The Elder Tree is a medium sized tree with oval saw-toothed leaves with five or seven leaflets per stalk. Their leaflets are arranged opposite to each other with one single leaflet at the tip – quite the formation! Each leaflet is feathered with small hairs on the underside. During winter, leaf buds turn a very striking purplish shade.
From late May, masses of frothy white flowers start to bloom and flower until August, which later develop into purple Elderberries in late summer. Each umbel is teeming with individual flowers which are creamy-coloured, with 5 petals each and where the signature scent comes from.
The Elder Tree has a fairly short-lived lifespan (up to 60 years). It grows abundantly in wet woodlands, hedgerows and river banks, given Elder normally needs a rich and damp soil.
When it comes to harvesting Elderflower, its delicate blossoms appear from May. Be sure to pick when they’ve been privy to ample sunshine, choosing blooms that have just started to open with plenty of pollen on each umbel. Avoid those that have started to dry out and faded to brown or dark yellow in colour.
It’s best to avoid picking Elderflowers during wet weather as the rain can wash away their signature floral scent and flavour. This is the same for washing any edible blooms – just give little critters a chance to find a new home, as washing will dilute their floral flavour.
When picking your Elderflowers, opt for hedgerows in natural settings if possible, rather than busy roadsides or low level shrubs that might be a popular spot for our four-legged friends!
Not only does the Elder Tree produce blossoms in early summer and berries later in the season, there’s also a third crop – Jelly Ear Mushrooms! They grow on the dead branches of Elder Trees (another SB favourite).
Flowers | May to August
Berries | August to October
Elderflower has an all manner of culinary uses, it’s floral, fragrant and much sweeter compared to other edible flowers. The harvest period for Elderflower is from May until August – much after this period you’ll notice the scent change from delicate to erm, cat wee-ish…how delightful!
The blossoms have a sweet and floral taste; delicious incorporated into sweet treats and a wonderful match with sharp fruits, such as rhubarb and lemon. From Elderflower Cheesecake to Lemon and Elderflower Cake, Sorbet and Champagne – the list goes on!
It’s really straightforward to make your own Elderflower Cordial – here’s our very own recipe. This can be poured into a manner of edible delights. You could try incorporating Elderflower cordial into your Summer tipples, or even infuse the alcohol itself.
Here are a few more recipes on how to use Elderflower:
Elderflowers are rich in antioxidants and boost the immune system. A wonderful natural decongestant, Elderflower helps to clear and maintain healthy sinuses.
It has traditionally been used to help reduce fevers, colds and flus – found in tea blends alongside peppermint and thyme to support a strong immune system. Gargling a decoction made from the leaves is also said to relieve a sore throat.
Elderflower also has anti-inflammatory properties, particularly helpful if you find yourself feeling a little under the weather or suffering from allergies.
If you find yourself feeling a little ‘blocked up’, Elderflower can help with detoxification and ease constipation. It can be used as a tonic, supporting a healthy blood supply.
It was thought that if you burned elder wood you would see the Devil, but if you planted an elder by your house it would keep the Devil away.
It is also said Elder trees provide refuge through a thunderstorm as it is never struck by lightning – striking stuff!
There are recipes for Elderflower based medications dating back to Ancient Egypt, where bodies have been unearthed alongside an elderflower tincture – if it’s good enough for Cleopatra, it’s good enough for us!
Bear in mind if you’re picking the berries later in the Summer, only the ripe berries and blossoms of elder are safe to eat. The stems, leaves, and unripe berries are toxic. You should also only seek out blue or black elderberries, the red elderberry varieties are also poisonous. More on Elderberries here.
Cow Parsley is probably one of the plants most likely to be mistaken for Elderflower. The flowers grow on green stalks, directly from the ground and there are no leaves on Cow Parsley stalks.
Hawthorn may well also be confused with Elderflower. Hawthorn flowers are larger than Elderflowers and have brown/black anthers, rather than the delicate white stamens and yellow anthers found on Elderflower.
Many of our Cookery Courses include a short foraging walk as part of the day, introducing you to a handful of commonly found wild ingredients.
Essential if you’re picking on private land. As with everything, respect is key and goes a long way.
If in doubt, leave it out.
Why rush? Nature isn’t going anywhere! Take time to ensure you safely identify your finds.
One step at a time.
No one becomes an expert overnight. Build up your identification skills and your confidence will grow.
Enjoy the process.
Foraging is not only about what you pick but the experience – Immerse yourself in nature and appreciate the little things. The fresh air, birds chirping, a light breeze or the feel of soil beneath your feet.
With an abundance of forage at your doorstep, why not start local?
The 10% rule.
Only take what you need (or 10% of what is available). This not only means that you leave plenty for other foragers, but also local wildlife. We want to enjoy our ecosystem not damage it.
Leave room for regrowth.
Never uproot a plant so that it is always able to regrow after you have foraged from it.
Wash before consumption.
Always give your foraging finds a good wash before consuming, especially when picking on busy routes/path.