Updated: Sep 1
I will leave this post up because I think there's still some useful stuff in it, but this advice is now out of date following contact from the FSA which makes clear that there is effectively no legal or safe way to use fresh flowers on cakes EXCEPT for those that are supplied directly by a registered edible grade grower (see edible flowers below). This can include pressed flowers, but again the flowers themselves must have been sourced directly from the FSA registered grower to maintain the food chain and ensure provanance.
See a more recent post explaining this at
I love fresh flowers on a cake, who doesn't? There's such a great choice of what you can do with them, colours, types... it can save you money, you can match them to your decorations. What could be easier, right? You just buy some flowers, or get your florist to provide extra for the cake and then stick them on...
some flowers are poisonous... and most flower growers use lots of pesticides now...
and cut flowers are shipped in containers with plant food that might not be safe for us to consume... and people have been getting ill from contaminated cake...
...so the guidelines have changed and the Food Standards Agency (and EHOs) are finally starting to look into this more deeply to stop some dodgy practices.
For some time now it's been illegal in the UK to stick fresh flowers on/in cakes without using a sealed food-safe barrier, such as a posy pick, to protect the cake from any cut stems and from the sap that carries pesticides and can leach into your cake. Trouble is that the news has not been getting through very fast at all and, to be honest, it's been pretty vague on the detail which has not been very helpful for either suppliers or customers.
So here's what I know...
Firstly, a list for clients:
1. Don't ignore this and do it anyway, someone could get very ill. Also your caterer may decide it's not safe to serve the cake at all and be obligated by law to bin it, putting them in an impossible position and leaving you disappointed.
2. Just because you saw it on Instagram or Pinterest does not mean it's safe to do. I see loads of cakes all the time with things like hydrangea, ivy, pampas grass, chrysanthemums, clematis, carnations, etc. All of these are poisonous and some of them are even potentially deadly. Oh, and just because they are dried does not make them suddenly safe to use! If you want these kinds of flowers or foliage, talk to your cake maker about getting some made in sugarpaste or wafer paper. Another option would be to use faux (silk) foliage, which you can also mix in with fresh flowers if you'd like to. Faux flowers have become sooo much more realistic in the past couple of years, and the selection is wider, but make sure to buy them from a reputable seller and if they are super cheap be aware that they may look pretty rubbish in the flesh (and may well be made from toxic materials that would not pass safety tests in the UK).
3. If you are DIY-ing, buy some posy picks (various sizes) from Amazon, Ebay, Hobbycraft, etc. and make sure that every cut stem is completely encased before you put it anywhere near the cake. Put the pick in only until the top is level with the edge of the cake, no further. Never lay the cut flowers directly onto a cake without a stem protector. (If you are buying a cake from M&S, Waitrose, etc., ask them why they appear to have failed to advise their clients of the dangers?). DO NOT just use waxed (florist’s) tape or an open ended straw (even if you’ve put chocolate or fondant in there). These may be allowed in some parts of the world, but they are not permitted in the UK, for good reason as they do not guarantee to seal the sap or pesticides in because the seals just aren’t good enough to stand up to being poked in, moved about and pulled out of a cake. You used to be allowed to use a wax called “safety seal” to create a covering for your stems or wires, but this has recently been deemed unsafe too as it crumbles leaving the stems open and an extra bonus of bits of wax contaminant in the cake! Seriously, just buy some posy pics. There are loads on the market, they don’t cost that much, they are super easy to use and they don’t leak!
4. If you are buying a cake from a cake supplier, they should be the ONLY person putting flowers, or anything else, on the cake. They are the ones trained in food hygiene. The Environmental Health Office and the Food Standards Agency stipulate that they should be the only people dressing the cake. They will need to charge you for consumables and the extra time though.
5. Ask your florist to make sure that nothing they supply for the cake is toxic or contaminated. Some florists still haven't caught on to the change in the laws but, if they're in any doubt, the FSA advice about florist's liability is pictured below. PS. just because it's on Pinterest doesn't make it safe. There are SO many images of cakes on the internet that would be completely unsafe to serve. PPS. don't just ask ask your florist to give the cake maker some left over flowers. The cake is the centrepiece of your reception, there will be lots of photographs of it. Apart from your bouquet, it's the thing that will need to have the most perfect looking flowers on it, and lots of them. A number of times I've arrived to recreate a style of decoration that would require 100 perfect stems to find that I've been given 20 wilted, bruised and twisted bits of old twig... we do what we can, but I can no more magic up extra flowers than I can pull a rabbit from a hat!
6. Go Organic - You can ignore all of the above if you choose to buy organically grown "edible" flowers. These can be sometimes be bought at larger supermarkets, but safer options are that there are a number of suppliers who do mail order or look for local growers in your area. There are limitations on what's in season, but they are usually glorious, specifically grown for the task so you can stick them straight on the cakes & you don't have to worry about toxins or posy picks ;)
7. What’s safe to use. There are no complete lists as there are just too many kinds of plants to list them all anywhere, but the most comprehensive list I’ve found is one I’ll list at the bottom of this article. If you can’t find what you are looking for, try an internet search, just ask “is (the name of the plant you are looking for) toxic to humans?”. Don’t take any chances! Some people still use things like gypsophila and eucalyptus on cakes. I used to use these but the more I looked into the subject the more I realised that it wasn’t worth the risk so they are now vetoed on my cakes, because one person at risk of having breathing difficulties is one person too many.
It should be said, if you are able to wash the foliage and spray it with some anti-bacterial spray, that would be a marvelous thing, just make sure to dry them off before you place them on the cake. Some flowers you can spray the back of with edible glaze as an extra precaution, but this dries slightly yellow, can only be done in a well ventilated area and will mark anything it settles on (only do it in a box or outside or you'll be paying for new flooring) so it's not suitable for most situations. In most situations a cake maker won't have the time, space or facilities available to them to be able to wash flowers on site (in theory the florists will have done this, but it rarely happens) but anti-bac wipes for the stems and any other areas are a great go-to.
I'll post a general guide of "safe and unsafe" foliage below, but please bear in mind that advice changes and you really should do your own checks at the time.
Now, a list for suppliers:
1. Florists beware!
It's bloody hard to find a definitive list of poisonous/toxic flowers and foliage - this is partly, I guess, because the range of fresh flowers available has increased so much in the past few years, and also because no-one has ever really been looking at it so hard before.
I've found various lists, but they all seem to have gaps and sometimes even the really obvious (and potentially deadly) ones like Hydrangea, Delphiniums, Ivy, Pampas and Foxglove are missed off. As above, there’s a great website to start your search for what’s safe to use at the bottom of this article, but no list is really complete so if you can't find the information to say it's safe don't risk it.
There are also differences of opinion about lots of things regarding if they're toxic enough to worry about or not. I have asked the Food Standards Agency about this, many, many, many times. Eventually they referred me to Kew gardens as they really didn't know themselves, but Kew immediately directed me back to the FSA because they didn't want responsibility for that either.
The FSA did however attempt to answer another question for me... who's responsible if it goes wrong and I'm supplied with something poisonous that I can't identify but I'm told is safe?
When I deliver a cake I have to set it up and dress it on site, so days before I ask the florist what flowers they will be supplying and ask them to check that the flowers are all clean, non-toxic, pest-free, long-stemmed and are not kept in the same bucket with any toxic flowers or vegetation. I check the list they send me against the advice I find on the internet, and then I write back to them and point out any foliage that they mentioned that cannot be used. Then when I arrive on site I often find that the list doesn't match the flowers they've actually supplied (and I understand that this is usually because they are buying according to what is actually available at the time), but then I have a dilemma... if they are there I can ask them the name of the plant and hope I have wifi so I can double check it's ok, but often they're long gone. They have been asked to supply flowers that are safe to use on a cake. They are the experts and I sometimes have absolutely no idea what the flowers are and no way of identifying them (I have apps but they rarely work). So, the florist has said they're safe and if I don't put them on the client could be upset and the cake could look Spartan... it's a dilemma.
So, here's what the FSA had to say on the subject...
"However, if the flowers are being sold by the florist specifically as food decorations, then the food contact legislation would be applicable to the florist directly. In that instance, if the florist indicates the vegetation is suitable for food contact they should have considered the requirements of Regulation 1935 / 2004, so that nothing could be harmful to human health; adversely change the composition of the food; or alter the organoleptic characteristics of the food (it's taste, aroma and texture). This would include any residues that may be on the vegetation, such as pesticides or fertilizer."
They also pointed out that no supplier (so no florist, wedding co-ordinator, stylist, etc) should be touching any food for public consumption without having a current Level 2 Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering certificate, and the cake maker should be the only person putting flowers or any other decoration on the cake to preserve the food chain.
2. Food-safe barriers - The only sure thing to use to stop stem contamination is a posy pick. Using waxed tape as a barrier is not legal in the UK as it leaks and can unravel in the cake. I heard recently of a cake maker cutting up straws, sticking stems in them and then shoving them into a cake...so the bit you're supposed to protect the cake from is completely open and there's absolutely no barrier at all. Eek!
I have been told you can seal up the ends of straws with melted chocolate or Safety Seal, but neither of these are full proof (and as Safety Seal is currently being discontinued by suppliers and is now rumoured to be have been disallowed by the FSA, I think it's a safe bet to say we should not be using it at all!). I just can't see why you would waste the time and not just buy posy picks.
To be honest, so many of the issues have stemmed from the fact that there's been so little official information about this available that people have been making up their own rules for years. Even now, floristry suppliers are still selling Oasis "cake toppers", even though the FSA has been advising for years not to let Oasis anywhere near cake... but they've not bothered to actually tell the people who use it or to enforce the rules in anyway. I'm thankful for Facebook forums where we can all benefit from the conversations different suppliers have been having with their EHOs and from tales of early trial and error ;)
3. Who's serving the cake - so here's a subject of much discussion recently... If the cake is being served by the caterers, and there's something wrong with it because of something that was done to it after delivery, who's insurance is that on? I've heard caterers say that it would still be on the cake maker's insurance, but my insurance says that I can't be held responsible for contamination after delivery and sometimes the cake has not made by a professional at all, but by a friend or family member. We've all been told the latest horror stories about the "made by mum" cakes collapsing or being mouldy inside, or being made from fresh cream that’s been left out for hours (eek!), but my understanding (from my restaurant and cafe days) is that if you as the server feel there is something unsafe about any food, you are legally obliged to stop it from being served. I don't allow anything that I'm not sure of into my kitchen at all (so no "my Nan's made a tier for you to include in the cake" allowed) as it could be contaminated and the food chain has been broken.
I've had a couple of venues tell me that they have stopped cake from being served because it was unsafe, but it's a tricky legal situation and it seems that the people who are supposed to help us navigate this grey area haven't really worked out the rules themselves yet. As far as I can tell, they are waiting for a supplier to get sued and legal precedent to be set so someone else gets to pay for the details of the new laws to be written. Fun to come for someone.
Well, my quick round up ended up being a bit longer than intended, sorry about that. Hopefully I've given a few useful tips along the way, and if you've made it this far I guess something peaked your interest. I'll try to be more concise next time.
Quick check list
Here's a quick list of what is currently deemed "safe", what some people are using, but I really wouldn't to be honest, and what should absolutely on no account be used anywhere near edible stuff (and this is not a complete list by any means!!).
If it's an unusual breed of a plant species, I'd check more closely as they may have crossed it with something unsuitable and some species (like crocus and daisy) have some that are safe and some that are deadly so never assume. If you are buying from a reputable and certified "edible flower specialist", they will have chosen non-toxic varieties of some flowers that may otherwise be on the minor toxins list, but in all other cases, don't take a chance.
Also... don't forget that there will be some cross over with some major food allergies. Things like alliums are from the onion family, so anyone with an onion / mustard / etc. allergy, REALLY cannot eat anything exposed to these either. The same is true of foliage which comes from nut trees, etc.
"Non-toxic" - currently considered ok to use on cakes, as long as you have sealed the stems on posy pics to ensure that no pesticides or sap can leak out.
Roses, lisianthus, wax flowers, peony, freesia, Gerber, cornflowers, dahlias, rosemary, thyme, lavender, orchid, ferns, Douglas fir, wheat, forget-me-not, thistles, nasturtium, sage, spider plant, prayer plant, jasmine, succulents, viburnum, willow
"Minor toxins / Oxalatas / allergenics" - risk of vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, or inflammation. The "I really wouldn't" list. Some of these are higher risk than others, but any risk should always be avoided so do your research.
Gypsophila (baby's breath), chrysanthemum (daisies), carnation, eucalyptus, ranunculus, begonia, clematis, cyclamen, Holly, hyacinth, iris, snowdrop, sweet pea, sweet William, wisteria, mistletoe
"Major toxins" - risk of serious illness or death... otherwise known as the "OH HELL NO" list!!
(not including major allergens such as nuts or lupins)
Hydrangea, delphinium (larkspur), Alstroemeria, foxglove, Hellebores (christmas rose), lily, Lily of the valley, ivy, calla lily, periwinkle, rhododendron (azalea), st john's wort, oleander, daffodil, poppy...
The website I mentioned above that I've found invaluable is https://ucanr.edu/sites/poisonous_safe_plants/Toxic_Plants_by_common_Name_659/
... but if in doubt Google!!
Love and cake,
NB. this is an update of a previous post, with a bit of new information in it.