How to identify elderflower and what to do with it

For many foragers, elder (Sambucus nigra) is the jewel in the crown. And there are so many simple and delicious ways of eating the flowers and the fruits you can see why.

It’s abundant throughout the UK, in woods and along roadside hedgerows. From late May you’ll see masses of tiny white flowers hanging in sprays which develop into purple elderberries later in the summer.

Elderflowers have many different culinary uses from drinks to deserts, so if you want to dip your toe into the world of foraging, they're a great place to start. 

Please follow our foraging guidelines.

How to identify elder

Elderflowers come from the elder tree. It generally grows as shrub or small tree to a height of around 5 to 10 metres.

elder leaf

Leaves

The leaf is compound and pinnate (which means feather-shaped) with 5 or 7 leaflets. The leaflets are arranged opposite to each other with one single leaflet at the tip. The edge of each leaflet is serrated (toothed) and there may be small hairs on their underside.

In winter, the newly emerging leaf buds are purplish and spiky scaled like pineapples.

elder bark

Bark and stem

Young twigs are green, but as they mature they turn light grey-brown. Stems are often dotted with small light brown bumps or warts called lenticels. Young branches are light and brittle and have a creamy-white pithy tissue inside.

As the bark matures it becomes deeply furrowed and has a corky appearance.

elderflowers

Flowers

Flat-topped clusters of tiny, creamy-white flowers appear in June. To many people the fragrance is sweet and summery and it attracts masses of insects.

Get more elder identification tips and watch our film a year in the life of elder.

How to use elderflowers

The flowers and berries are the only edible part of the plant. They are mildly toxic and have an unpleasant taste when raw. Cooking destroys the toxic chemicals.

Elderflowers are ready around late May to mid-June. They’re best picked when the buds are freshly open on a warm, dry, sunny day, well away from traffic fumes. Give them a shake to remove any insects and rinse briefly in cold water before using.

The fragrant flowers are most famous for making elderflower champagne and cordial – perfect summer drinks.

Photograph of bottles of elderflower cordial

Elderflower cordial is a sign that summer has begun. Try our elderflower cordial without citric acid. You can drink it chilled, diluted with water or add a drop to dry white wine. Add to fruity, creamy deserts with gooseberries, raspberries, rhubarb or peaches.

There are recipes out there for elderflower wine and elderflower liqueur (stunning drizzled over fruit salads). You can also make elderflower tea from an infusion of the fresh flowers.

Add a couple of sprigs of elderflower when cooking fruit for tarts and crumbles (removing them at the end) for a delicate summery flavour. Or stir a few flowers into cake and muffin mixtures to give them a light, sweet scent. Elderflowers can be fried in a light batter until crisp (try our elderflower fritters recipes below).

The green, unopened flower buds can be pickled and used in a similar way to capers.

Elderflower fritters recipe

Elderflower fritters are a novel summertime dessert. They can be eaten while they're hot and crisp but are delicious cold too.

Ingredients

Elderflower fritters are crisp and delicious (Photo: Alamy)

  • 12 elderflower heads, rinsed in cold water and shaken dry
  • Sunflower oil for frying
  • Caster sugar to serve

To make the batter:

  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 175ml sparkling mineral water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 egg white

Method

  1. Sift the flour into a basin then add 2 tablespoons of oil and the sparkling mineral water. Beat to a thick paste, then stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Set aside for 30 minutes.
  2. Just before frying the elderflowers, beat an egg white and fold it into the batter.
  3. Get a deep pan of oil hot (test the heat by dropping in a teaspoon of batter – it should bubble and start to turn golden quickly).
  4. Dip the elderflowers one at a time into the batter and lower them into the oil. Hold them under the oil by pushing down on the stem.
  5. Fry until the batter is pale gold and crisp then lift out and dip straight into a dish of caster sugar and give it a liberal coating.

They are delicious as they are but you can serve them with a drizzle of honey, a scoop ice cream, a spritz of lemon juice, or simply sprinkled with sugar.