Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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A handful of fresh magnolia petals

There's something about prehistoric plants that give me the shudders. I love the idea of these plants preceding humans on this planet. The presence of magnolias (Magnoliaceae family) recorded to be at least 20 million years old and plants in the same family being up to 95 million years old. Mind blowing!

In this blog I explore questions such as; are all magnolias edible, which ones taste the best and how to use magnolias in recipes and drinks. I share 4 magnolia recipes, lots of tips from my fellow professional foragers and a few small digressions on the way!

Are Magnolias really a wild food?

Here in the UK I come across Magnolias in parks, gardens and street corners. They are native to areas such as North, Central and South America, as well as Sri Lanka parts of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea.

Although here, they are cultivated and planted, all cultivated plants have their origins in the wild, and this plant goes way, way back.

Last year I visit the Fossil Garden in a small town in North Wales, created by Robbie Blackhall-Miles and his partner. This small, town house garden is completely dedicated to plants with a fossil record and millions of years old. Many endangered and varying from small mosses to large ferns and trees. There was no magnolia in the garden - it isn't endangered - but it was amazing to stand amongst plants with such a long history.

I digress. Though if you find yourself in Snowdonia, or would like to support such a project, do look up the FossilPlants Garden.

Appreciating age, form and colour

I also love the shape, colour and overall presence of magnolias. These large, bold flowers are rather magnificent I think, which is great when it comes to thinking about presenting them as food. Or you could paint them! To celebrate them I've painted them on the entrance up to my cottage (another small digression).

Are all Magnolias edible and which are the best ones?

I love Kim Walker's (from Homemade Apothecary) and ethnobotanist Harriet Gendall's chart and exploration into the edible and best tasting magnolia petals. Charting their taste according to flavours of; floral, cardamon, cucumber, citrus, chilli and ginger is fantastic research! Do take a look at their list of edible magnolia species.

Discussing magnolia as a wild food with other foraging colleagues, Magnolia grandiflora came out as one of the favoured varieties and to avoid smaller varieties such as Magnolia stellata (Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods). More bitter flavoured petals reduce in bitterness when dried (John Rensten of ForageLondon), though do bear in mind that;

IT IS NOT A GIVEN THAT ALL MAGNOLIAS are edible, so do taste with caution, or check out this list of known edible species (thanks Kim).

To summarise, the darker pinks and mix of white and pink will have the strongest flavours, and think of magnolia as a condiment, i.e. small amounts and don't over do it.

Both petals and magnolia 'pineapples' (the centre of the flowers) can be used for flavouring. I don't have the space to explore the flower centres in this blog, but Lisa (Edulis Wild Food) could tell you more - thanks Lisa for the image!

How to use Magnolias as food

I've recently been on a spurge of Japanese and Chinese influenced wild food cooking. Experimenting with delights such as Cherry Blossom. It felt natural to look towards cultures where this plant is native for recipe ideas for Magnolias.

There are many ways to use this plant;

  • Herbal tea
  • Salad
  • Pickle
  • Dried as a spice
What to do with magnolia flowers

Magnolia Petal Tea

Pop a few petals in a teapot, pour on boiling water and leave to brew for 10 minutes. The flavour is subtle but quite pleasant.

A fresh magnolia leaf for salad

Magnolia Petals raw as salad

If you are excited about the eating the colour of magnolia petals then using them fresh and raw is the way to go!

Those lovely, thick and curved petals are also a great substitute for an edible plate or mini canape base. Fellow forager Craig (Edible Leeds) suggests going for subtle flavours; thin strips of carrot, cucumber and pepper either naked or with a soy sauce and ginger dressing. I dream of filling mine with fresh crab (the joys of living by the coast).

Pickled Magnolia Petals

This recipe is a wonderful way to preserve magnolia petals and enjoy them all year round. Unfortunately, the petals will turn brown (so you won't preserve the colour), but the flavour is similar to pickled ginger and is great added to salads or with sushi.

Robin (Eatweeds) calls this recipe 'exquisite'. I've reduced the sugar and tweaked his recipe a smidgen, but the results were still gorgeous.

Ingredients

  • 75 g magnolia petals
  • 100 g rice vinegar (or mild vinegar like white wine vinegar)
  • 35 g granulated sugar
  • Pinch of salt

Pick magnolia petals that are ready to drop from the tree. Pack into a jar. In a small saucepan, heat the vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir to help the sugar dissolve and heat till steaming and the first tiny bubbles appear. Pour over the petals and leave to cool before covering. Leave to steep for a week before using.

Magnolia spice

Magnolia as a Spice

Drying magnolia petals is another way of preserving the flavour and bringing out tastes tones of, what I can only describe as cardamon-ish. Though the flavour also changes in time and will vary depending on the species of magnolia.

Once you get over that beautiful loss of colour, you can discover the joys of this surprising spice! Fellow forager John uses it in a wild jerk mix, Mark in wild parkin, and Lisa in a wild chai blend. Check out John's book Edible City for a magnolia chai recipe. The possibilities are endless.

I simply use it to flavour rice, a ground teaspoon cooked in a 1-2 person rice portion.

Jar of pickling magnolia petals

More magnolia recipe ideas

Like any ingredient, these recipes are just the beginning. If you start to experiment with magnolia you will discover the right amounts that you prefer and will be able to explore the full potential of this food source. Ru Kenton (London Wild Fruits) has even made wine from the petals and a sorbet paired with melon!

Disclaimer - Magnolia has been a new 'wild' food for me to explore. I have referred here to many colleagues who have experimented with it successfully. Feel free to go through the blog and click on the links to get in touch with them for more info.

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