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 elderflower, where to find it and delicious recipes to make.
Come late spring and summer, elder trees and hedgerows are filled with the sweet scent of fragrant and delicate elderflowers.
Their frothy, white flowers tend to bloom in early May and flower until August when the berries begin to ripen. The flowers can be collected to make delicious elderflower cordial, added to cakes or biscuits or even deep-fried to make tasty elderflower fritters.
June is typically the best time of year to collect elderflower as the flowers are at their freshest. Pick the flowers on a warm, dry day and don’t forget to give them a little shake to remove any insects (without harming the insects), before soaking or rinsing in cold water and leaving them to dry. Try to avoid collecting elderflower from busy roads as the flowers will absorb the traffic-fumes.
Our expert elderflower guide includes information on how to identify, where to find it and delicious recipes you can make from elderflower.
When is elderflower in season in the UK?
In the UK the white frothy blossom of elderflower appears in late May to early June.
How to identify elderflower
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.
In June, the elder is at its finest, its leaves almost lost beneath the white of its flowers. The petals are small and clustered, but form an umbel that is broad and soporifically scented, like a dollop of perfume-infused, inflorescent ice-cream.
The crowns of elderflower have long been gathered. Some are dunked in batter and fried, while others find their way into cordials, wines or bottles of fermented fizz. This impacts little upon the tree’s regeneration, however, and by August those pollinated flowers that remain will have transformed into berries that ripen from green to deep claret.
- 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 health 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.
How to forage responsibly
Always be sure you can positively identify any plant before you pick it, and never eat any plant you are unsure of. When foraging, ensure you leave plenty for wildlife.
Here are a couple of key foraging guidelines:
– Seek permission before foraging. In certain areas, plant species will be protected so it is important to do some research and check with the landowner before you start gathering.
– Only pick from areas that have a plentiful supply. Look for areas where you can find food in abundance and then only collect a small amount for personal use. Never completely strip an area as this could damage the species and deny another forager the chance to collect.
– Leave enough for wildlife and avoid damaging habitats. Many animals rely on plants for survival, so never take more than you plan to eat as this could also deny wildlife from a valuable food source. Be mindful about wildlife habitats and avoid disturbing or damaging.
– Never pick protected species or cause permanent damage. Britain’s wild plants are all protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which makes it illegal to dig up or remove a plant. Check the law before you forage or if in doubt, why not take part in a foraging class with an expert and learn the basics.
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.
How to forage 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.
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?
Best elderflower recipes
The floral taste of this traditional syrup is great with water, but also complements pastries, cakes, ice-cream and champagne or prosecco. Enjoy a fresh and fragrant drink with this easy and delicious elderflower cordial recipe - the perfect summer drink.
Make these light, golden, crunchy elderflower bites that retain that glorious scent of summer.
Make this tasty elderflower and gooseberry jam to enjoy summer flavours in the winter months.
Elderflower gin has a subtle flowery flavour, soft, sweet and refreshing. Lucy McRobert shares her recipe on the BBC Wildlife Magazine website for making this summery drink.
Learn a new way of using the elder tree to make something delicious with this elder shortbread recipe, by horticulturist David Hamilton, on the BBC Wildlife Magazine website.
This delicious and refreshing sorbet goes well with lightly poached gooseberries, hot apple pie or summer berries, but is perfect on its own as a refreshing end to a summer barbecue.