WE EAT ROOTS, we eat stalks, we eat leaves, we eat seeds. Why is it that we don't eat flowers?

Actually, we do, usually without even noticing. Cauliflower and broccoli are actually unopened flower buds. Chamomile tea is made of dried chamomile flowers. Saffron comes from the stigmas or female flower-parts of the saffron crocus, cultivated in Spain, France, Italy and Iran. And maybe an aunt or grandmother once offered you homemade rose petal preserves.

Dill pickles often come graced with dill flowers in the jar. In fact, herbalists always seek the opening eye of an herb's first flower as they gather herbs to dry. Herbs picked just as they begin to bloom taste most flavorful: the forming flower concentrates the essence of the herb, but full blooms let the fragrance drift away.

Although many flowers are edible, not all of them are. Some plants, such as wisteria and elder, grow poisonous leaves or seeds, but the tender flowers somehow transcend the poison. Others, like buttercups, have enticing blooms--even the name sounds as tasty as can be--that have been known to kill cattle and should never be served. Don't follow your eyes, nose or intuition when eating flowers. Check with books or experts if you're not sure.

Some blooms in the vegetable garden are worth gathering. But remember that as you pick the flower, you're pruning potential vegetables too. A dozen squash blossoms served for dinner might mean half a dozen fewer squashes next month. But close-knit vegetable patches might even benefit from a little flower clipping.

The prettiest and most delectable parts of a flower are its petals; they offer color, delicacy and summer-sweet flavor to hors d'oeuvres, entre'es and desserts. Some petals are substantial enough to be picked individually; others, more delicate, must be picked attached to the flowerstalk. Just remember when a flower blooms, it often draws a concentration of sugars from elsewhere in the plant. Clip off the flowerstalk as close as you can, when using the whole flower because stalks can taste quite bitter, even when flowers are sweet.

Flower pollen is already on the market, with outrageous promises to reverse aging, balding, graying hair, and who knows what else. Pollen grains are densely packed granules of high-protein plant material that emerge from the flower on the anthers or male flower-parts. It is possible to shake pollen from the flower, collecting enough to add to recipes. Depending on its shape, each flower can be tipped into a small glass jar or paper sack. But the harvest is tedious and worthwhile only if you are fanatically interested in eating pollen and have a lot of time to spare.

For those more interested in adding garden-variety flowers to their menu, roses, nasturtiums and elder flowers fill the bill. Roses have for centuries been valued not only for their beauty and fragrance, but also for the subtle and distinctive flavor they add to sweets. Nasturtiums--brightly colored, easy to grow from seed, and prolific once established--snap to in a salad, adding the hot "nose-twisting" twang that gave them their name. They also add color and zest to a jar of dilly beans. And elder flowers, if one doesn't mind sacrificing a few bunches of berries later on, lend a summer-sweet flavor (if not much color) to traditional breakfast dishes.

Only one hindrance remains before the hostess can with a free conscience surprise and delight her guests by serving flowers in a meal. That one hindrance is bugs. Insects love to eat flowers, or at least dip into them, and often when you gather a bouquet you are gathering a nest of creepy creatures too. Cool weather or rain often cleanses flower blossoms, but fresh-picked petals or whole flowers will benefit from a 10-minute soak in cold salt water. The bugs will float free and the flowers will stay crisp and fresh for later. But don't expect to store picked flowers very long; if you must, wrap them in a clean towel or paper towel, gently tuck into a sealable plastic bag, and keep in the refrigerator crisper. ? Uses of Edible Flowers

Rose--Petals, buds in salads, preserves, casseroles, desserts.

Daylily--Buds, whole flowers, petals, dried flowers in vegetables, salads, soups, tempura.

Violet--Whole flowers in salads, desserts, preserves.

Honeysuckle--Whole flowers in salads, desserts, preserves.

Nasturtium--Whole flowers, petals in salads, pickles, casseroles.

Pot marigold (Calendula)--Petals in salads, salad dressing, casseroles.

Yucca--Petals in salads, sandwiches.

Redbud--Whole flowers in salads, desserts.

Squash (summer and winter)--Whole flowers in tempura.

Blackberry and Raspberry--Whole flowers, petals in tea, salads.

Dandelion--Whole flowers, buds in fritters, wine, vegetables.

Red clover--Flowers, petals in salads, wine, tea.

Cattail--Pollen, flower "cobs" in breads, biscuits, soups, sauces, steamed vegetables.

Elder--Flower cluster, petals in fritters, pancakes, waffles, biscuits. Inedible Flowers

Iris, Rhododendron, Azalea, True Lilies (Easter, tiger, turk's cap, etc., as distinguished from daylilies), Tomato, Buttercup, Sweet pea. FLORAL STIR-FRY (4 servings) 1 tablespoon safflower oil 2 tablespoons chopped ginger 3 scallions, finely sliced 1/8 teaspoon thyme 1/8 teaspoon cumin 1 cup fresh snow peas 4 large or 8 medium sliced mushrooms 8 to 12 nasturtium blossoms

Heat oil in skillet, then toss in ginger and scallions and heat until sizzling. Sprinkle in herbs, then add snow peas and mushrooms. Stir and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes or until snow peas are cooked to your taste. Toss in flowers and only barely stir in with other ingredients. ROSE PETAL MOUSSE (4 servings) 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon rosewater 2 cups yogurt 2 egg whites 1/2 cup whipping cream 1 cup rose petals (less may be used)

Stir honey and rosewater together thoroughly, then blend into yogurt. Beat egg whites until stiff. Whip cream, then fold the two beaten ingredients together. Swiftly fold in yogurt mixture. Spoon into dessert glasses, floating petals throughout mixture as you fill them. Freeze until just firm, about 2 hours. TRADITIONAL ROSE PETAL JELLY (Makes 4 6-ounce jars) 18 red roses (or 1 quart red rose petals) 1 cup boiling water 2 cups sugar 1 tablespoon lemon juice 3 ounces liquid pectin

Place cleaned, separated petals in large, shallow bowl. Pour boiling water over them and let them steep 20 minutes. Strain petals out of now rose-colored liquid. Add sugar and lemon juice to liquid, then cook in large saucepan over medium high heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves. Once mixture begins to boil, add liquid pectin. Boil hard for 1 full minute. Have jelly jars ready. Petals may be spooned into jars so they float in the jelly; clear rose jelly is equally delightful. ELDER FLOWER FRITTERS (Makes 6 to 12 fritters) 6 to 12 elder flower bunches 3/4 cup unbleached flour Pinch salt 1 egg 1/2 cup lukewarm water (more or less) 1 tablespoon butter, melted Light cooking oil (safflower or vegetable) Powdered sugar as desired

Clip whole flowerheads of elder, leaving 1 to 2 inches of stalk to hold onto. Make batter by combining flour and salt in mixing bowl. Separate egg and slip yolk into indentation in flour. Add a bit of water. Mix and add water gradually as needed to form sticky batter. Blend in melted butter, then at last minute beat egg white until stiff and fold into batter. Dip each flowerhead into batter and fry in 1/2 inch of light cooking oil over medium high heat. Dust golden brown fritters with powdered sugar if desired. YUCCA SALAD (4 to 6 servings) 1 head butter lettuce, torn into bits 12 to 20 yucca flower petals 11-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained 4 tablespoons blanched almond slivers 1 small onion, finely minced 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil 1 teaspoon white vinegar Juice of 1 lemon Dash of salt

Toss together lettuce, yucca flower petals, oranges, almonds and onion. Make a dressing of olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and salt and toss with salad.