This handy guide to picking elderflowers is full of tips on how, where and when to pick these beautifully scented blossoms. Plus tasty elderflower recipe ideas to inspire you!
What are elderflowers?
Elderflowers are the edible blossoms of the Elder tree, Sambucus nigra. In Spring time this small tree or shrub is covered in sprays of whitish blooms.
They are actually a group of tiny flowers on a flower head, spread out like a flat umbrella. These can vary in size, but an average flower head is about the size of a hand.
The individual flowers are white to cream in colour and have five, rounded petals, with prominent stamens.
Other identifying features of Elder are its pointed, serrated leaves and their grooved grey/brown bark.
Elderflowers, and elderberries when cooked, are edible, but all other parts of the plant are toxic and should not be eaten.
Where to find them
Elderflowers can be found growing in the wild across Europe, North America and other parts of the world.
Elder trees/bushes like to grow in hedgerows and along the edges of fields in the countryside. They are also widespread in gardens and more urban environments.
Elderflowers could be confused with a member of the carrot/parsley family, apiaceae, which contains many highly poisonous species such as hemlock and hogweed which causes severe skin reactions. Learn what these plants look like, and stay safe.
The key difference is that elderflowers grow from a shrub or tree, with bark covered branches – never pick from a flowering plant growing directly from the ground.
Other blossoming trees, such as Rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, could also have a similar appearance on first glance. Lookalikes vary in different places, so always check with a local source.
Foraging safely Use multiple sources of identification and always be 100% sure you have made a correct ID. Don’t eat anything you are not sure is edible!
When to pick
Elderflowers start to bloom in spring. In the UK, May and June is peak time for picking elderflowers.
Choose a still, dry day, when it hasn’t rained for the last 24 hours. You want the pollen to be fresh and not washed away.
The best time of day to pick them is in the morning, when the flowers are at their sweetest smelling
Avoid picking later in the day, as their aroma can fade or become unpleasant (like cat wee, apparently!).
Choose fresh looking blossoms with fully open flowers that have not started to drop or turn brown.
How to pick
- Avoid picking from the roadside, polluted areas or low hanging branches
- Always leave plenty of flowerheads on a tree, so it can fruit later in the year
- Pick the flower heads just below where the stems join together
- Collect in a basket or breathable cloth bag
Preparation and storage
Don’t wash elderflowers – you want to keep all their pollen rich blossom intact. (This is why it’s important to pick from clean, unpolluted areas) They also have natural wild yeasts which is important if you plan to use them to make champagne.
Give them a gentle shake, or lay them out on a cloth to encourage any bugs to leave the flowers.
Use them as fresh as possible, as they will wilt and lose their scent over time. Keep them in a cool, dark place until you use them.
You can also freeze elderflowers in a bag. Just press out the air before sealing and label with the quantity or weight of flowers.
To dry elderflowers spread them out on paper or tea towels and leave in a warm, dark place until crisp and dry. You can then easily strip them from the stalks, and store them in a jar.
Dried elderflowers are great for making herbal tea. You can also use them in your own homemade skincare products.
Elderflowers make the most refreshing and delicious drink – if you make just one thing with them then make it Elderflower Cordial!
The blossoms can also be battered and fried to make fritters, used to make jellies, added to cakes, jams and even flower infused vinegar or champagne.
We hope you found this elderflower picking guide useful, and enjoy your freshly foraged flowers!
Sophie & Paul