Extended article as published on The Guardian, 21st August 2022
Did you know that magnolia flowers are edible?? This has come as a surprise to many, many people, and we love being a part of that learning journey. So buckle up, and get ready to learn about these unexpected edible flowers.
What’s so special about magnolias?
Magnolias are such an ancient plant that they originally evolved to be pollinated by beetles, because bees hadn’t yet been invented (😄). In fact, magnolias are amongst the oldest species of plants to be germinated from seed found in archeological digs. This video shows the first flowering of the plant grown from a 2000+ year old seed found in Japan.
These days, magnolias are a widely-loved source of nectar and pollen for countless invertebrates, which makes them an excellent, pollinator-attractor to have in your garden. The evergreen varieties also provide cooling shade, and the fragrance of many magnolia species make the spring & summer garden incredibly perfumed and a delight to spend time in.
When & where to find them
Hailing originally from the Northern hemisphere – particularly east Asia – magnolias prefer a temperate-to-cool climate, and in Australia you’ll most often find them in the more Southern states. The can be grown in pots, but seem to prefer to live in deep, rich and slightly acidic soil. They can be seen thriving in front gardens all around Victoria, and the evergreen varieties have been increasingly used as feature plants in new properties and modern landscaping plans.
The flowers of deciduous magnolias including the common Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), and Saucer magnolia (Magnolia × soulangeana) are some of the first flowers to open in springtime, blooming before there are leaves on the tree, and cutting a striking figure amongst the artistically gnarled bare branches.
Evergreen varieties such as Magnolia grandiflora and M. grandiflora var. Teddy Bear keep their stunning leaves – glossy green-black on top, fuzzy rust-brown underneath – all year, and typically flower in spring-summer.
And then there are what used to be called Michelia plants, which have now been included in the Magnolia family. These include ‘Scented Pearl’ (Magnolia/Michelia yunnanensis) and ‘Port Wine’ (Magnolia/Michelia figo), both of which have highly scented, edible flowers which emerge in spring.
There are many many variants of magnolia, suitable for different types of growing conditions, so you may like to read up on your options before installing a plant. This site has a great outline of most of the more common species.
Which ones/bits are edible?
It’s the petals of magnolia flowers that you eat, and the younger petals – when flowers are still buds or just opening out – that are the most palatable: like with most edible wild foods, the older they get, the more bitter their flavour. Different species have different flavours, with the most commonly enjoyed ones seeming to be the bog-standard purple and pink tinted Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia soulangiana).
From what we’ve read, there are no reported toxic varieties of magnolia, which indicates that all varieties are safely edible. however as with all wild food foraging, it’s up to you as the forager to ensure that what you’re about to pop in your gob isn’t going to harm you, so best do a bit of extra research around whichever variety of magnolia you’d like to try using before you munch on it. The Urban Nanna cannot and will not take responsibility for what any forager decides to eat. Remember, with all foraging, “If in doubt, leave it out”.
While researching recipes to adapt, we couldn’t find and definitive answers on whether it’s safe to eat the stamens and pistil (reproductive parts in the middle of the flower), but enough of the reputable sources we referred to used unopen flower buds – including the centra parts – in a variety of methods, and nowhere was it mentioned that there is any danger in doing so. As such, we felt confident including the central parts of the flowers in the buds we pickled, as they were still soft. We removed petals from more developed flowers, as by that stage, the central parts had become firmer and we felt they would be unpleasant to eat for a textural point of view.
How can you eat magnolias?
The petals have a delightfully powerful clove & ginger kind of flavour, and they can be eaten fresh, cooked, pickled and even dried and used as a medicinally relaxing tea. Our mate Rob from The Cotswold Forager swears by a fresh magnolia petal wrapped around a piece of chocolate brownie, and this beautiful 6 minute video showcases how many different kinds of delightful and interesting foods can be made with fresh magnolia (variety liliflora) blooms.
Ideas we’ve tried and seen include:
- Eaten fresh as part of a fresh salad. Pairs wonderfully with radicchio, goats cheese/feta, red onion, fennel and orange.
- Infused into a simple syrup for use in cocktails and dessert drizzles
- Dried petals used in tea blends
- Petals added to hot chocolate
- Chopped and added to spring onions or wild onion grass, water chestnut, bamboo shoots & (if desired) chicken or pork mince to make a dumpling or spring roll filling
- Blended into a purée to add to cake batter, muffin mix or cookie dough to add a ginger hit (works well in Swedish gingerbread- just replace some of the butter with it)
- In a smoothie or fruit juice with carrot, apple and pineapple juice. Or with berries & yoghurt.
- Frozen in ice cubes for cocktails
- Dipped in tempura batter and deep fried for a delicious snack. Serve with a soy, sesame and fermented chilli hotsauce dipping sauce.
- Dried and ground to a powder to use in place of dried ginger. Works with baking, marinades, dressings and more.
- Added to a cold glass-noodle salad with chilli, garlic, spring onion & pickled shiitake mushrooms
- Added to kimchi or sauerkraut
- Sliced thinly and added to a pickled daikon recipe for an aromatic side dish
- In sorbet or ice cream. Works particularly with dark choc ice cream
- Blended and rolled up in mochi mix to make spiced semi-sweet dumplings
- Salt-cured petals used as flavouring & garnish
- Included in ferments such as Ume plums, to add both flavour and colour.
How to pickle magnolia flowers
We saw a magnificent tree in a local front yard absolutely bursting with blooms, so we knocked on the door and asked if the owners were ok with us picking a few. They didn’t mind at all, so we collected enough buds and flowers to fill about 4-5 jars, and spent an evening getting them into a pickle solution.
Pickled magnolia petals have an incredibly potent spiced, gingery, sometimes-clovey flavour, and they can be used in place of straight-up pickled ginger, or dipped in tempura batter and fried, or chopped and tossed through salads in place of a dressing. They only take 2-3 days to be ‘ready’, and will last in the fridge for 6-12 months, so they’re a great preserve to try as a method of catching and storing energy while the flowers are in abundance.
10-12 young magnolia flowers or large flower buds
250ml rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup white sugar
A pinch of salt
- Gently wash and dry magnolia flowers.
- Remove any brown papery bracts from around buds, and any bruised petals.
- If using buds, cut stems right to the base of the flower. If using opened flowers, remove petals from centre of flower.
- Sterilise a large jar, then put buds/petals into jar. Using tongs or a flat knife can help squeeze buds in. Rolling individual petals into a rosette will help keep them submerged.
- Heat vinegar, sugar and salt to boiling, then simmer for 5 minutes.
- Pour vinegar solution over magnolias until covered. Seal lid while hot and invert jar for 1 minute (this helps heat air inside jar, and means you’re likely to get a better seal as it cools).
- Allow to cool, then put in the fridge. They’ll be ready to eat at any time, but are better if left to cure for at least 24 hours.
Store in the fridge for 2-3 days before opening, where they will last for 6-12 months.
* You could try dipping these pickled buds in tempura batter and deep frying for a tasty spicy snack.
* Once the flowers have been eaten, keep the beautiful pink vinegar to use in cooking where you want a flavoured acidic hit.
Permaculture Principle 2: Catch & store energy; 3: Obtain a yield; 6: Produce no waste 5: Use and value renewable resources and services; 10: Use and value diversity; 11: Use edges and value the marginal
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