Written by Julia Russell, Herbalist and Forager
For info about foraging, read the column: First Forays into Foraging
Elderflower offers the quintessential taste of early summer. There are commercially available drinks and desserts flavoured with fragrant elderflowers, but what better to introduce yourself to wild food than popping out to collect a handful of these easily identifiable flowers to create foraged goodies of your own.
Illustration by Megan Bowyer.
Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a small tree with shrubby growth, widespread in hedgerows, woodland edges, on disturbed ground and scrubby areas. I suggest making a mental note of your local elder trees in very early spring, identified by the furrowed, almost horny, bark on trunk and larger branches and younger smoother stems with well-marked pores. The brittle twigs, containing a pithy centre, were traditionally hollowed out to make pea-shooters and musical pipes (the Greek ‘sambuke’ means music pipe). Their leaves burst forth in spring with 2-3 pairs of rounded or oval leaflets in pinnate form. The creamy-white flowers, usually blooming locally around the first week of June, with individual 5-petalled blossoms clustered into flat loose umbels 10-20cm across appear like saucers amongst the greenery.
To get the most flavour, select elderflowers when they are newly open and heavy with pollen; oft times harvesting is scuppered by rain and high winds.
The flowers can be sprinkled onto pancakes or whole heads dipped in batter to create fritters. Countryside wines and ‘champagnes’ are traditional uses.
Elderflower cordial is simple to make and you don’t need a huge amount of flowerheads. It is glorious on its own diluted with water or as a basis for cocktails and mocktails, as a flavouring in baking or desserts.
Elderflower Cordial recipe
20 elderflower heads
1 sliced lemon and its zest
2 teaspoons of citric acid
1.2 litres boiling water
Fill a large bowl or bucket with all the ingredients except water. Pour the boiling water over and stir until the sugar dissolves. Cover with a cloth (a pillowcase is good). Stir twice daily for 5 days. Strain well and decant into sterile bottles.
‘Strain well’ as elderflower contains a lot of wild yeast which can lead to unwanted fermentation.
On the other hand, when fermentation is required, such as in a sourdough starter or kefir, elderflower can be added for that extra umph and flavour.
There is probably more folklore and superstition relate to the Elder than most other plant in the UK, but it also has a long history of medicinal use as an anti-rheumatic, diuretic and diaphoretic (promotes sweating), great drunk as a hot infusion for helping the body clear out colds, catarrh and fevers, yet gentle enough for treating childhood illnesses.
As you go forth in search of elderflowers, just remember that if you strip a tree of the flowers now, you will be removing the possibility of berries in autumn which are another forager’s delight and food for the birds.