Elderflower / Elderberry

Elderflower in the tree (Sambucus nigra)
Elder is a one of the most common wild edibles, really appreciated by foragers. Elderflowers are picked in early summer to infuse their aroma in refreshing drinks. Berries are picked in late summer to early autumn and are used to make jams, tarts and pies.

Table of Contents

Elder: Plant profile

Common names

Elder, Elder Tree, Black Elder, European Elder, Elderberry, Elderflower, Pipe Tree, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Tron, Trom

Botanical name

Sambucus nigra

Plant family

Adoxaceae

Distribution

Native to most of Europe and North America. Very common everywhere in the UK and Ireland.

Where to find Elder

Hedgerow, woodland, scrub and wasteland.

When to find Elder

Flowers early to mid-summer and berries early to mid-autumn.

How to identify Elderflower & Elderberry

Shrub or small tree with light coloured bark and  brittle branches. Leaves are formed  from two or three pairs of opposite leaflets and a terminal one. Elder is covered in creamy-white umbels of flowers that are highly aromatic. These umbels turn to clusters of small green berries, before ripening to a purplish-black.

Elderflower & Elderberry lookalikes

Elder could be confused with Ground Elder because the leaves are quite similar, however this is a low growing plant.

The flowers of the Wayfaring Tree (Viburnum lantana) can look similar but smell unlike and the berries are a different colour. The flowers of the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) vaguely resemble those of Elder.

Elderflower in the tree (Sambucus nigra)

All about Elder

The superstitions associated with elder have long played an important part in local history and folklore. People were afraid to cut down and burn its branches for fear of being cursed by the ‘Elder-mother’ who was believed to be the guardian living in the tree.

A deep respect for this tree made people value elder for its innumerable virtues, as it keeps giving so much by way of medicine, food and drink.

Elder produces the quintessential English summer fragrance: the heady scent of elderflower. The frothy, creamy white bloom is in fact composed of thousands of diminutive flowers that produce a unique aroma associated to refreshing floral cordials.

Medicinal properties of Elder

Elder has a  long history of medicinal use and it’s still much used by herbalists.

Elderflower has a number of medicinal properties, such as expectorant, anticatarrhal, circulatory stimulant, antiviral and anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, an infusion of elderflowers an also be drunk to relieve hay fever or stress.

Elderberries have high vitamin C content and are quite effective for treating winter colds and flu.

Culinary uses and recipes with Elderflower & Elderberry

Both flowers and ripe berries are edible.

Elderflower is typically infused fresh for herbal tea, cordial and other drinks, such as flavoured liqueuers and sparkling wine or “elderflower champagne”.

Unripe berries are preserved in vinegar and used as “elderberry capers”.

Elderberries are cooked into jams, jellies and syrups, though they are also used to make country wine and vinegar.

Elderberries hanging from the tree (Sambucus nigra)

Safe foraging of Elderflower & Elderberries

Leaves, bark and roots contain cyanogenic glycosides and should never be consumed.

Unripe or raw Elderberries may cause stomach upsets and must be cooked or processed through  fermenting or pickling in order make them  safe to consume.

Ecological importance of Elder

Elderflower provides a valuable nectar source for pollinating insects and Elderberries are much appreciated by small birds.

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Alvaro Docio

Alvaro Docio

I am the person behind British Local Food. As a forager and wild food educator, my aim is to inspire you to go outdoors, familiarise with your local plants and make the best of their culinary and medicinal properties, in the hope you'd pass on any knowledge gained down to the next generation.

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6 thoughts on “Elderflower / Elderberry”

  1. Hi there I’ve just made elderflower wine . its dead easy . you have to wait a while though before its ready to drink . but its worth it you can use it in gin mixers etc or on its own very distinctive flavour . there’s a few flowers left so I will try the tea as put the comments board thank you Joe .PS the elderberry s also make good wine. I sometimes mix them with either apples or blackberry’s during the fermenting process.

    Reply
  2. Do you wash it, no matter where I pick it from it’s absolutely riddled with tiny black clies, greenflies etc, can’t imagine using it unwashed at all?! but it’s v delicate too, what’s best option?

    Reply
    • I get what you mean, they usually attract many little creatures.
      However wash it and you’ll get rid of the pollen, where all the flavour is coming from.
      I think the best way to proceed is to infuse the flowers as you pick them and sieve the bugs using a fine mesh.
      That’s what definitely works for me!

      Reply
  3. I harvested Elder flowers and dehydrated them for tea. My friends who have tried it have been so surprised at how nice it is. I’m planning on going out collecting berries this week.

    Reply

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