Elder flowers are amongst the easiest plants to forage both in terms of availability and identification. In Ireland the shrub like tree of Elder is common and widely dispersed, flourishing in urban and suburban areas as well as rural. The large and numerous clusters of delicate tiny creamy flowers which begin to appear around May are an easy identifier. They stand out clearly on the tree and once you have identified them you will begin to notice it everywhere, from rural hedgerows to derelict urban car parks.
The elder tree features prominently in Irish folklore where it is commonly a symbol of evil and witchcraft. It was considered to be an unlucky and malevolent tree with a ‘crostáil’ in it -bad temper and mischief. Traditionally Elder wood was never brought in to the house for fear of bad luck. A baby cradle made of Elder would cause the baby to be sick or snatched away by faeries. In many countries, not just Ireland, there are stories of Elder trees being inhabited by an Elder spirit or Mother spirit who protects the tree from harm. It was therefore considered necessary to ask permission from the Elder spirit before cutting the wood. If you are interested in Irish nature and folklore, I would highly recommend Niall Mac Coitir’s beautiful book ‘Irish Trees -Myths, Legends and Folklore’ where I learnt the above information from.
As with all foraging, make sure to only take a small portion of the available plant to ensure that there is enough supply for the local wildlife and to enable the plant to survive and thrive. This is especially true of Elder -if you pick all the flower heads in summer, there will be no Elder berries in Autumn! It also important to make sure that you ask the permission of the Elder Spirit before picking the flowers! ;-) Elder can be quite easily distinguished. It is an untidy and sprawling shrub like tree which has many stems carrying 5-7 finely toothed leaves . Elder belongs to the honeysuckle family and so there is no surprise that the blossoms give off a strong, earthy aroma. The scent of elder flower can vary from a distinctive but pleasant scent to a smell more akin to cat piss towards the end of the day -another reason to choose your picking time wisely! ;-)
The best time to pick the Elder flowers is before midday when there has (hopefully) been a few hours of sunshine on the flowers. Take care to pick from a plant which has not been contaminated with traffic fumes or roadside chemicals and pesticides. You are looking for the flowers to be creamy-white, dry and healthy. It is better to pick the clusters which are under blossomed, with some yellow buds still unopened, rather than over blossomed, when the petals are beginning to whither and brown. The flavour of your recipes will vary greatly according to the health and maturity of the flowers you pick. All brown flowers should be discarded. If you pick the flowers on a dull or wet day, the pollen will not give off a very strong flavour in your recipe. We had a glorious few weeks of sunshine here in June so the flowers I picked were laden with pollen and scented strongly.
I made a batch of elder flower cordial with my bounty. The cordial is so easy and versatile. It keeps for months in a sealed, sterilised bottle and can be used to dilute summer drinks or dress fruit or summer salads, as well as in marinades and baking. I tested this batch out with sparkling water mixed with vodka, white rum and white wine -strictly for research purposes! ;-) The rum was especially good!
Traditional methods for making Elder flower cordial incorporates loads of white sugar. I wanted to make a healthier version and so experimented with using dates instead. I expected the cordial to taste much stronger and more bitter but to my delight it tasted just the same as any of the sugary versions that I’ve tried! Remember that the flowers which you use will vary the batch accordingly, so experiment with quantity of ingredients and steeping time to get the taste that you prefer.
- 10-12 heads Elderflower
- 15-20 dates
- 2 lemons
- 1 orange
- 1.3 litres of water
Put the water in a pan and bring to the boil. Add the dates and bring back to the boil for a couple of minutes. Place the elder flowers in a large bowl. Add the zest of the orange and lemons, and then slice the fruit and add them in too. Pour the water and dates over the flowers and fruits and cover with a tea towel. Allow to steep for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain the cordial through a sieve in to a clean glass bottle with an airtight lid. Store in the fridge.