We Love … Elderflower

Elder (Sambucus nigra), is a bit of a brute of a tree. It can grow tall and straggly, it grows back from a stump however hard you try to cut it back when removing one from a hedgerow, it tends to accumulate dead patches and branches and the wood takes ages to dry out enough to be used on my wood burner.

However. I can forgive all this for the flowers produced each June (and berries but more of those in the autumn!). In fact, it was Elderflowers that started me on my food for free journey.

Elder trees are common across the Scottish Borders, indeed all across the UK. They are easily identifiable, small trees, often popping above the flat topped Border hedgerows as they grow much more quickly than the trees surrounding them, hawthorn and hazel typically here in Berwickshire. The trees have a corky bark that gets deeply scored as the tree ages. The branches are pulp-filled and are easily hollowed out – children have used these as toys, and in the past the hollowed out branches were used as fire bellows.

Small Elder tree growing in a garden bed

But it is the flowers that set the tree apart and, particularly in early morning sunshine, they smell absolutely wonderful. This is the best time of day to collect the flowers. Take a pair of sharp scissors and remove flower heads just below where all the small flower head stems meet the main stem. Elder trees often grow in groups so remember to gather only a few flowerheads from each tree. This leaves plenty of flowers to develop into berries; a crucial late summer food source for birds, mammals and insects – and a further foragers delight! The best was to remove the small flowers from their stems is to comb them with a (clean) wide-toothed hair comb. The flowers fall off easily and can be collected for use in many different recipes. Picking the flowers off by hand takes far too long!

Only the flowers and berries are edible and you shouldn’t eat flowers or berries raw. The rest of the tree is poisonous and contains compounds that are metabolised into cyanide within the body. Follow the simple recipes, below, to make the best of the flowers.


Elderflower cordial. All you need is 25 flower heads, 3 lemons, 1 orange and a kilo of sugar.

  • Pour 1.5litres of boiling water over the flowers (removed from heads as above) and the rinds of the fruits
  • Leave overnight then strain
  • Add 1kg sugar and juice from the fruits to the liquid
  • Heat to dissolve sugar then simmer for 10 mins
  • Cool and bottle

The cordial is great diluted in water, wine or champagne and as a syrup for ice cream and yoghurts.

Elderflower Wine. You will need 20 flower heads, 200g chopped raisins, 1 lemon, half a cup of cold tea, 1.3kg sugar and wine yeast.

  • Dissolve the sugar in 0.5l boiling water. Cool
  • Pour 3.5l of cold water onto the flowers (removed from stems), lemon rind and raisins. Leave for 4 hours. Strain.
  • Add half a cup of cold, strong, black tea, lemon juice and cooled sugar water to the liquid. Leave overnight.
  • Add yeast. Leave 4-5 days, stirring each day.
  • Strain to demijohn and leave for 6 weeks.
  • Rack ( ie transfer liquid into a new demijohn leaving solids behind) and leave for fermentation to cease (3 months)
  • Bottle when clear.
  • Leave for 3 months then drink!

I think Elderflower Wine is best drunk early, as it is light and fresh. It can be left longer, in which case it matures into a fragrant dessert wine. I find this too strong to drink undiluted, but it makes a great spritzer or use in cooking. I keep a jar of Elderflower (and one of Elderberry) Wine for cooking.

There are hundreds of other recipes to try. Here are just a few ideas:

And here’s something I learned today. From wildfoods.com

“There is another crop from the Elder and that is the Wood Ear, Auricularia auricula-judae, a mushroom that can be found at all times of year growing from dead limbs or stumps of Elder. ” I’m not a confident mushroom hunter but this might be a good place to start!

If you are going to forage, please follow the simple guidelines:

  • Always be sure you are sure of the plant before you pick it and never eat any plant you are unsure of.
  • Leave plenty behind for wildlife.
  • Make sure you have permission to pick
  • Only pick where plants are plentiful

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