Elderflower guide: where to find it, how to identify and recipe ideas

Lacy white elderflower heads dot the emerald hedgerows of Britain at this time of the year. Our expert guide on how to identify and find it and three delicious recipes you can make from elderflower. 

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Elderflowers are the last of the great tree flower displays of the year. The umbrellas of dense, tiny white flowers send out an alluring sweet smell that can be captured in drinks such as cordial and champagne. But first you need to find it and identify it properly.

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Elderflower facts:

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Elderflower is thought to have medicinal and healing properties/Credit: Getty
  • The elder tree is also known as Black Elder, Ellhorn, Pipe tree, Bore tree, Eller and Holler.

  • The twigs can easily be hollowed out of their soft inner pith- children have often used these as toys, and in the more distant past they were used as fire bellows.

  • The elder tree has many associations in folklore, including Anglo-Saxons who believed if you fell asleep under a tree in full bloom, you would be invited into the world of the fairies and be protected from evil spirits. Anglo-Saxons also believed that if an elder was removed it would be replaced by a witch.

  • Judas was believed to have hanged himself from an elder tree.

What are the benefits of elderflowers? 

For thousands of years elderflower has been believed to have medicinal and healing properties.
 You’ve probably tried elderflower in a tasty summer cordial but these flowers can be used for much more. The flowers have both anti-septic and anti-inflammatory effects, so country folk have been using them in home-remedies for centuries. A mix of elderflower and water can be used to alleviate symptoms of anything from the common cold to some forms of arthritis. 

Where to look for elderflowers

Elder trees are incredibly common across the UK. They are small hedgerow trees with corky bark that is deeply fissured as it gets older. The leaves comprise 5-7 oval leaflets with festery edges. The creamy flowers festoon the trees in June and the smell is particularly strong on warmer days.

Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra).
If in doubt about whether you are picking elderflowers, check the leaves and the smell. <em>Getty</em>

Foraging for elderflowers

Take a pair of sharp scissors and remove flower heads just below where all the small stems meet the main stem – you want as little of the green stem in your recipes as possible. Gather only a few flowerheads from each tree so as to allow as many as possible to develop into berries – a crucial late summer food source for birds, mammals and insects. An old carrier bag is the best way to carry your haul.

A man harvesting elderflowers from a country park on a summer's day.
Just take a few flowerheads per elder tree – leave some to develop into berries. <em>Getty</em>

What to do with elderflowers

Nothing says summer like a fizzy glass of elderflower cordial (also delicious added to a gin and tonic!). Here are three easy recipes to make using elderflowers – do you have any to add?

Three easy recipes using elderflowers:

Elderflower cordial

Pouring elderflower cordial into drinking glas
Elderflower cordial – possibly the most refreshing drink you can forage. <em>Getty</em>

The floral taste of this traditional syrup is great with water, but also complements pastries, cakes, ice-cream and champagne or prosecco.

Ingredients:

•          650g sugar

•          1 litre boiling water

•          3 lemons

•          20 elderflower heads

•          30g citric acid (available from a pharmacy)

Method:

Shake the elderflowers to remove any insects (don’t rinse them, as it strips the pollen and flavour). Place the sugar into a saucepan, pour in the boiling water and stir until the sugar dissolves. Grate the lemon rind, then slice the fruit and add to the pot. Add the citric acid and the elderflowers and stir. Steep for 24–48 hours, then strain into sterilised bottles and store in a cool, dry place for up to a month or freeze. Dilute with water to taste – fizzy water seems to create the perfect summer drink.

Elderflower fritters

Elderflower fritters, close up
Elderflower fritters straight from the pan. <em>Getty</em>

Make these light, golden, crunchy desert bites that retain that glorious scent of summer.

Ingredients:

•          15 elderflower heads

•          oil for frying

•          100g self-raising flower

•          2 teaspoons caster sugar

•          2 teaspoons cornflower

•          1 egg

•          150ml sparkling water

•          Icing sugar

Method:

Heat oil in a saucepan until very hot. Whisk egg, flours and sugar together then add sparkling water. This helps lighten the batter. Dip each flowerhead into the batter and fry for 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry on kitchen paper. Dust with icing sugar and eat while crunchy.

Elderflower and gooseberry jam

Jar of gooseberry jam, basket and organic gooseberries on dark wood
Gooseberry and elderflower jam – <em>Getty</em>.

This marriage of two wonderful early summer flavours provides joy in the darker months.

•          1kg gooseberries

•          900g granulated sugar

•          100ml elderflower cordial

Method:

Put gooseberries into a pan and cook until pulpy. Add sugar and heat slowly until is has dissolved and the mixture begins to thicken. Add the cordial and keep stirring. Place a small sample on a very cold plate and run a finger through it. If the jam wrinkles, it will set nicely. If not, cook for another five minutes and try again. When ready, pot your jam into sterilised jars.

Main image credit: Getty

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