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Tax-free beauty 

Sunday was a beautiful spring day -- the most beautiful day of the year in the Humboldt Bay Area, as likely as not. Inside Pierson's, a gardener worked her way to the garden center's cash register bearing her selection of annuals. She had picked out some petunias, some snapdragons, some violas, some nasturtiums.

When he got to the nasturtiums, the checker held up the starts and asked the gardener, "Are you going to eat these?"

The question was asked in a business voice, so it puzzled the gardener for a moment. She chose to field it as if the checker were simply making conversation. She told him that she did like to put the flowers of her nasturtiums on salads once in a while. But they were mostly just for show.

But the first answer was good enough for the checker. He rang the flowers and informed the gardener that since she did cop to consuming the flower the state of California did not require her to pay sales tax. When she asked, the checker said that this curious aspect of law previously had been brought to the nursery's attention by another customer.

In California, vegetable seeds and starts are not taxable. Flowers and other ornamental plants are. In that checker's reading, the nasturtium exists in a curious netherworld somewhere between the two, where the taxability of the product depends on its intended use. If you've never sampled a nasturtium, walk over to the nearest patch; there's probably one within 25 yards of wherever you're sitting. If you can be relatively certain that the plants are pesticide-free (again, probably a safe bet) pick a flower and pop it in your mouth. If you can't find a flower -- it's a bit early yet, in most places -- try a leaf. It's got a delicate, peppery taste that's not quite like anything else you've ever tasted.

A moment's research showed that the Humboldt County floral industry is somewhat divided on the question of when and whether to tithe the state when nasturtiums are purchased. Up at McKinleyville's Miller Farms, salesperson Maria Leith said Monday that the question had never been raised, to her knowledge. A flower was a flower. "We have never not charged tax for edible flowers," she said. And she said that she does have customers who buy nasturtiums and other flowers for the express purpose of eating or serving them.

Meanwhile, Kathy Sherwood of Eureka's Sherwood Forest Nursery said that her customers have long been aware that if they plan to consume their nasturtiums, they just say so and she will hit the "non-taxable" key. To Sherwood, a flat of nasturtiums is exactly akin to a flat of tomato starts: "Anything that is edible, you don't pay sales tax on."

As soon as she said it, though, Sherwood started wondering. "In reality, pansies are also edible," she mused. "But we do charge sales tax." Apparently, nasturtiums are eaten just often enough to serve as a well-known foodstuff, if not an entirely common one. But there exist a whole host of other ornamental plants that can be eaten and enjoyed. Sherwood mentioned pansies, but she could just have easily added carnations, violas, calendula, jasmine, violets -- even roses. How far could one push it?

It seems there are no easy answers. "The law says that tax does not apply to seeds or plants when the plants or their products ordinarily constitute food for human consumption," according to Anita Gore, chief of communications for the State Board of Equalization. "It's currently unclear whether nasturtiums qualify under 'ordinarily.'"

On Monday, Humboldt County Tax Collector Stephen A. Strawn said that sales tax wasn't really his business. State government collects the money and sends him a check for the county's share. However, he did venture to guess that the edible flower dodge didn't significantly impact local government's bottom line, even in nasturtium-happy Humboldt County.

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Hank Sims

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