From May until early June where I live, the hedges and woodland edges are sudsy with elderflowers. This is an exciting time for those of us who enjoy a rummage in the hedgerows. Whether you’re more familiar with the European elder (Sambucus nigra) or the North American species (Sambucus canadensis), you can look forward to a dual harvest of edible flowers and berries wherever these grow. This is a truly generous shrub!
Although separated by an ocean, the two species are similar enough that they can be treated as one and the same by foragers on either side of the Atlantic. Both can be used to make drinks and desserts to swoon over – and swoon you might in the case of elderflower champagne!
Elder of either species is one of the easier wild shrubs to identify. The leaves are actually compound leaves, comprising of (usually) five to seven leaflets with serrated edges. The white flowers are borne in exuberant corymbs in early summer, followed by masses of black or purplish-black berries in late summer and autumn. The corky bark becomes fissured with age, which is most pronounced in the European elder.
The leaf shape and flower form of elder is very close that of the perennial weed ground elder, hence the similar names.
Once you’ve gathered a bag or basketful of your sweet-smelling elderflowers, it’s time to put them to good use. Elderflower cordial is a zingy and refreshing drink, perfect for slaking your thirst on a hot summer’s day. It’s straightforward to make, as this elderflower cordial recipe shows, and you can adjust the sweetness to suit your personal taste.
Elderflower cordial makes an excellent mixer for gin, vodka and sparkling white wines. Or go the whole hog and make elderflower champagne from scratch.
Last year I discovered that blending the season’s first gooseberries with elderflower cordial makes truly irresistible gooseberry and elderflower fruit leathers. Next time I’ll try mixing it with gooseberry jam, which should prove just as delectable.
You could even try dipping the whole flowerheads in batter to make elderflower fritters, but don’t eat the stems or you risk a stomach ache.
Elderberry Drinks and Desserts
When harvesting elderflower, don’t be too greedy. Take only a few from each bush. The remaining flowers will then develop into sumptuous elderberries. The berries must be cooked before use. Make them into delicious concoctions such as elderberry jam, syrup, crumble, wine or a sloe gin-like liqueur.
Follow the forager’s code – don’t strip bushes bare of their berries. They’re an important food source for many fruit-eating birds in autumn, who will go on to help disseminate elder seeds through their droppings. This means more elder bushes, and more elderflowers and berries for animals and humans to enjoy in the future!
If you want to save yourself the time and trouble of hunting out elderflowers and berries, you’ll be happy to learn that these shrubs are easy to please in the garden too.
It’s said that to prevent evil spirits from gaining access to the house you should grow elder by the door, but for most gardeners elder is not well-behaved enough for this prime position. Even with annual pruning it will tend to form an undisciplined bush, throwing up suckers from the roots. It’s therefore best kept in an informal, out-of-the-way area of the garden where it can be allowed to grow to its full potential. It will tolerate most soils and partial shade, but is most productive in full sun.
Some cultivated varieties of elder can really add drama to an orchard or a wildlife corner, such as Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, with its inky leaves and foamy pink flowers, or the golden-leaved Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’.
For a magical experience, try looking out for fairies underneath an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve. Take care not to fall asleep however, as it’s said the fairies will carry you off if you do!