Is it elderflower season where you are? If so, these fragrant and medicinal blossoms are everywhere! Help yourself to some free deliciousness by foraging elderflowers from a shrub near you. If it’s not elderflower season, you can purchase dried elderflowers or elderflower syrup. But first, what is elderflower and what are the benefits of elderflower?
What is Elderflower?
You’ve probably heard of elderberries, the natural remedy for colds and flu that’s gotten so popular you can find it in every supermarket and grocery store these days. Elderflower is simply the flower of the same plant, Sambucus nigra or the native North American variety, Sambucus canadensis.
It turns out elderflower is a useful remedy in its own right. And it’s thoroughly delicious!
Best known as a flavoring for liqueurs (especially the popular St. Germain), elderflower is also a useful medicinal herb that’s worth getting to know, in part because it’s so easy to forage from these widespread plants.
Health Benefits of Elderflower
Like so many other under-appreciated plants, elderflower has not only stellar taste, but some potent medicinal properties. Hibiscus, lemon balm, spruce, yarrow, and nettle are some of my other favorites, many of which can be combined to complement the power of elderflower. Here are some herbal tea recipes to get you started making your own customized herbal tea blends.
Herbalists turn to elderflower as an anti-inflammatory that’s especially useful for treating respiratory symptoms. Rosemary Gladstar highlights elderflower’s diaphoretic (sweat-inducing) properties, which make it a popular choice for reducing fevers. It’s also good for soothing coughs and frayed nerves.
Elderflower also has diuretic and laxative effects as well as being anti-bacterial and antiviral.
A tea brewed from elderflower, yarrow, and peppermint is a traditional soother for respiratory inflammation. Here’s more on incorporating elderflower into your cold care routine from Studio Botanica.
The Herbal Academy reports that “A strong infusion may be used as a gargle for sore throats, and as a compress for headaches. A cold infusion of the flowers has been used as an eye wash for inflamed eyes, for both man and dogs.”
Used topically, elderflower can reduce swelling and may relieve arthritis pain. It’s sometimes used in homemade skin care recipes for its soothing and smoothing abilities.
Here are some wonderful ways to use elderflower in your skincare routine:
Elderflower Rosehip Salve (The Nerdy Farm Wife)
Elderflower Infusion Oil (Simply Beyond Herbs)
Elderflower Anti-Aging Serum (Joybilee Farm)
Precautions with Elderflower
**Much of the elderberry plant contains compounds considered toxic. Eat only the flowers and cooked berries, NOT the stems or leaves.**
- Elderflower is not recommended for use while pregnant or nursing.
- If you take diabetes medication, consult a doctor before consuming elderflower.
- Consume in moderation to avoid stomach upset.
- Stop using this herb at least two weeks prior to surgery as it may interfere with blood clotting.
What Does Elderflower Taste Like?
Fresh elderflower has a light floral scent with a hint of pineapple. But taste is a pretty individual thing, and plants grown in different conditions and climates will likely also have different flavors. Some people find elderflower’s flavor “musky” while others find it similar to lychee. A tea brewed from the fresh flowers is surprisingly light but still fruity and delicious.
If you’re looking for a special flavoring for a cake or mixed drinks, you can make a simple syrup or purchase a premade one. Ikea sells a popular elderflower syrup, though apparently it’s not always easy to get since demand increased after Harry & Meghan’s royal wedding cake included elderflower. In Europe you might find elderflower pressé, a carbonated drink, on grocery store shelves.
Most often paired with lemon or strawberry, elderflower also works well with melon and other fruits.
Where to Find Elderflowers
You can forage your own elderflowers or purchase them dried. Elderflower fans will tell you the flavor of the fresh flower is far superior, so it’s worth finding some growing wild near you or cultivating some of your own.
Elderberry shrubs grow well in much of North America and Europe, and they’re easy to grow yourself if you have space. Here’s how to propagate elderberries from cuttings, the most cost-effective way to start your own elderberry plants. Several cultivars are available, and since they have different bloom times, planting different species can help extend the flower’s short season.
If foraging’s more your jam, the easiest way to identify elderflowers is to positively identify plants once the berries are ripe and remember where they were the following season. Or better still, find someone in your area to point out a few plants during flowering time; once you’ve seen them, you’ll have no trouble recognizing these beauties in bloom.
*Be sure to use a good field guide or go with a veteran forager, and watch out for toxic plants that could be mistaken for elderberry.* The red elderberry, for instance, flowers a month earlier and has a different-shaped flower head. Here’s more info on elderberry identification and some helpful posts on plants that might be mistaken for elderflower if you don’t forage carefully:
- Elder vs. Water Hemlock (Eat the Weeds)
- Elder vs. Dogwood (They’re Not Your Goats)
- Elder vs. Devil’s Walking Stick/Hercules Cub/Aralia Spinosa (Northeast Superfoods)
- Elder vs. Pokeweed (Judith Dreyer)
- This post from Stay and Roam discusses three other flowers one could mistake for elder.
One of several key takeaways: If it has thorns, it’s not elderberry. Check leaves, bark, and growth habit before you decide it’s an elderberry bush.
Tips for Foraging Elderflowers
Remember that if you pick the flowers, the plant won’t make berries. It’s a good idea to leave some flower heads so you can enjoy foraging elderberries a couple months later and put up plenty of elderberry syrup for cold and flu season.
When you collect your flowers, look for heads where most blossoms are open and creamy white. If they’ve started browning, leave them to make berries and choose a fresher umbel. If you’ve had heavy rains, it’s best to wait a couple days to allow the flowers to produce more pollen or elderflower’s signature flavor might be compromised.
Most elderflower veterans say it’s preferable to collect your flowers in the morning. I’ve found flowers collected earlier in the day tend to have more pollen and fragrance, and will likely impart a richer flavor to your recipes.
To keep flowers fresh, I’ve found it helpful to bring along an insulated bag with some freeze packs. Put your flowers in a container in the bag, and they keep much longer than if you leave them loose in a basket.
The season for picking elderflowers lasts about 4-6 weeks, as the umbels on a single plant will bloom at different times and different plants in different growing conditions will bloom earlier or later.
All those yummy-smelling blossoms attract a lot of insects, so give the flower heads a gentle shake to remove them before placing the flowers in your basket. You can also handpick the more tenacious bugs.
*Don’t wash the flowers or you’ll be removing a lot of the flavor you’re after.*
If you lack the time or inclination or if there aren’t elderberries growing near you, there are a number of options for buying dried elderflowers online. You might also try this bagged version from Republic of Tea.
Using Elderflower: How to Preserve These Ephemeral Blossoms
Most elderflower devotees like to use them right after picking to maximize the flavor they can extract. They start to wilt and brown within a couple hours of picking. You can refrigerate your flowers in a container or paper bag for up to 24 hours if you’re not going to get to them immediately.
But dried flowers are also very useful medicinally. Herbalist Matthew Wood reports that “properties of the flowers change according to whether they are fresh or dried, or served hot or cold” (432). He notes that “fresh flowers more purgative, also harder on stomach. Dried they lose purgative properties.” It’s a warm infusion of the dried flowers that’s generally used for treating fever.
Elderflower umbels (the flowerheads containing scores of blossoms) are easy to snip from the plant, but depending on what you’re doing with them, preparing them afterward can be a bit labor intensive. For some recipes you can leave on the upper bits of stem, but for others, you need to remove all the little blossoms from their stems, which not only don’t taste great, but also contain compounds that can cause stomach upset.
I’ve spent many hours this season de-stemming elderflowers while researching my upcoming book on elderberries and their uses. I hung out with elderberry growers, herbalists, jam makers, and even a local distiller learning how they put these ephemeral blossoms to use.
I pitched in with huge boxes of flowers destined to become a locally-made elderflower liqueur, where the preferred technique was removing the blossoms with a clean comb. The jam-maker snipped them off with scissors for her elderflower cordial, but hand-picked the flowers for a gorgeous elderflower strawberry jam. I pulled them off somewhat roughly for experiments with cold infusion and elderflower vinegar.
Colleen at Grow Forage Cook Ferment discovered you can shake some older flowers right into a bowl and leave the forming berries intact. I’m going to try that if I have time to make her elderflower muffins before this season’s elderflowers disappear.
Note that if you choose to dry your elderflowers, you leave the blossoms on till they’re dry, when removing them becomes considerably easier.
My advice if you want to make lots of elderflower goodies but don’t want to go out harvesting flowers repeatedly and spend hours in the kitchen as I’ve been doing lately: Choose one or two things you want to make with them. Then harvest plenty of flowers, making use of what you can manage fresh. Dry the rest so you can experiment with using them in teas and other recipes throughout the year. If you’re interested in using them medicinally, make sure one of your projects is a tincture, which will last you for years.
Remember, there will always be another elderflower season!
You have three primary choices for preserving elderflowers:
- Dry them
- Make a simple syrup
- Steep in alcohol
Which you choose is entirely up to you. Consider how you plan to use the flowers, for tea, medicinally, as a dessert flavoring, or in mixed drinks. You might want to dry a bunch for future use, though I’ve been told by the pros that the flavor of dried elderflower is decidedly different.
Place flower heads on a drying screen. You can make your own out of a simple window screen resting on chairs or you can purchase a drying screen. You can also use a dehydrator at a very low temperature. I’ve read some people just leave them on a clean towel or piece of cardboard.
Keep in an airtight container for use throughout the year. Shelf life is up to one year.
Elderflower Syrup or “Cordial”
You can make a simple elderflower syrup by steeping with water, sugar, and lemon. The syrup can be added to fizzy water for an easy homemade soda, used in cocktails, or added to cakes or jams for an elderflower flavor. Check out Adamant Kitchen’s instructions for making elderflower cordial if that’s the route you choose. The syrup will keep in the fridge for a few weeks, or you can freeze some in ice cube trays for future use.
Elderflower Tincture or Liqueur
You can preserve elderflower’s delicate flavor and medicinal properties past its short season by steeping it in alcohol. Unsweetened we call it a tincture, meant to be taken in small medicinal doses. Tinctures are very simple to make and last for years. Rosemary Gladstar recommends using fresh herbs for tinctures when possible, but you can also make a tincture from dried elderflowers. Here’s a good guide to tincturing.
If your aim is a long-lasting and delicious cocktail mix-in, you’ll want to use your elderflowers to make a popular drink add-in called elderflower liqueur or St. Germain, the best-known brand of elderflower liqueur. Elderflower liqueur is essentially a tincture with sugar and lemon added. If you like cocktails, a bottle of elderflower liqueur will be your go-to for numerous mixed drinks. Here’s how to make your own elderflower liqueur.
How to Use Elderflower
If you want the simplest way to enjoy elderflower, all you need is freshly boiled water and some fresh or dried flowers for a basic tea.
To make elderflower tea
If using fresh flowers, the blossoms from one umbel should be enough fo a cup of tea. If using dried, use 2-3 teaspoons per cup of water. Put elderflowers in an infuser cup or teapot and cover with freshly boiled filtered water and allow to steep ten minutes. (Here’s why you should always filter drinking water.)
I’ve been experimenting with combining my elderflowers with lemon balm, mint, and borage. Have fun tossing your flowers into your favorite herbal teas and see what you think! Here’s how to make sun tea with herbs from your garden and foraged flowers.
Other Elderflower Recipes to Try
One of the things elderflower is famous for is as a flavoring, especially for cakes. Elderflower got new purchase on the public consciousness in 2018 when Meghan Markle and Prince Harry chose it for their wedding cake. Use your syrup to flavor frosting or cake for special occasions.
If you’re a jam-maker, elderflower cordial (either home-made) or purchased can add an exciting flavor to jams of many flavors. You can also use fresh flowers. Jamie Oliver gives instructions for both options in this elderflower gooseberry jam recipe.
Elderflower Panna Cotta with Macerated Strawberries (Vibrant Plate)
Elderflower Ice Cream (Nitty Gritty Life)
Cucumber Elderflower Sorbet (Foodal)
Elderflower Gelato (Edible Wild Food)
Strawberry Elderflower Sorbet (Food 52)
Elderflower Ice Pops (Greedy Vegan)
Coconut Elderflower Almond Cake (Rocket and Squash)
Gooseberry and Almond Cake with Elderflower Drizzle (Olive Magazine)
Winter Squash, Ginger and Elderflower Soup (Norms Farms)
Elderflower Soda (And Here We Are)
Elderflower Champagne (Susun Weed)
Elderflower Kombucha (Homestead Honey)
Elderflower Sparkling Mead (Grow Forage Cook Ferment)
–> I add more elderflower recipes to my elderberry and elderflower Pinterest board whenever I discover them. Follow me on Pinterest to keep up with the latest finds as well as health hacks and delicious recipes from around the blogosphere!
Have you used elderflowers or elderflower products? Please share your favorites in the comments!
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Disclaimer: I’m a health enthusiast, not a medical professional. Content on this website is intended for informational purposes only and is not meant to provide personalized medical advice. I draw on numerous health sources, some of which are linked above. Please consult them for more information and a licensed professional for personalized recommendations.
A HUGE thanks to Erin Johnson, Aaron Wills, Sim Rossi, and Heidi Skoog for making time to talk to me about their elderflower adventures!
Photo credits: Steve Bidmead, RitaE, alsterkoralle, Vibrant Plate Susannah Shmurak