine yourself a winged predator trying to spot red and green Lories, Lorikeets, or Eclectus parrots among the red blossoms and green leaves of a flowering African Tulip tree-this is Mother Nature’s camouflage at its best!
According to Joseph Forshaw in Parrots of the World, many parrots feed on fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, leaf buds, blossoms and nectar procured in the treetops. The Rainbow Lory feeds on the blossoms of the Scarlet bottle-brush (Myrtacae) tree. Dusky Lories have been observed feeding in flowering Pittosporum ramiflorum trees. Varied Lorikeets have been seen feeding among the flowers of blood-woods (Eucalyptus terminalis), paperbarks (Melaleuca leucodendron), Kapok trees (Cochlospermum heteronemum) and Bauhinia trees. Black Cockatoos in the coastal woodlands of New South Wales were observed tearing apart Banksia inflorescences, presumably to extract nectar or to get at insects. Sulphur crested Cockatoos near Adelaide, South Australia have been observed feeding on the flowering heads of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and Little Corella Cockatoos in Northern Australia have been seen feeding on the blooms of Melaleuca leucodendron. In Africa, a flock of Cape Parrots in eastern Cape Province were seen feeding on nectar from Kaffirboom (Erythrina caffra). Nyasa Lovebirds have been observed feeding on the blossoms of Acacia albida. Blue-headed Pionus and most other members of the Pionus family have a diet that consists of fruits, berries, seeds, and blossoms, generally procured among the higher branches of the trees. Orange-winged Amazons in Guyana eat the flowers and seeds of the swamp immortell (Erythrina sp.) and Black Parrots on Praslin Island eat the flowers and fruits of Ficus, Neowormia, Northea, Eugenia and Deckenia.
There are many other “winged flowers” that feed on blossoms, nectar, and pollen, although the birds of the Loridae family–Lories and Lorikeets–are perhaps the best example. The papillae of the tongues of Lories have evolved into a brush-like structure that is suitable for delving deeply into blossoms to extract pollen. The pollen sticks to the “brush” and is withdrawn from the bloom and formed by the special structure of the tongue for swallowing. One of my greatest bird-feeding pleasures was feeding flower blossoms to my Violet-necked Lory named Squirt. When he spotted a Hibiscus flower (pictured) coming his way, he literally hopped up and down, dilated his eyes, and squealed like a feathered pig! He first extracted all the pollen and nectar from inside the bloom and then flipped over on his back with the flower over his head. He then pulverized his floral treasure with feet and beak in fast motion, creating an unrecognizable shredded mess. Within minutes, there was very little evidence of the Hibiscus blossom other than the delighted look on Squirt’s shiny, red, pollen-speckled face! Anyone fortunate enough to witness such a delightful feeding frenzy might well consider it a crime against nature to deprive a member of the Loridae species of the flower blossoms that are such an integral and natural part of their diet. Judging by Squirt’s attitude, “A bloom a day keeps the gloom away!”
FROM THE LAND DOWN UNDER
Mike Owen, Ph.D. and aviculturist of Queensland, Australia says, “The main parrot species that we observe feeding on flowers are the Lorikeets. In our garden, we commonly see Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets feeding on the nectar of flowers on Grevillea and Melaleuca trees. They also will happily feed on Eucalyptus and Acacia flowers in season, and indeed on any nectar-bearing flowers, whether or not the trees are native to Australia. Many of the Australian parrots in the wild, such as the Rosellas, various members of the Cockatoo family, and Neophemas feed on the Eucalyptus trees. We find that all the parrots in our aviary, even budgies and cockatiels, eagerly welcome and devour fresh flowers from Eucalyptus (pictured), Grevillea and Acacia trees.”
While parrots have always enjoyed the many flowers that Mother Nature provides for them, people too have incorporated various flowers into their traditional dishes. The dried petals of daylilies, known as “golden needles” in Asian markets, are a standard ingredient in Chinese hot-and-sour soup. “Stuffed squash blossoms” have long been enjoyed by many cultures and rose petals are used in Asian Indian recipes. Saffron, a golden-hued “spice” actually is purple crocus flower stigmas. These bright red floral threads that produce the distinctive flavor and the bright yellow color in paella, bouillabaisse, and some Chartreuse liqueurs can cost $200 an ounce or more due to the labor intensive harvesting process. Edible flowers are virtually calorie free and although they do not contain significant amounts of nutrition, the pollen in flowers is rich in vitamins and minerals. Roses, dandelion flowers, and nasturtium blooms contain vitamin C. Most flowers contain trace amounts of one or more vitamins and minerals as well as live enzymes.
WHERE TO FIND SAFE, EDIBLE FLOWERS
Edible flowers often can be found at local farmer’s markets and gourmet grocery stores. Check with the vendor to be sure that they were organically grown. There are approximately eighty different flowers that can be safely used as food. The most enjoyable way to get these interesting additions to the diet of your family and your parrots is to grow your own!
GROWING YOUR OWN
Common edible flower varieties should be chosen for your first flower gardening adventure. Carefully follow planting, watering, and fertilization practices for garden flowers. Only organic pesticides should be used. Separate growing areas should be used for the growing of ornamental flowers requiring pesticides. Do not plant other annuals or perennials in the same area as edible flowers since pesticides from ornamentals could contaminate the edible varieties. Some gardeners plant their edible flowers indoors in sunny kitchen windows and under grow lights to avoid pesticide contamination.
As much as parrots enjoy the variety and the visual stimulation of flowers in their diet, it is as essential that we learn the difference between toxic and non-toxic varieties, as it is to use only untreated flowers. One can use a good reference book on edible flowers, available in local libraries and online. Do not use flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers. Unless otherwise stated, these flowers have almost certainly been treated with pesticides which were not intended for food crops. Chemicals are used in all phases of ornamental growth and these chemicals are unsafe for human or parrot consumption. Flowers picked from the side of the road never should be eaten by human or parrot. Highly poisonous herbicides are used to eliminate weeds and plants bordering roadways so roadside flowers can be deadly fare. One of the best books for identifying safe flowers is Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman’s Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide (Sterling Publishing Company).
MOST POPULAR EDIBLE FLOWERS
(These are the most commonly consumed flowers of the eighty edible varieties.)
- Borage blossoms (Borago officinalis)-Tiny blue flowers have slight cucumber flavor.
- Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis)-Also known as “pot marigolds”, multi-colored blooms with a peppery taste. Sometimes called “poor man’s saffron”
- Carnation flowers (Dianthus caryophyllus)-Red, pink, and white blossoms with clove taste.
- Chamomile flowers (Chamaemilum nobile)-Daisy-like flowers with a slight hint of apple flavor. Especially good for parrots when calming influence is needed.
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)-the lavander-pink pom pom flower is actually composed of many small florets. Flowers have a mild onion flavor.
- Daisies (Bellis perennis)-Yellow and white flowers with light mint or clover flavor.
- Dandelion flowers – pictured (Taraxacum officinale)-Small yellow blossoms have honey flavor when picked young. Older flowers are bitter but my Eclectus parrots do not seem to notice. Also offer the dandelion leaves which are an excellent source of nutrition.
- Day lilies (Hemerocallis)-Many colored blossoms with sweet taste and crunchy lettuce texture. Flower buds and blossoms can be consumed at all stages of growth. Note: Many lilies (Lillium species) contain alkaloids and are NOT safe for parrots or people.
- Elderberry flowers (Sambucus canadensis)-Sweet tasting flowers. For colds and chills, Gypsies mix elderberry flowers, yarrow and peppermint and steep in boiling water for 13 minutes, and drink tea frequently.
- Gladiolus (Gladiolus spp.)Flowers of many colors grow on a spike with flowers above each other, all usually facing the same way. Has lettuce texture and flavor.
- Hibiscus flowers (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)-Tropical blossoms in a variety of colors have slightly acidic taste. One of the favorite flowers of most parrot species.
- Honeysuckle flowers (Japanese Lonicera japonica)-Small white to yellow trumpet-shaped blossoms are sweet and delicious. Parrots relish these flowers and the Loridae family of birds especially loves the honeysuckle nectar. Only the Japanese honeysuckle is edible and only the blooms should be used as the berries are extremely poisonous. Offer only the flowers so that no berries on the vines will accidentally be eaten.
- Impatiens (Impatiens wallerana)-Multi-color small blooms with mild taste.
- Johnny-Jump-Up flowers–(Viola tricolor) Yellow, violet, and lavender flowers with wintergreen flavor. Leaves are also edible and contain vitamin C.
- Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)–Lavender blossoms have heavy floral fragrance and lemon flavor.
- Marigolds flowers (Tagetes signata pumila)-Bright yellow and orange flowers with citrus flavor.
- Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)-Purple flowers are edible as well as leaves and seeds which are known for benefits to liver.
- Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus)–Red, yellow, and orange flowers have a tangy, peppery flavor and are the most popular of all edible flowers. Leaves can be eaten too.
- Pansies (Viola X Wittrockiana)-Purple, white, yellow bi-color blooms have a sweet, tart flavor.
- Passionflowers – pictured (Passifloraceae – passion flower family)–Passiflora caerulea and Passiflora edulis are two of the hundreds of varieties. Some vines produce large greenish white and purple blossoms and then orange or purple edible fruit, depending upon the variety of the plant. *See website below with information and photos of 200 Passionflower varieties.
- Roses (Rosa spp)-Some of the tastiest rose varieties are Rosa xdamascena, Rosa gallica, and Rosa rugosa, Flower carpet rose, Double Delight, Mirandy, and Tiffany variety. Roses have a slight fruity flavor.
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)-Lavender-blue flower spikes grow only on the culinary variety. The variegated species of sage do not flower. Flowers have distinctive sage flavor.
- Other herb flowers-The tiny flowering blooms of the following spices are edible: anise, basil, bee balm, chives, coriander (cilantro), dill, fennel, garlic, oregano, rosemary, and thyme.
- Sunflowers (Helianthus)–Many varieties but most have yellow leaves around a “black eye” center. Mature flowers contain the seed that all parrots find so irresistible!
- Tree flowers-Parrots can be offered the flowering blooms of the following trees: Apple, bottlebrush, citrus (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, kumquat), eucalyptus, melaleuca, and plum.
- Tulips (Tulipa spp.)-Multi-color flowers with crisp, cucumber taste.
- Vegetable flowers-Butterblossom squash flowers have slight squash taste. Zucchini flowers, podded pea flowers (ornamental peas are poisonous), okra, pumpkin, and runner bean flowers are edible.
- Violets (Viola odorata)-Deep violet and white color with sweet wintergreen taste.
The Bach Flower remedy system of healing was developed by the British physician, Dr Edward Bach, in the 1930s. The remedies are based on the belief that flowers have healing properties. Flower essences are prepared by the infusion methods and are used for the purpose of removing negative emotions that can affect health and lead to disease. Bach Flower remedies are prepared from the non-poisonous flowers of certain trees, plants and shrubs. They are non-toxic, non-addictive, and can be taken by people and pets of all ages. If these remedies do in fact have healing qualities, perhaps the fresh non-toxic flowers would have a similar effect. Examples of the healing qualities of edible flower remedies are honeysuckles (pictured) for homesickness, nostalgia, and sadness as well as impatiens flowers for irritability, impatience, nervous tension, and muscular pain.
PARTIAL LIST OF EDIBLE FLOWERS USED IN FLOWER REMEDIES
Aloe Vera Flower, Basil, Blackberry, Bleeding Heart, Borage, Calendula, California Wild Rose, Chamomile, Chrysanthemum, Corn, Dandelion, Dill Flower, Echinacea, Evening Primrose, Garlic, Hibiscus, Iris, Lavender, Milkweed, Mullein, Nasturtium (pictured), Peppermint, Pomegranate, Red Clover, Rosemary, Sage, Sunflower, Violet, Yarrow, Yerba Santa.
GARDENER’S REWARD–Sautéed Squash Blossoms
Bird lovers who are devoted enough to maintain a flower garden for their parrots should reward themselves with a delicious edible flower treat. Here is a delicious recipe to try:
Briefly rinse the large exotic blooms of Butterblossom squash or zucchini squash in cold, salted water, drain and shake dry. Dip the flowers in egg and dredge in Italian seasoned bread crumbs. Place in hot oil and sauté until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese while still hot. You will need three or flour blossoms per serving. Don’t forget to save a few raw blossoms for your parrots to enjoy au natural! If you serve a salad with this treat, sprinkle the top of the salad with colorful and edible Nasturtium flowers.
There are many more flowers that are poisonous than are edible.The use of botanical names is important due to the fact that common names vary in different regions of the country. Two plants may be known by the same common name while one is toxic and the other is edible. The following is only a partial list of the most common toxic flowers and their botanical names:
- Anemone or windflower (Anemone spp.)
- Autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.)
- Azalea and rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)
- Buttercup (Ranunculus spp.)
- Clematis (Clematis spp.)
- Daffodil (Narcissus spp.)
- Delphinium or Larkspur (Delphinium spp.)
- Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
- Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)
- Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.)
- Iris (Iris spp.)
- Lantana (Lantana camara)
- Lobelia or Cardinal flower (Lobelia spp.)
- Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
- Morning glory (Ipomoea spp.)
- Oleander (Nerium oleander)
- Periwinkle myrtle and vinca (Vinca spp.)
- Wisteria (Wisteria spp.)