ISEHARA, KANAGAWA PREF. - Katokaen, a flower farm in the suburbs of Tokyo, has built a thriving business by producing blooms that are not only pretty but are also enriching the culinary arts with colorful petals as crisp as lettuce or as sweet and sour as berries.
Run by a couple and their daughter, the farm in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, produces around 40 kinds of flowers in late autumn and early winter, including cyclamens, pansies and snapdragons, all edible and mostly chemical-free.
The photogenic flowers find their way into high-end restaurants and enthusiasts’ homes, where cooks have devised a myriad of unique recipes that have been posted to Instagram and other social media, boosting the farm’s visibility.
The introduction of edible flowers at the farm stemmed from the experience of Shigeharu Kato, 59, who spent 13 months in the Netherlands from 1980 to 1981, where he undertook agricultural training.
While learning ornamental flower farming in the nation famous for its tulips, he had the chance to try an edible flower.
“It was about 38 years ago, so I do not recall where and how I ate it,” said Kato. “But I clearly remember that it came as a total surprise to me and the texture was so crispy. I was so intrigued.”
For the first 10 years after his return to Japan, Kato mainly produced ornamental cyclamens. But he shifted to edible flower farming after his wife, Kyoko, 58, made jelly from pesticide-free flowers.
When she offered it to students in a group planting class, they were impressed and interested to know more.
“They were really amazed at the jelly,” according to Kyoko. “It then spread so quickly by word of mouth,” she said, adding that the family started receiving orders from a restaurant and eventually from hotels and individual customers.
They rarely advertise their products, but the number of clients and sales continue to grow while conventional flower farms in the area struggled to survive, with some closing due to fierce price competition and fuel costs.
The couple said the transformation from ornamental to edible flower production came so naturally because they rarely used pesticides from the beginning.
They grow flowers with organic fertilizers and put as little stress as possible on the plants by carefully adjusting the temperature and ventilation level in the greenhouse.
The farm’s flowers are used in cookies, gelato and cakes at restaurants. They are also planted at facilities for people with disabilities because they are safe even if eaten accidentally. Customers can also purchase potted flowers so they can enjoy them as ornamental plants and pick petals when required for cooking.
Some flowers are toxic. But many others are safe for consumption and offer a variety of flavors ranging from slight bitterness to sourness, with some tasting like wasabi.
Olive Tree, an Italian restaurant in Isehara, uses edible flowers in its salads and cakes. The proprietor, Kazuyoshi Yoneyama, said flowers are useful in a number of dishes because their flavors are often subtle and do not dominate other ingredients.
“Colorful petals are so eye-catching and menu items using flowers prove very popular,” he said. “And flowers are low in calories while rich in nutrients.”
Ran Tanahashi, 34, the eldest daughter, is also involved in the Kato family business. Like her father, she trained in farming methods in the Netherlands for about a year in 2005.
Tanahashi has always wanted to work in the agricultural industry and she said her experience in the Netherlands inspired her to further pursue her career in the field.
“I saw many people sending flowers as gifts in much more casual situations, such as parties and other occasions to express gratitude,” said Tanahashi. “Edible flowers were also closely linked to people’s lives,” with many homes in the Netherlands having herbal or edible floral gardens just outside kitchens, she added.
Tanahashi also said flowers were commonplace in homes there.
“I want to bring flowers closer to people here in Japan too,” she said, adding she hopes to make use of her expertise in floral arrangement and decoration gained before joining the family business about three years ago.
To ensure there is no need for pesticides, the family mixes charcoal, wood chips from the neem tree and Chinese herbs into the soil to keep insects away. They also try not to be overprotective, meaning they do not readily water the flowers so the plants extend their roots deeper and grow stronger.
But it is easier said than done, and Kato admits there were times when he just had to abandon some flower types in order to keep the method as “friendly” as possible and to grow safer products.
Despite the amount of time it takes to care for, tend and produce edible flowers, the family says it still finds the work fascinating.
“When you eat something delicious or listen to a cool song you are moved, The same applies to flowers,” said Kyoko Kato. “If you see a dish using pretty flowers you say ‘Wow it’s so pretty.’ This kind of thrilling or electrifying experience reinvigorates. This is what makes me keep farming flowers.”