Tuesday, 8 May 2012


For most of the year, elders are little more than weeds in tree form. They grow as fast as willows but have none of the advantages – they cannot be woven into baskets, they create a noxious stink in spring, and they cannot even be burned in fireplaces, as their smoke is mildly toxic. For a few short weeks in June, though, they burst into elderflowers, and clusters of the large white blossoms line our roads and fields can be put to many uses in the kitchen.

The flowers can be made into “champagne,” a mildly alcoholic drink, with the addition of lemons, yeast, bottles, and two weeks. To do this just peel the rinds off four lemons, squeeze their juice into the bucket and throw the lemons in with several elderflowers. Pour in a kilogram of sugar and two tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Then pour in eight litres of water, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, cover with a cloth and let stand for 24 hours.

The next day or so, strain the mixture and pour it into bottles – large plastic jugs do fine for us. Set them in a cool place for about two weeks, and test the result. You can also make elderflower cordial, by packing elderflowers tightly into a jar and pouring vodka over them, and letting the container sit for at least a few months.

Also, you can preserve the taste of elderflower all year by making syrup. Gather a basket of elderflowers, and for every four cups of elderflowers take two cups of water and one cup of sugar. Boil the water, dump the elderflowers in and turn the heat off. Let the elderflowers soak for a few hours uncovered, strain the mixture and then stir in the sugar. Many people recommend adding citric acid to preserve the syrup for longer periods, as well as to add some tang. Some people soak the elderflowers in room-temperature water for a few days rather than placing them in boiling water and letting them soak for a few hours; that seems to work as well.

Either way, you can preserve the elderflower taste in a concentrated liquid, and then use a small amount of that liquid in a glass of water whenever you like. Elderflower syrup will also come in handy for baking, as one would use rosewater, or can be stirred into mixed drinks. You can also do the same thing to make elderflower jelly, by adding pectin with the sugar to make it set.

Another easy use for elderflowers is in pancakes. Clip some elderflowers right where it divides from the stem and brush them lightly to make sure no insects are on it. To make the batter, just crack two eggs into a large bowl and stir until smooth, then mix in about 120g of flour – the result should be so thick it is difficult to stir. Then slowly add 200 ml milk until the mixture is runny but not watery. Put small pan with a little oil under medium-high heat, pour in the batter so that it covers the whole pan in a thin layer, and set one full elderflower into the batter face-down.

After a minute or so – whenever the underside of the pancake gets golden-brown – flip it over and fry the other side for another minute or so. The flowers add a fruity taste to the pancakes, as blueberries would. Elderflower syrup is also used to make pancakes, but using the flowers themselves is simpler and more direct. Do make sure you don’t pick elderflowers from the side of the road or where exhaust could contaminate the plants.

Also, make sure you have actual elderflowers and not poisonous Queen Anne’s Lace or some other broad white flower. Elderflowers grow on trees and bushes; if it’s growing off the ground, it’s probably something else. Always pick flowers on a sunny day, pick the freshest-looking flowers, and use them as soon as you pick them.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.


Mark Sullivan said...

I have read on several occasions, that European elderberries have a bad odor. The closely related American species, which is found all over the place, here in the Ozarks, does not seem to have much bad oder. Otherwise they seem to look almost identical. Does the wine, or jelly made from them taste much like wine and jelly from the the american species? Apparently, elderberries have fairly potent effects on cold viruses, etc. And are sometimes used that way here. Do the Irish use them medically? They seem to be plants of folklore, myth and legend.

Brian Kaller said...


Interesting -- I was told they smelt foul when I was growing up in Missouri, but there weren't many of them where I lived, and that was before I learned to make wine and jam. I would research the species first to make sure, but I don't see why they wouldn't make just as good a product.

Yes, elderflowers have often been used as a source of vitamins in winter, and elderflower cordial or syrup for colds.

Thanks for reading.

Florence said...

Hmmm ... personally I like the smell of elderflowers. Maybe we have a different species here in Denmark, but they still grow like weeds! We make juice from elderberrys and preserve it into the winter for a remedy for colds. The flowers can be dryed and saved to make tea also good for colds or the flu.

Brian Kaller said...


Do you mean the smell of the flowers themselves, or those of the leaves? If you want to experiment, crush some leaves in your hand and see how they smell, and let me know.

Florence said...


I mean the smell of the flowers themselves is kind of nice. I did what you suggested with the leaves and, while not especially strong, they smell kind of ... well bad. At first I thought of cigarettes, but then just mildly bad smell.

Brian Kaller said...


It would be interesting to see if yours are a genuinely different breed. The ones here seem to ooze a foul odour when the new leaves sprout in spring. The flowers themselves have a distinctive aroma, although I don't find it nice myself. Of course, everyone's sense of smell is different.

Florence said...

Well I don't know if they "ooze" a foul order, but I'll have to wait until next spring to find out! LOL. They do however have a distinctive order even now.
Have you ever smelled the flowers of the rowan tree (I think another name for it is the mountain ash)? They have a very distinctive and, I think pleasant order too.

Sarah said...

Great post! Queen Anne's Lace is not poisonous, by the way, but it does very closely resemble the deadly Poison Hemlock, it's cousin. I hope to try out at least one of your fantastic sounding recipes this summer!