Learn how to identify elderflower and forage for this beautiful edible flower, plus ideas on how to use this fragrant and medicinal early summer blossom!
(This post is a contribution by Melissa Keyser)
Wise woman and herbalists say that plants appear in your life at the time you most need their healing powers. And they stay present for as long as you need them.
About a year and a half ago, I moved from my long-time home to a different region of California, one that I was not excited about or comfortable being in- it was a financial necessity, not a chosen shift that brought me to my new spot. And on the very first trip to my new home, I took a walk along the river, a place that would later become my nature salvation to mitigate urban living.
The first plant I recognized was elder. I knew elder from my books, both herbal, local flora identification, and from landscape design. While I knew elder grew in my last region, I had never noticed. But in my new home, Elder stood out as a pillar of hope. As I saw it growing in the wild places along the river, I knew it was telling me that I could always seek it out when I was feeling sad or lonely. Elder watches over. Since then, elder has become an important part of my foraging rhythms.
Why Forage for Elder
Elder, known in Latin as the Sambucus genus, are highly esteemed shrubs, and the flowers and berries it produces have played an important role in health and well-being throughout history. In Old traditions, elder was planted at the edge of the herb garden, to protect the space.
In the early summer, Elder gives us elderflower, clusters of lacy blossoms that are soon followed by clusters of juicy berries, perfect for turning into healing syrups. Making up a bottle of cordial or saving flowers for tea bottle up bits of the early summer, allowing us to access that warms and lightness during the darker and heavier days of winter.
Important to note:
ONLY the ripe berries and blossoms of elder are safe to eat. The stems, leaves, and unripe berries are toxic. You should also only seek out blue or black elderberries, the red elderberry varieties are also poisonous!
When to Find Elderflower
Elder is a flower of late spring. Right now in my region of California, late May and early June, is the time for forage for elderflower. The season for you might be much later, depending on when spring comes to your region. Berries will also vary depending on your climate, following about 2-3 months after the elderflowers bloom.
Where to Find Elderflower
There are varieties of elder that are native to almost all of North America and Europe. They grow in many different environments, from sides of the freeway to suburban backyards to remote woodland edges, and can be found in full sun to part shade. I most commonly find elder growing near, but not in, rivers and creaks.
The variety in my area is blue elderberry, sometimes known as Sambucus nigra sp. caerulea, sometimes Sambucus neomexicana. All varieties of blue and black elder have edible flowers and berries, but avoid varieties of red elderberries, which are toxic.
How to Identify Elderflower
Elderberry is deciduous, and can be a small tree with a single trunk but is more often a multitrunked shrub. Elders commonly grow by suckers, so they are often found in clumps, especially if growing in the shade. The stems are hollow, and when cut, filled with a pith inside.
You’ll want to use the leaves to ensure you have the right plant. The variety in my area has green leaves, which are compound, comprising of 5- 9 leaflets that are gently serrated. Some varieties, such the ornamental S. nigra cultivars, have black and lacy leaves.
Elders produce a flower head that is a large cluster of smaller clusters of tiny, star-shaped flowers. Some clusters can be as large as dinner plates, some are the size of your hand. The flowers heads turn towards the sun, then slowly turn over to face the earth as the berries start to develop and turn heavy with juice and seeds.
How to Harvest elderflower
Choose blooms that have just started to open, and look for creamy white flowers, with soft yellow pollen. Avoid clusters ones that have started to dry out and fade to brown or dark yellow or are looking crispy. You also want to avoid those that have started to develop into the tiny green berries.
Insects also love elderflowers, so you might encounter some on your flowers. Do a quick check before cutting, and give each flowerhead a shake before adding to your basket. Simply use snips or pruners to make a clean cut at the stem at the main stem holding the cluster of smaller flower heads. Remember, the leaves and stems are poisonous, so there is no need to bring home more plant than needed.
Elderflowers fade fast, so plan on drying or using soon after harvest. Harvest your elderflowers after any dew has dried, but go in the morning. Especially when it’s 100 degrees. It just makes life more pleasant. Watch out for stinging nettles if in a shady area or rattlesnakes if in a hot and grassy area, as both tend to live in the same environment as elders.
Elderflowers can be dipped in batter, fried and eaten as fritters. Local forager and outdoorsman Hank Shaw recommends making an elderflower beignet (fritters).
I like to dry some of my harvest for my home apothecary. Medicinally, elderflowers are used herbally to induce sweating and lower fevers. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recommends making a strong brew of dried elderflower, peppermint, and yarrow to drink as a tea for a cold care remedy.
Or, one of the most popular ways to enjoy the delicate flavor of elderflower is to make a fragrant elderflower cordial.
Here are a few more creative ways to use elderflowers: