Once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of trees, elder is a forager's favourite and its flowers are the scent of summer.

And with so many simple and delicious ways of using elderflowers, it's easy to see why. Here are some easy identification tips and ideas on what to do with them. Please follow our foraging guidelines.

Common names(s): elder, boortree, boontree, borewood, dog tree

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra

Height: up to 10m

Distribution: abundant throughout the UK, in woods and along roadsides and hedgerows

Flowering period: late May and June

How to identify elder

Elderflowers come from the elder tree that generally grows as a shrub or small tree.

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.

Credit: Alan Belton / WTML

Overall appearance

A short-lived, sometimes scruffy-looking shrub or tree that grows in woodlands, hedgerows and scrub, on waste ground and railway embankments, and in graveyards.

Credit: Alan Belton/ WTML

Leaves

Compound and pinnate (feather-shaped) with five or seven leaflets. Leaflets are arranged opposite to each other with one single leaflet at the tip. The edge of each leaflet is toothed and there may be small hairs on the underside. In winter, leaf buds are purplish and spiky-scaled.

Credit: Carole Sutton / WTML

Bark and stem

Young twigs are green, light and brittle and have a creamy-white pithy tissue inside. As as they mature they turn light grey-brown. Stems are often dotted with light brown bumps or warts. As bark matures it becomes furrowed and corky.

Credit: Pete Holmes / WTML

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.

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.

Elderflower cordial and other infusions

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 desserts with gooseberries, raspberries, rhubarb or peaches.

There are recipes out there for elderflower wine and elderflower liqueur (incredible 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 even 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

Ingredients

  • 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 tablespoons 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, and 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.

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