‘Strange and delicious’: a guide to pickling young petals

Having made peace with my magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana, and accepted that the bottom of my garden will always be cast in its dappled shade, I’ve rather fallen in love with its twisted trunks and its flurry of pink blossom. As it began to unfurl, the first smudges of pink against the sky had me reaching for the vinegar.

Pickled magnolia buds and young petals are strange and delicious. Each species has a slightly different flavour, but the base notes are gingery and peppery. This quickly turns perfumed and then, if the petals are too mature, bitter. But if you get in there when the petals are young and add vinegar, everything is enhanced in the most marvellous manner.

Chive blossom in vinegar.
Chive blossom in vinegar.

Chive blossom in vinegar.Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s a basic recipe. I use rice vinegar, but white wine vinegar would do equally well, as would a good cider vinegar, although I’d stay away from malt. You will need salt and sugar, too. For every 250ml of vinegar, add up to 150g of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. The objective is to achieve a sweet/sour balance that is to your taste. Heat the sugar, salt and vinegar until hot, but not boiling, and pour over a packed jar of loose petals or immature flower buds, making sure you’ve removed any hairy sepals first. Let the mixture sit for at least 24 hours. The flavour will be reminiscent of pickled ginger and works well with sushi, rice or mild creamy cheese; it is equally delicious eaten straight from the jar.

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M. x soulangeana may well be over, but M. liliiflora, one of its parents, should just be unfurling. In the summer, you can pickle the American evergreen species, M. grandiflora and M. virginiana. The latter can also be dried for tea. Not all magnolias have been documented as suitable for pickling, although none are known to be poisonous, so it’s a case of experimenting.


Elderflowers.Photograph: Getty Images

Magnolias are not the only blossoms you can turn into tasty condiments. Unopened wild garlic buds are heavenly pickled in equal parts rice vinegar, sugar and dark soy sauce (store in the fridge and eat quickly). The unopened buds and the open flowers of dandelion and elderflower, both of which should be merely steeped in cider or white wine vinegar, are also good candidates. The flowers of chivesand the petals of small flowering roses are equally wonderful pickled, turning their vinegars violent shades of pink. Make it up in small batches and use before the flowers start to disintegrate.

As with all things, you want to eat from unpolluted, chemical-free plants. If you are not growing your own, please forage responsibly and make sure you leave plenty for the wildlife.