It’s elderflower season … choosing, picking, collecting

Let’s celebrate the beginning of summer with the sweetly scented flowers of Sambucus, the elder tree.

It is thought the name elder comes the Anglo-saxon ‘aeld’, meaning fire, because the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire. The elder is steeped in ancient tradition.  It is said to be protected by a dryad who resides in the wood. A tree spirit by the name of Hylde-Moer (Elder Mother). Considered a wise old woman of the hedgerows she is both mature and bountiful conferring on us nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls. But cut her elder down, she is released, a homeless spirit she will take her revenge!

Elderflowers are wonderful to eat. Summer jewels their elegant, sweet, heady fragrance translates into lots of delicious recipes for jams, puddings, cakes, sauces and even elderflower fritters – whole flower heads can be dipped in a simple batter and fried in hot oil to make the most amazing dessert with a delicate vanilla flavour. Inspired? It doesn’t stop there, we can use elderflower in drinks such as the classic elderflower champagne or elderflower cordial.

They’re fantastic as a flavouring like any fresh spice or herb. Add them to a gooseberry compote, apple jelly or steep them in hot cream to use for making custard or luxurious ice cream.

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elderflower ice-cream with alpine (or wild) strawberries
Savoury uses? But of course! Add them to your lemon or sage and onion stuffings, enrich your homemade marinades for steaks, venison, chicken pieces or pork cuts. Mix elderflowers with honey, wine, mustard and minced garlic to make a delicious glaze for roast lamb or baked ham.

I will be posting a few simple elderflower recipes which I hope to tempt you with. But first I thought it might be useful to offer my guide to picking and collecting elderflowers.

Abundant in Britain, the elder [sambucus] is one of our most common native trees or shrub, (it is also widespread across many temperate and subtropical regions of the world). Elders burst forth with a profusion of  flowers which are quite simply everywhere from late May to mid-July. Growing on railway embankments, parkland, roadsides, scrub, woodlands, wasteland and in hedgerows, they produce a near blanket of creamy-white umbelliferous flower heads. Borne on large flat umbels, 10-30cm across, the tiny individual flowers have five petals, are  creamy-white, and  heavily scented. Elderflowers are simply wonderful and what’s more they’re free!

As you may have guessed from the photos above, I use both the native and the hybrid variety in my cooking adventures. The Sambucus Nigra hybrid (available in garden centres) grows in my garden, producing pretty pale pink flower clusters which naturally colours the desserts, drinks and other concoctions I prepare with them.

When picking the flowers, you must ensure you are not trespassing, and don’t pick flowers close to the roadsides and especially those with heavy traffic. A basket or a loosely woven hessian weeding bag works best for collecting your harvest. Don’t, don’t, don’t use plastic bags or bin liners the flowers will sweat, turn brown and are pretty much useless for anything other than the compost bin.

It is important not to damage the elder or to strip individual shrubs bare of flowers. Take only as many flowers as you need or are able to process with a few hours, the flowers can go off very quickly after picking. You are also ensuring other foragers can enjoy this wonderful bounty.

The young flowers just opened have the most scent. You are looking for sprays (whole heads) with lots of newly opened flowers and only a few tiny (closed) buds. Run (or slide) your fingers up the stalk (from the leaves towards the flowers) and snap the flower head off with not too much stalk attached. A quick shake will remove most of the bugs and beasties feasting on the pollen and nectar.

lots of newly opened flowers and only a few tiny (closed) buds 
Choose a sunny day from late morning you want dry flowers that aren’t soggy with morning dew … great excuse for a lie in. Be sure to pick the creamy-white flowers in full bloom kissed by the suns rays with an intoxicating sweet heady aroma which shower you in pollen. This is especially important for elderflower champagne. To capture both those floral delights but also the all important natural yeast which produces the momentous elderflower fizz!

Do not be tempted to pick flower heads if any of the individual flowers have turned yellow or are brown and shrivelled. They can smell quite unpleasant at this point, I sure sign not to pick them. Leave the whole heads be and in the autumn you can return to harvest the vitamin C rich elderberries for Autumn produce and use to make natural dyes …. remembering of course to leave some for the wild birds to feed upon.

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elderflowers ready for processing
Elderflowers can also be dried in a dehydrator or very low oven. When flowers are in plentiful supply I like to pick extra for drying for year-round use in teas, infusions, tinctures and syrups, they add an aromatic hint of summer to winter fruit pies & crumbles or steamed sponges & baked roly poly. Store the dried flowers in an airtight clean container in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

Add some dried flowers to a jar of unrefined (unbleached) sugar to infuse. The sugar can then be used in your cake, fudge or dessert recipes – just replace some or all of the ‘ordinary’ sugar with elderflower infused sugar. When it’s getting low,  start another  batch to ensure you never run out.

elderflower infused sugar

Collecting elderflowers in brief

  • Do not trespass
  • Choose a warm sunny day but stay away from roads side shrubs where petrol fumes may ‘flavour’ them.
  • Collect elderflowers in a basket or hessian bag, never, never use plastic bags.
  • Only pick as many elderflowers as you can use in a few hours (unless your planning to dry them for later use).
  • Choose fully open creamy-white flowers with no yellow, brown or shrivelled flowers.
  • To pick, run your fingers up the stalk and gently snap the whole flower head off.
  • Never strip an elder bare of flowers, we want berries in the Autumn and to share the bounty with other foragers.

And remember ….. the best cordials and champagnes are made from freshly picked flowers. The warmth of spring sunshine on young elderflowers makes them heady with perfume, so pick only when you have the time to work your magic or within a few hours you lose the scent and most of the flavour.

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My recipes for elderflower cordial will be posted in the next few days and hopefully alternative elderflower recipes over the next few weeks during the bountiful elderflower season.



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