Edible, Contact Safe, Toxic: Using Flowers on a Wedding Cake

I speak to couples all of the time who want flowers on their wedding cake. And between Pinterest, styled shoots, real wedding cakes and uninformed cake designers/florists, it’s easy to assume that anything goes. But I regularly see flowers on wedding cakes that are toxic, dangerous and potentially harmful. This list is designed for other wedding cake designers, DIY wedding cakers and couples to understand how to select and use flowers on a wedding cake.

 

There are two aspects to choosing ‘safe’ flowers. Flowers must be non-toxic varieties and they need to be grown in a way which means they’re safe to be around food.

How to choose flowers that are safe to be around food…

Cheese and Figs on Wooden Platter

‘Commercial flowers’ which are grown for the mass market in the UK and sold via supermarkets and most florists are not safe to be near food

3 Tier Wedding Cake with Lavender Wreaths

So let’s cover safe to be around food first as it’s kind of prerequisite knowledge before moving on to what flowers are non-toxic. You may not know that commercial flowers in the UK are treated with a concoction of organic and inorganic fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, preservatives and even dyes designed to maximise profit per harvest, and ensure shelf life when they get to customers’ houses (or weddings!). In fact, according to a DEFRA study, ‘Ecuadorian rose producers typically use six fungicides, four insecticides, three nematicides and several herbicides’. It’s an older study (2007), so it’s possible that some things have changed in the industry (positively or negatively). However, we know that flowers are still treated with a variety of chemicals, and unlike with food, there is no labelling to suggest what chemicals have been used. So ‘commercial flowers’ which are grown for the mass market in the UK and sold via supermarkets and most florists are not safe to be near food. You don’t know how they’ve been handled, transported or even how long they’ve been sat in the water in the shop. Even if you have washed the outside, chemicals will have permeated all areas of the flower and could leach into the cake through the petals, leaves or stems. With so many unknowns, it isn’t safe to put ‘normal’ flowers near or onto a cake.

Therefore, if you are looking for flowers that are safe to decorate your wedding cake, you need to look for flowers that are grown without any chemicals. And preferably where you know the growing conditions, can ask questions and are reassured that the flowers are safe. There are two paths to finding flowers grown without (many) chemicals. Either searching for organic flowers or sourcing directly from a grower who doesn’t use any chemicals. With organic certification, chemicals are used as a last resort, and there is just a small list of allowable naturally derived pesticides that could be used on the crops. Having looked at the list of allowable chemicals, there are a number that raise an eyebrow for me, but I suspect they are all better than what we might usually find on our fruit and vegetables. Ultimately, organic flowers are a good option if you can’t work directly with a grower and need to find something better than standard commercial flowers.

The best place to find flowers for a wedding cake is directly from British growers. They won’t advise you on safe varieties (that’s what this list is for!), but they can tell you how they grow their flowers. With the growers/florists I work with, I know that they don’t use any chemicals and allow their flowers to grow naturally. If you want to start your search for local growers, the British Flower Collective are a really great resource. If you’re based in the North Hampshire area, Bramshill flowers sell absolutely wonderful naturally grown flowers. There are also a number of growers across Surrey, Hampshire and beyond who would be happy to help.

It’s also worth pointing out that in some cases, the flowers you grow in your own garden may also be safe to use on a wedding cake. If you grew them from seed, didn’t use any chemicals, and are sure that they haven’t been contaminated whilst in your garden (e.g. the pet toilet!) then you can be pretty confident that they would be safe to use. If you purchased the plant from a garden centre, then you just need to be careful as you have no idea how the plant has been treated before you purchased it, and I would expect them to be treated much the same as ‘commercial flowers’. If you can source organically grown plants or buy them from a local grower (who can answer those questions around chemicals) then you can be more confident that they will be safe to use. Considering all options, I recommend sourcing directly from a grower where you can ask about what has been applied to the particular crop. And then consider organic flowers as backup option.

Which flowers are toxic?

The next thing to check when sourcing flowers are which varieties are safe to be around food. If you look at the sections below, you’ll find an extensive list of flower and foliage varieties that are non-toxic (and for good measure, a list of toxic flowers too!). There are some well-known poisonous flowers like hemlock, deadly nightshade and lords and ladies. But there are a huge number of other common flowers that have toxic properties and are best kept away from wedding cakes too even if they’re grown naturally. On the other side of things, most flowers are non-toxic and therefore if grown properly, could come into contact with food. And finally, there are also a large number of flowers that are edible when grown to be eaten. There aren’t many sources for edible flowers, but I would recommend sourcing from edible growers as they should be handling the flowers in a more careful way than a regular grower once picked.

When using edible flowers, the general advice is that you should only eat the petals and should eat in moderation. There are some varieties like pansies that you can whole, but for the most part, it’s best to avoid everything except petals. So when serving your cake, you can pick off the petals from the flowers and serve them alongside the slices.

Pink and White Alstroemeria Flowers

How do we add flowers to the cake?

The advice that you see online most of the time is that you have to clean flowers thoroughly, wrap them up securely and place them in a posy pick so that they can’t leak into the cake. Some advice even includes placing parchment paper as a barrier between the flowers and the cake. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve sourced your flowers responsibly, there shouldn’t be any contaminants to be worried about. It’s just like using salad leaves. So of course, you should store them carefully so that they don’t wilt, keep them clean, make sure any water they’re stored in is clean and wash them to remove any bugs or dirt before you use them. When it comes to adding flowers to your wedding cake, you can stick flowers into buttercream or in some cases straight into the cake. You should avoid wrapping them in tin foil or cling film before poking them into the cake in case anything gets left behind. When adding your flowers, you don’t want any parts of the flowers nor wrapping left behind as contaminants. If you want to keep the flowers in a small amount of water, you can use a posy pick like a mini vase. Flowers are best when they’re added to a cake just a few hours before their photo opportunity as they will start to wilt.

What are your favourite wedding cake designs with flowers?

There are many different ‘safe’ flower varieties on this list, which means that whatever colour you’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be able to find some flowers in your colour and style. Purple, pink, blue, coral, burgundy, green, maroon, yellow, red, orange, white. There are so many options for your wedding cake! But here are some of my favourite designs…

Buttercream Cake with Orange Slices, Orange Flowers, Caramel Drip, Torched Meringue and Fruit in Garden Scene

Using Fruits and Dried Flowers on a Wedding Cake – The strawflowers (or helichrysum) when grown and handled carefully are safe to be around food, but would be removed before eating

3 Tier Wedding Cake with Lavender Wreaths on a Table in a Field

Dried lavender is a perfect cake decoration – it smells beautiful, is edible so it doesn’t matter if flower heads fall onto the cake, and could be paired with a lavender flavoured cake

Purple Shimmery 2 Tier Cake with a Dried Flower Buttonhole

A small buttonhole style arrangement like this makes it really easy to remove the flowers before cutting and serving the cake. This arrangement has a selection of dried and semi-dried flowers such as dahlia, chive flowers, grasses and roses.

3 Tier Fondant Wedding Cake with Flowers around Bottom in Front of Brick Wall

Using fresh flowers to decorate your wedding cake doesn’t have to be limiting. This wedding cake was decorated with flowers by the florist, using ‘commercially grown’ flowers. We set it up so that the flowers didn’t make contact with the cake itself

Red, Yellow and Orange Flowers on a 3 Tier Abstract Painted Cake

Flowers don’t have to be arranged in a really neat ‘traditional’ style – this cake featured an abstract painted effect, with an abstract arrangement of scabiosa seedheads, sunflowers, dahlia and rudbeckia which would be removed before eating

Photo by Masha Unwerth

Dried Pink Flowers in a Circle on top of a Cake

This cake features all edible flower petals meaning nothing needs to be removed before eating – and the dried rose petals smell gorgeous!

Edible Varieties

In order for a flower to be edible, it has to be a) grown in a food safe way, b) picked/stored/transported carefully, and c) be a non-toxic plant

Field of Cosmos Flowers
List of Edible Flowers
White and Purple Viola Flowers

My top 6 favourite edible flowers are:

  • Cornflowers
  • Cosmos
  • Dahlias
  • Lavender
  • Pansies / violas
  • Roses
Pink Snapdragon Flowers

As already mentioned, in order for a flower to be edible, it has to be a) grown in a food safe way (i.e. without chemicals) b) picked/stored/transported carefully, and c) be a non-toxic plant. Like with fruit and vegetables, not all edible plants/flowers taste the same. Celosia are edible but they taste dry and flaky like a Weetabix. Pansies are much more like a leaf of rocket, not floral just peppery. Herbs are of course chosen for their amazing flavours and rose petals will taste as they smell, floral and fragrant. So just because something is edible, doesn’t mean you will enjoy eating it! However, if you’re purely wanting to decorate a cake with the safest options available to you, just in case someone tries to eat them, this list of edible flowers is the place to pick from. Where possible, I would recommend sourcing these flowers from a specialist edible flower/plant supplier.

Flowers

  • Abutilon
  • Alyssum
  • Amaranth
  • Begonia
  • Bellis (common daisy)
  • Borage
  • Calendula
  • Celosia / Fire Feathers / Coral Flowers
  • Chervil
  • Chive Flowers
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Coriander Flowers
  • Cornflowers
  • Cosmos
  • Dahlias
  • Dianthus / Carnations
  • Elderberries and elderflower (although the plant does contain toxins, so should be used with caution e.g. avoiding leaves)
  • Electric Daisy
  • Forget Me Nots
  • Fuchsia
  • Gladioli
  • Lavender
  • Mallow Flowers
  • Nasturiums
  • Nigella / love in a mist
  • Orchids
  • Oxalis
  • Pansies
  • Phlox
  • Primula
  • Rocket Flowers
  • Roses, dog roses
  • Salvia (sage, pineapple sage etc.)
  • Sunflower
  • Snapdragons / Antirrhinum
  • Sweet Woodruff
  • Tagetes / Marigolds
  • Tulips (although the plant does contain toxins, so should be used with caution e.g. avoiding leaves)
  • Verbascum / Mullein
  • Viola
  • Violets
  • Wild Primroses
  • Zinnias

 

Foliage

  • All common herb varieties – basil, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, coriander, dill, lemon verbena, tarragon, fennel, wild garlic, watercress, lemongrass, bay leaves, oregano, parsley
  • Most garden vegetables, their flowers and stems – peas, marrows, strawberries, etc.
  • Fennel Flower
  • Geranium Leaves
  • Ice Plant
  • Kale Roses
  • Lovage
  • Pea Shoots
  • Sweet Cicely Fern
  • Winter Purslane
  • Yarrow Leaves

Non-Toxic / Contact Safe / Food-Safe Varieties

The next list are non-toxic flowers and plants. As already explained, you should be looking for flowers grown without chemicals that have been treated carefully once picked. This will mean that some of the flowers on this list aren’t practical to source ‘naturally’ in the UK and would have to be avoided anyway e.g. protea. Non-toxic here means that the flowers in this list shouldn’t be eaten, although they won’t cause you much serious harm if they transfer anything to the cake or are accidentally ingested. They are great options if you want a broader selection of flowers to choose from.

Flowers

  • Achillea / Yarrow (although not to be confused with poison hemlock which is toxic)
  • Allium
  • Astrantia / Masterwort
  • Bergamot
  • Bouvardia
  • Busy Lizzie
  • Camellia
  • Camomile
  • Campanula
  • Cape Jasmine / Jasmine Officinale (but false Jasmine, Gelsemium sempervirens is very poisonous)
  • Dandelion
  • Echinacea / Rudbeckia
  • Eryngium
  • Freesia
  • Geraniums
  • Gerbera
  • Heliconia
  • Hibiscus
  • Hyssopus
  • Lilac
  • Lisianthus
  • Magnolia
  • Orlaya Grandiflora / white lace flower
  • Oxeye daisy (standard garden daisy)
  • Passionflower
  • Peony
  • Pinecones
  • Protea / pincushion flowers / leucospermum
  • Scabious
  • Statice
  • Stephanotis
  • Stocks
  • Strawflowers / helichrysum bracetatum / xerochrysum bracetatum
  • Thistle (but not yellow star)
  • Trailing bellflower
  • Veronica
  • Viburnum
  • Waxflower

 

Foliage

  • Alexanders / Horse Parsley
  • Aralia / Fatsia / Japonica
  • Archangelica / Angelica
  • Areca palm
  • Aspidistra
  • Cactus – fine (but commonly misidentified as euphorbia which is highly toxic)
  • Calathea
  • Carex green sparkler
  • Cordyline
  • Damson / Sloe flowers
  • Dracaena
  • Heuchera
  • Hosta
  • Olive leaves
  • Palm – most fine (although a few toxic varieties, check by case)
  • Pampas grass
  • Perilla
  • Phlebodium
  • Phormium
  • Pussy willow
  • Sedum
  • Sorrel
  • Succulents – not much official data but generally appears to be fine (but commonly misidentified as euphorbia which is highly toxic)

Non-toxic here means that the flowers in this list shouldn’t be eaten, although they won’t cause you much serious harm if they transfer anything to the cake or are accidentally ingested

Yellow and Pink Strawflowers
Food Safe Flower List
Damson Tree Branch with White Flowers

My top 5 favourite non-toxic flowers are:

  • Echinacea / Rudbeckia
  • Lilac
  • Scabiosa
  • Stocks
  • Strawflowers
Purple Scabiosa Flowers

Toxic / Dangerous Varieties

This list contains all of the flowers and plants that should be actively avoided because they are known to be toxic or harmful

Pink Sweet Pea Flowers
List of Toxic Flowers to Avoid Near Food
Eucalyptus Leaves

My top 5 favourite non-toxic flowers are:

  • Echinacea / Rudbeckia
  • Lilac
  • Scabiosa
  • Stocks
  • Strawflowers
Pink Hydrangea Flowers

Finally, this list contains all of the flowers and plants that should be actively avoided because they are known to be toxic or harmful. Although some effects might be considered less extreme, like a mild skin rash, others can be lethal. Regardless, if you’re letting flowers touch something you’re about to eat, even if the most it will do is cause a rash on your arm, it’s probably not doing wonderful things for your insides! Most of the flowers on this list should be known to florists and gardeners anyway, as in many cases they may take extra precautions like using gloves when handling the plants.

Flowers

  • Agapanthus (= African lily / Nerine)
  • Aglaomorpha – can find no information, so best to avoid
  • Alstroemeria
  • Amaryllis / Hippeastrum
  • Anemone
  • Anthurium
  • Aster
  • Azalea
  • Bluebell
  • Cherry blossom
  • Clematis
  • Cotton / Gossypium
  • Craspedia / Billy Ball
  • Crocus
  • Daffodil (= narcissus)
  • Delphinium (inc. larkspur)
  • Foxglove (= digitalis)
  • Frangipani / Plumeria
  • Gypsophila
  • Heather
  • Helenium – can find no information, so best to avoid
  • Helleborus
  • Hyacinth
  • Hydrangea
  • Hypericum (berries)
  • Iberis – can find no information, so best to avoid
  • Iris
  • Laburnum
  • Lilies (inc. lily of the valley)
  • Lobelia
  • Lupin
  • Ornithogalum (= star of Bethlehem)
  • Pandanus – can find no information, so best to avoid
  • Physalis / Chinese lantern
  • Poinsettia
  • Poppy
  • Queen Anne’s lace
  • Ranunculus
  • Rhododendron
  • Strelitzia / bird of paradise – conflicting but best to avoid
  • Sweet Williams
  • Sweetpea
  • Wisteria

 

Foliage

  • Aloe
  • Beargrass
  • Dusty miller / Senecio
  • English yew
  • Eucalyptus
  • Euphorbia / spurges
  • Fern – debated but may contain carcinogens that should be avoided
  • Ivy
  • Holly and berries
  • Mistletoe
  • Philodendron (= monstera)
  • Ruscus

This list is designed as a starting place when choosing safe flowers for your wedding cake. It isn’t exhaustive, although I have done my best to find every flower you might possibly see in British bridal bouquets. Hopefully you’ll see that there are a lot of options available to you, and even where a flower might be on the toxic list (delphinium), there are plenty of edible (snapdragons) or non-toxic (stocks) substitutes. I’ve done a great amount of research and had the list verified by an expert, so you can use this as a good foundation when it comes to using flowers around food. However, it is always best to do your own research. Science changes often as new discoveries are made, and some flowers may be more/less dangerous for people with different health conditions. I can also take no responsibility for your use of flowers around food. In any case, I hope you found this article helpful, please share it with your friends, wedding cake designer or bridesmaids. Good luck and happy planning,

 

Love from lila xx

Enquire

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