We’ve been on the watch for elderflowers this month and in the last couple of weeks, after heavy rain and then blazing sun, the frothy creamy panicles have finally started to bloom. The Elder has been cultivated as source of food since the Stone Age, and there are recipes for elderberry-based medications in the records dating as far back as Ancient Egypt.
The season to use the flowers as an edible ingredient is extremely short, usually end of May to the last week of June. Best picked in the morning on a sunny day when the pollen is rich and their sweet, heady grape-like aroma is at its strongest.
Seasonal period: End of May to early July
Where to find them: Hedgerows, woodland, wasteland and canals
How to recognise: A rather untidy, many-stemmed, deciduous tree or shrub that can grow up to 10m tall. It has arching branches with corky bark that is grey-white in colour. The leaves are pinnate with 5-9 leaflets per leaf and ovate with saw-toothed margin and prominent midribs. In spring it has flat, frothy, creamy-white blossom followed by clusters of small red berries in the late summer, and as they ripen turn blackish -purple in August.
What to eat: Flowers & fruit. Make sure you always process the flowers and cook the ripe black berries, and never eat any of the green parts, they will make you very sick.
Cleaning and storing: Gently shake each flower head to get rid of insects. Use them immediately for the fullest flavour or dry them by laying them, flowers down, out of the sun for a day.
Cooking: Elderflowers can be used to make a delicious wine and champagne. Freshly scattered over salads, fried into fritters, infused in cordials, syrups, spirits, vinegars and chutneys. Adds a wonderful delicate flavour to ice cream and, they can be crystallised and used for edible decorations for cakes and desserts such as fruit salads.
Elderflowers can also be dried and made into purifying tea.
Medicinal uses: Elderflowers and elderberries are widely used in herbal medicine. Full of antioxidants and antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, no wonder why the Elder shrub acquired the nickname ‘The Countryman’s Medicine Chest’. The flowers can help reduce pain and swelling in joints and is also known to lower blood sugar levels, very similar to the way insulin works. The berries have more Vitamin C than oranges or tomatoes and have a long history as an immune booster and a remedy for colds and sore throats.
Know hazards: All parts of all elderberry species other than the flowers and berries contain cyanide-producing compounds, so it is a good idea to avoid all the green bits and the bark.
Responsible foraging: Unless you are 100% sure of what it is and 100% sure that it is edible, DON’T EAT IT! Harvest only what you need from large, healthy shrub. Simply pinch or snip the heads from the bush at the first joint so you avoid damaging the populations. Consider pesticides, herbicides, pollutions and dog pee. Think about all that could, might and will have drifted onto your plants and pick wisely.