Late May to June is the best time to pick elderflowers from an elder tree. I make sure that I only pick a few of these beauties for my own use. Furthermore I only take a small number of flower heads from different trees because this ensures that their beauty isn’t spoiled for others.
When the berries form I pick them too because I make a concoction which really does seem to keep colds and flu at bay. I will share this when I forage for them late summer to early autumn time.
Elders are shrubs or small trees which grow in woodland, scrub, hedgerows and wasteland.
To identify the elders I look at the leaves, flowers or berries. The leaves are dark green and slightly toothed. They are pinnate and this means that the leaflets are arranged on either side of the stem. Typically in 2 -3 pairs opposite each other.
The elderflowers themselves are umbels of numerous tiny cream-white flowers as shown in the above picture. The flat-topped clusters have tiny sweet-smelling flowers.
If your new to foraging take a look at my “Foraging Tips for Beginners” post;
Preparing the Flowers
Getting home I shake the flowers to remove any insects which may still be lurking.
Next I very briefly rinse them in cold water because washing the flowers too much will remove most of their fragrance.
The flowers can be used fresh but I decided to dry them on this occasion. To do this I leave the flower heads on kitchen roll for a week or two to dry out. I personally also like to cover them with further kitchen roll to avoid them getting dusty.
Once dried I remove the flower heads by rubbing them between my fingers or by using a fork. Finally I store them in brown paper bags and label them with name, expiry dates, uses, dosages and how to prepare the tea.
I put an expiry date on which is one year on from the date of storing my dried herbs.
Uses for Elderberry Flowers
I am storing some of mine for tea and making an elderberry cordial with the rest. Other uses include making elderflower sparkling wine and elderflower fritters. Using fresh flowers for flavouring wine, liqueur, syrup, jellies and desserts are other options.
The flowers and berries are the only edible part of the elder tree. They both require cooking before use because this removes the small amounts of toxic chemicals.
How I make elderberry tea using dried flowers;
- Place two teaspoons of dried flowers into a cup of boiling water.
- Cover the cup with a plate and infuse for 15 minutes.
- Strain and drink.
Drink 1/2-1 cup every two hours for acute conditions.
Uses of the hot tea
- To excite and stimulate
- Encourages sweating at the early stages of fever. This supports breaking the fever and the early stages of colds and influenza.
Internal uses of the cold tea
- Laxative and sedative
External uses for the cold tea
May support the body with regards to;
- Soothing chapped hands
- Cooling sunburn
- Eyestrain, conjunctivitis and twitching by soaking cotton wool pads in the cold tea and applying them to the closed eyelids
- A face wash for oily skins
- An aftershave for men
Elderflower tincture may support the body with regards to respiratory infections. This is because it stops bacteria sticking to the walls of the lungs and throat.
I thank Richard Mabey and his book” Food for Free” for inspiring me to make my very first elderflower cordial. All I needed was;
- 750ml of water – I use bottled water to avoid the chemicals in tap water.
- 10 elderflower heads
- 2lb of granulated sugar
- Grated rind and slices of a lemon and/or a orange. I use a lemon because I’m intolerant to oranges.
How I interpret the recipe;
- Bring the bottled water to the boil.
- Add the sugar and stir until it has all dissolved.
- Put the lemon (or orange) slices, peel, sugar, and elderflower heads into a large Pyrex bowl.
- Cover the bowl with a frying splash guard because this keeps any insects away.
- Leave for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Sieve into a jug through cheesecloth and throw the flowers, peel and rind away.
- Pour the cordial into screw top glass bottles. I use old cider vinegar bottles which are perfect for the job.
- Keep bottles in a refrigerator and use within 6 months. The cordial can also be poured into ice cube trays. I do this when I make Persian oxymel of mint and vinegar.
I love Richard Mabey’s “Food for Free” because the pocket sized version is ideal to take when I go foraging. It includes drawings to identify the plants, advises what to pick and when, and has some great recipes.
Take a look at this link if you want to try the book for yourself;
Adding ice cold bottled water to the cordial gives me a very refreshing drink. Its like drinking summer in a glass!
Elder Leaf Ointment / Salve
I also made a elder leaf and safflower oil salve inspired by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal’s “Hedgerow Medicine”.
I love their books which have great illustrations for identification, brilliant recipes to try and loads of useful information about the herbs themselves. Here is a link to “Hedgerow Medicine” if you wish to take a look;
For my safflower twist on the elder leaf salve, I make as follows;
- Wash a handful of leaves.
- When the water evaporates roughly chop the leaves.
- On a medium heat warm up 125ml of safflower oil in a pan.
- When simmering add the leaves and continue to simmer until they turn crisp. They look and feel a little like crispy seaweed when they are ready.
- Remove from the heat and strain the oil into a jug using a tea strainer and throw away the crispy leaves.
- Return the oil to the pan and adding 17g of beeswax stir until it melts.
- Leave the pan to cool slightly.
- Pour the oil into containers and label with name, expiry date, ingredients and uses. I date my salves expiry date for a years time.
The colours of these salves are amazing and this one turned out a beautiful yellowy green.
Uses for the salve:
- Chilblains – These are are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures.
To find out why I like to use safflower oil take a look at my “Marshmallow and Safflower Oil Salve – Amazing Natural Anti-Itch Cream!” post.
Elder Folklore, Legend and Magic
Magically elder is used for purification, love and is often associated with witches.
The elder’s berries and leaves are thrown to the four winds for protection. It is also said that witches can turn themselves into elder trees and that their wands are often made from elder wood. Some use elder wands for exorcisms.
There are also many folk names for the elder which include;
- Devil’s eye perhaps because mythology says that planting elder by your house keeps the devil away.
- Hollunder because “holunder” in German translates to “elder” in English.
- Ellhorn because this is the ancient term for elder wood. In fact Harry Potter fans may remember the dark wizard Godelot calling the elder wand his “moste wicked and subtle friend…who knowes ways to magick moste evile.”
- Pipe tree because of using the hollow stems of the elder branches to blow on a fire and keep it burning.
- Sweet elder because this is the name for the common elder of central and eastern North America.
- Tree of doom is the elder’s name in many Christian myths. This is because its often said that the tree of Jesus’s cross ,and the tree that Judas hung himself on, were both made from elder wood.
- Lady elder, old lady and old gal because of the Elder-tree Mother who folklore says lives in the elder tree and watches over it. Legend says that woods should not be cut without her permission or punishment will follow.
Be aware that you never know if you’re intolerant to something new until you try it for the first time. Therefore only try a tiny amount first and wait a day or two to check that there is no adverse reaction.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking any medications, always check with your doctor to ensure that using any of these suggestions don’t contradict them.
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