Lilac drink and the art of eating flowers


Nothing brings me back to my youthful Midwestern pastoralism quite like the smells of spring: freshly cut grass with a rim of lawnmower fuel, the sweet ozone of an impending thunderstorm. Most of all, they are purple shrubs, growing stately and rough in the hard soil of Chicago front yards, or overhanging back fences to loom in alleys. In May, small purple flowers will open; By June, their thick perfume hung in the mist around each bush, and the naked breeze sent intoxicating swirls of rich aroma. When I left home and moved to the East Coast, I would sometimes buy cheap lilac perfumes—there’s plenty of lilac here too, but sometimes one feels a little homesick and needs a whiff on demand. Smell, neurally intertwined with memory, is an emotional catapult, and I’ve found that even the most clumsy molecular vape of purple will get the job done.

Until a few weeks ago, idea Eating food It never occurred to me that lilac. If I had asked, I am sure I would have said, with unfounded authority, that the flowers were inedible. Then, in late May, I saw a friend post a picture of a running lilac lotion on Instagram. Another friend chronicled her theft of a purple branch from a neighbor’s yard to use in purple sugar cookies. Novelist Amal Mukhtar chirp Prepare it for a batch of lilac syrup: A bundle of just-cut flowers, washed, measured, and finally placed in a bath of hot sugar water to soak. There was something in the air, besides all the pollen and perfume. “Why has everyone I know decided to make homemade lilac this spring?” I asked on Twitter. The answer turns out to be Alexis Nikole Nelson, an Instagram and TikTok phenomenon known as BlackForager.

Nelson has been foraging since her childhood, in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Appalachian and prairie ecosystems collide in a riot of wild, edible plants. She now lives in Columbus, where she cuts flowers from black locust trees to fry them and turn them into pies Turns little buds of woolly cattail into cakes. She’s chronicled her custom harvest online for years, mostly to a small group of friends and fellow foragers, but when the pandemic began—bringing with it a surge in interest in nature and a self-reliance in cooking—her audience exploded. She posts about leaves, roots, and seeds, but people want flowers: crab milk tea, applesauce, blossom, magnolia cakes. Flowers give us not only their scent but their color: On a recent guest spot on the Drew Barrymore talk show, Nelson spoke with the actress during the process of making it. Violet syrup Changes colors when combined with other liquids. (Is this magic or is it a pH allergy? Who cares – it’s cool.)

Nelson, burdock picking.

Nelson is twenty-nine, with glorious curls and a gaping smile. In her TikTok videos, she wears colorful clothes and makeup and teaches about food and cooking with the energy of the lovable children’s show host: drawing silly faces, blasting snippets of songs, cracking corny jokes. One of her most popular videos So far, with over 4.4 million views, her tutorial has been cast in violet on what she explains was a “very, very bad day.” “Although I’m not really in the mood to chant about flower cakes, I know I’d feel better if I did,” she says, and the video clips of Nelson swinging her arms and hitting the monster: “Flo-Ware Q-Case! Flow-Ware Cookies!” Dust the flowers with sugar in a food processor to make a purple powder. Then you mix a portion with the butter to make a paste (non-dairy butter, in fact, because Nelson is, in her words, a “dirty vegan”), and sprinkle the rest over the surface of the cakes before you bake them. Lilac blossoms taste like they smell: intoxicating and sweet, almost too deeply. “That’s really cool,” says Nelson, uncharacteristically soft, as she savors a cake. “I’m glad I did this.”

Elsewhere in the world, foraging is second nature – the Swedish constitution actually stipulates the right of every citizen to pick wild berries. But in the United States it remains a marginal activity. In Nelson’s TikToks, between providing identification clues and recipes in the song, she discusses America’s history of anti-foraging laws and regulations, many of which target blacks and indigenous people. “Race influences every act of foraging that I do,” Nelson told me, including her on-screen character. “If I’m in a part of town where the rules are vague, I have to make sure I look super friendly, look like I’m in a good mood, and put makeup on. A lot of that translates, online, as just having a good, happy time — no one is going to call Cops on someone in a rainbow chiffon dress. At least, I hope not.”

Unless you have an abundant garden of your own, foraging is the best way to find flowers to cook with. The edible flowers sold in some specialty grocery stores tend to be largely odorless and are meant to be used as decorations. The gorgeous, fragrant flowers sold in flower shops are often heavily sprayed with insecticides that cannot be completely washed off. What remains is the wild world of parks, yards, and sidewalk mean, where Nelson is at home. One of her first songs was a video explaining how to make a simple all-purpose syrup (an equal mixture of sugar and water) for floral infusion. It’s a recipe she comes back to over and over, and one that she sees as otherwise apprehensive about foraging, she embraces without hesitation. She said to me, “I know this year, especially, in all the years, I’ve just been, like, give me every pointer of spring!” “Last year has been awful, winter has been awful, and I want to eat every flower. I want to smell every flower. I want to drink every flower. I want sunlight on my face. And these smoothies are an easy way to express those kinds of feelings.”

Where I live, in Brooklyn, lilacs abound in the spring, but a few shrubs are fair game to forage. Nelson discourages her followers from stealing other people’s plants–even if the flowers hung impressively over a nearby fence, and you’re pretty sure the owners have been in their northern spot for weeks, and you’re confident you could sneak up back, under cover of darkness, with scissors And a paper bag, and you’re pretty sure no one will notice. Now, in Columbus, as in Brooklyn, the lilac season is fading, and Nelson is beginning to turn her attention to roses, especially the Carolina and multiflora varieties, which bloom weeks earlier than others and smell wonderful. I failed to get a lilac, but recently found myself with a load of bright and fragrant roses from a nearby garden. I soaked the petals in sugar and water to make a fluffy pink syrup, smelling of faint sunshine, with traces of cinnamon and chewing gum. After the roses come honeysuckle, then poppies, then lavender, and then blood-red sumac as summer fades into fall. Next spring it will all start again, giving me plenty of time to figure out where to find lilacs.

flower-infused drink


  • 4 cups of fresh edible flowers, such as lilac, rose, violet, marigold, and lavender (the more aromatic the flower, the more flavor the syrup will be)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar


1. Separate the flowers from their stems. If you are using large flowers such as roses or marigolds, remove the petals and discard the center of the flower. Place the flower petals in a fine mesh strainer and rinse them gently under cold water to clean out any dirt or debris.

2. In a medium saucepan, mix sugar with 2 cups of water. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the flower petals, cover the pan and remove from the heat. Without removing the lid, let the mixture cool down to room temperature. The longer the flowers remain in the drink, the more intense the flavor. Taste the syrup one hour after the infusion, and periodically thereafter. Depending on your taste, the infusion can take anywhere from 1 to 8 hours, or overnight.

3. Strain the mixture into a bowl using a fine mesh strainer, then transfer to an airtight container. Use it in cocktails, to punch up sparkling water, or to flavor cakes or cookies. The soaked syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.

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