Elderflower Season: How to Spot and Use Elderflowers From the Garden

Ever wondered where the famous Italian liqueur with its tantalising, flaming coffee bean comes from?

Sambuca is made from alcohol infused with Elderflower, sugar, water and other botanicals to create its unique flavour. And as any seasoned gardener will tell you, Elderflowers (also known as Sambucus) are amongst the easiest and loveliest shrubs or small trees on the planet to grow. 

With striking foliage and lightly fragrant, foaming flowers, Elderflowers deliver on all fronts. Highly decorative, their stems are smothered in creamy, flat-headed clusters of edible summer flowers followed by glistening red berries that ripen to black during the mellow autumn months. Elderflowers are versatile, since both the flowers and berries make delicious cordial, wine, jam and boosting health tonics, whilst a few cut stems in a vase or jug add stylish decor to any room — what’s not to love?

What is Elderflower?

Elderflowers are typically European deciduous natives that drop their leaves in winter and are generally grown as large shrubs or small trees. They come in a beguiling range with fabulous green, gold or broader, moody purple filigree foliage. 

Elderflowers happily thrive in any average, well-drained garden soil but they draw the line at shade or dry soil so if you have a sunny spot crying out for a bit of glamour, you can do no better. Flowering is greatly reduced by planting in the shade, so if you’re thinking of whipping up a few delectable recipes, don’t go planting them in gloomy or waterlogged spots.

Although they can be grown as small trees or shrubs, Elderflowers rarely reach much more than 3-4m (10-15ft) tall even when mature, so even small gardens will find a space for these fabulous plants. Plus, their flowers and fruits are loved by bees, butterflies and foraging birds so they are a great choice for wildlife-conscious gardeners. They’re tough plants too, easily coping with colder Northern areas, exposed, windy or seaside gardens and are largely trouble-free. 

It’s worth mentioning that Elderflowers make attractive informal hedging especially when mixed with other native shrubs for that natural look. It’s very affordable too, since you can buy cell-grown or bare-root plants that are generally cheaper than pot-grown shrubs, which is particularly helpful for the thrifty gardeners wanting to plant extended hedging.

Is Elderflower edible?

Yes Can you can absolutely eat Elderflower!? There are plenty of recipes for both Elderflower and Elderberries including cakes, fruit tarts, jams, fritters, wine and cordials. Both the blossoms that bloom from May into summer and the autumn berries are edible, although you’ll need to cook them first. (Raw berries are bitter-tasting and mildly toxic.) 

Elderberries contain Vitamin C, are rich in antioxidant vitamins A, B, and E and also contain valuable minerals including potassium, calcium and iron. Used in bygone days for treating anything from fever to rheumatism, Elderberries were a staple of traditional folk medicine, although these days they are more commonly used to help reduce inflammation or lower stress and blood pressure. Many swear that homemade Elderflower syrup helps support the immune system and helps fight off winter colds.

What does Elderflower look like?

Elderflowers are a very natural-looking plant ideal for creating country-style accents in cottage, courtyard and larger gardens. The leaves vary greatly depending on the variety and to be honest, choosing which ones to grow might be the biggest dilemma you’ll encounter. The most common and versatile variety is Sambucus nigra, a tad under 6m/20ft. It’s taller than most with appealing apple-green leaves and signature flat-topped panicles of ivory flowers. 

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ (Black Elder) is an outstanding variety with deep chocolate-maroon filigree leaves smothered in pearly rose-tinted sprays from spring to summer. Make no mistake — despite their natural grace, Elderflowers are tough customers and are brilliant for coastal or windy areas, double as dependable screening or hedging shrubs and cope admirably with partial shade.

When does Elderflower bloom?

From May to June, abundant clusters of edible creamy-coloured flowers are followed by glistening red berries that ripen to black.  and eEven in the depths of winter, their fountaining silvered bare stems create appealing ghostly traces when touched by frost.

After June, the flowers tend to be past their best, they brown and start smelling like cat wee! So, it’s best to pick them when they are at their freshest if you’re thinking of using them as ingredients for drinks and recipes.

When is the best time to pick Elderflower?

If you’re making cordial from the summer flowers, you can cut fresh flower stems from May onwards. 

  • It’s best to cut flowerheads in the morning when they are freshest and place them in a colander, trug or basket before placing them in a cool spot in the kitchen until you’re ready to use them. 
  • You can buy dried Elderflowers but they aren’t a patch on the flavour of fresh flowers.
  • There’s no need to wash freshly cut stems before use since this can remove the delicate taste.
  • Blue-black ripe berries can be foraged in autumn.

How to forage Elderflower

Foraging for Elderflowers from May until the end of June is a happy pastime and pretty straightforward. Since they can be found growing in hedgerows, in the countryside and across common land, you don’t even have to grow Elderflowers in your garden to benefit from its many culinary uses

  • Choose flowerheads that have plenty of pollen with the flower buds just beginning to open. Leave flowers that are browning on the shrub as these have a bitter taste.
  • If you’re foraging in public spaces, select stems high on the plant where dogs, cats, foxes and other small animals won’t have urinated.
  • Snip off as many sprays as needed. 
  • Shake the flowerheads to dislodge any insects.
  • It’s best to use the flowers quickly as they will swiftly wilt or store them in a cool place ready for use within hours. If you are pushed for time, they can be frozen for use at a later date.

How far apart should I space Elderflower hedging?

Planting distances are very much a matter of choice: 

  • For bare root plants, 3-5 plants per metre is adequate and 7 in a double staggered row will give a dense hedge more quickly. 
  • Generally, smaller plants should be planted at higher density. Cell-grown and bare-root should be planted at 4 per metre in a single row or ideally 6 per metre in a staggered row.

Ways to use Elderflower

1.      In cordial

Is Elderflower cordial good for you? It seems that everyone has their secret recipe for making delicious, cooling Elderflower cordial packed with antioxidant vitamins. Add a dash of Elderflower cordial to still or sparkling water or inject a colourful zing to lemonade, tonic water, milkshakes and fruit squashes. Or just add a splash to create delectable, fruity alcoholic-free cocktails, but remember the berries stain so wear an apron before you begin whizzing them up.

2.     In cocktails

Elderberries make wine time, fun time! Create a personal Elderberry vintage or drizzle Elderflower syrup in sparkling wine or champagne for a botanical Kir Royale. Since gin is most definitely in, why not experiment with a homemade Elderberry tipple?

3.     In desserts

Instead of using traditional blackcurrants, Elderberries are a versatile alternative to make mouth-watering ice cream sorbets or delicious fruit tarts, jams and jellies.

4. Bottled fruits and vinegar

Bottled fruit is a great way of using surplus Elderberries. Make Elderberry capers by soaking unripened berries in brine or try your hand at making an alternative to quince jelly. We shouldn’t forget to mention Elderberries also make a superb, tangy chutney served alongside strong blue cheese or a slab of mature cheddar. 

5.    Health supplement

Make a fortifying syrup with vitamin-packed Elderberries. Rich in antioxidants and minerals, try adding a spoonful of syrup to your breakfast cereal, muesli or porridge and it cheers up a steaming cup of dark, rich coffee no end.

6.    Floral decor

From spring to autumn, bring the outside in — forage for Elderflowers and seasonal berry stems to jazz up dull interiors.

Can you freeze Elderflower?

Absolutely. Just pop fresh stems in a bag and pop them in the freezer. If you like, you can dry the flower heads, too. Tie them in a bunch by the stems and hang them upside down in an airing cupboard until they are dry to the touch. Then, gently rub the flowers to release the dried petals, put them in a freezer bag and you’re good to go. 

We can’t think of many garden plants that offer so much and ask for so little in terms of care and maintenance, and with so many gorgeous varieties on offer there’s no reason to grow just one. Growing edible hedging is bang on trend right now, so enjoy browsing our selection of beautiful Elderflowers and discover how to add a touch of country magic to your garden.