Elderflower – the essence of early summer

By Sarah Watson

The flowers of the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) are one of my favourite edible blossoms. The creamy-white, saucer-shaped blooms have a unique, sweetly fragrant scent with notes of citrus and honey, and a superb, rich, floral flavour. But the elderflower season doesn’t last for long – just a few weeks in late spring to early summer. So make the most of it while you can, taking care not to collect too many flowers from one spot so the tree can fruit later, providing food for wildlife as well as other foragers.

The flower heads are arranged in flat clusters (or umbels) of 10 to 30cm across, each one is made up of tiny florets (small individual flowers) with five petals and five pale-yellow anthers. The leaves of this small tree are formed of two or three pairs of opposite leaflets with serrated edges, ending in a single leaflet. If you crush the leaves, they can smell quite acrid and unpleasant. The young twigs are green, becoming grey as they age – splitting them reveals a soft, white pith. The  grey bark of the trunk is vertically grooved and corky-looking and can often be covered in green algae.

Take care not to confuse elderflower with the similar-looking flowers of the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia), the wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana), cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Or worse, the deadly hemlock (Conium maculatum) or hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Remember you’re looking for a tree, not a non-woody plant – and check the leaves, bark and flowers features carefully.

The best time to pick elderflowers is on a warm, dry day when the blooms are freshly open – as they get older the smell becomes less pleasant, even cat-wee like! Pick the nicest smelling ones, and shake them gently to dislodge any insects.

Elderflowers, and the fruit that follows in late summer to early autumn, small globular glossy purple-black elderberries, have been used in cooking for centuries. However, the stalks and leaves contain toxic cyano-compounds which are denatured by cooking, but they’re not tasty either. So flowers and ripe berries should be stripped away from as much of the green stalk as possible – this can be done with a fork or using your fingers.

Elderberries  shouldn’t be eaten raw either – they also contain the cyanogenic glycosides which can release cyanide, as well as a toxic alkaloid, and a lectin which is a potential hayfever allergen. Ripe berries are safe to eat when cooked as the toxins are made safe by cooking, although that is not necessarily the case for green, unripe elderberries, as stated in this 2014 European Medicines Agency report.

It’s simple to make your own elderflower cordial, I add lime for extra zing – here’s my elderflower cordial recipe, and here are some ideas for using elderflower cordial or liqueur in gorgeous cocktails.

My elderflower fritters, made with a light tempura batter, served with elderflower panna cotta

Elderflower fritters are a lacy, crispy treat: dip elderflowers in a light batter (I use an eggless one), briefly deep-fry, then sprinkle with icing sugar or elderflower cordial and perhaps some citrus juice, or serve with summer fruits or gooseberry compote. Note: it’s easier to leave some of the main flower stalk on for this dish, but as it’s not especially edible, and as the raw stem contains cyanogenic glycosides which break down into cyanide on chewing/digesting, it’s best not to eat it.

Elderflower ‘champagne’ is worth a try too, but watch out for exploding bottles – rather than using glass ones, I prefer reused plastic fizzy drink/sparkling water bottles (sterilised with sterilising tablets and water), or you can buy empty ones online or from wine-making shops. Keep the filled bottles in a cool, dark place keeping them away from anything you don’t want to be potentially sprayed, just in case!

Use elderflower to flavour sorbet, ice lollies, ice cream, custard, panna cotta, cakes, preserves, liqueurs and salad dressings. Nick Hales of St Clements restaurant in St. Leonards-on-Sea suggests pickling Hastings herring fillets in elderflower vinegar – I was sceptical, but I tried it and it works wonderfully!

Always use good identification books to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them.

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast forage, cook and eat course> book here.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

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