With spring in full swing, it’s the perfect time go out and harvest your elder flowers. Also called elderberry, for the small clusters of fruit it puts out in mid summer, the Sambucus plant is a wonderful source of natural medicine.
These shrubs, which often grow to the size of small trees, can be found throughout most temperate and subtropical zones across the globe. Gardeners are fond of planting elders for their attractive foliage and flowers. As an added bonus, elderberry’s sweet aroma draws a host of native birds and butterflies.
Herbalists and natural healers have been making use of elder flowers and berries for many centuries. Its history goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Among its beneficial properties, traditional apothecaries report using elder to treat colds, flus, sore throats and inflammation. As with any natural medicine, it tends to be most effective when taken at the first sign of symptoms.
This time of year, the flowers are plentiful. And although less sought after than the brightly colored berries, the flowers can also be very useful. The delicate white or light yellow flowers are not as easy to recognize as the berries, so you need to be more familiar with your flora before you go wildcrafting.
Once you have definitively identified an elderberry tree by its fruit, you can watch for its flowers the following year. Then you’ll begin to notice them all over. In most regions, they are fairly common, and it shouldn’t take long to find a few corners of your local wilderness where the elders are growing in a higher concentration.
When collecting the flowers, bring along a basket or a large paper bag. Handle the flowers delicately so they don’t get crushed. Normally, you have a window of just two or three weeks when the elders are in full bloom, before the flowers begin to brown and dry. In another couple months they will turn to fruit.
Usually the higher branches and those facing the sun will bloom slightly earlier. So sometimes you can harvest part of the tree, and then return a week later for more. Just be careful not to over-harvest. You want to be sure to leave enough behind for other native species. And of course, if you remove all the flowers, you’ll never get any berries!
But a mature elderberry tree can produce a tremendous quantity of flowers and berries. Half a grocery bag should be plenty for personal use. If you want to make several bottles to last through the summer, you can fill a whole bag or two. That’s assuming you have found a healthy grove of elders to pick from.
There are countless recipes on the internet for making syrup from elder flowers. It’s a fun and easy process, and the most important thing is to have a good supply of fresh flowers. We generally like to boil and simmer the flowers for a couple hours and make a thick concentrated syrup.
The syrup can then be watered down to make a tasty juice. You can also use it like maple syrup over crepes or pancakes. The sweet, floral flavor is most agreeable, and the possibilities are limitless. For a sweet aperitif before dinner, you can try drizzling a tablespoon or so of syrup into a glass of inexpensive red or white wine. This simple libation is quite a crowd pleaser and a great conversation starter.
The wildcrafting of elderberries in late summer is a popular diversion for anyone fond of wandering the woods and gathering herbal remedies. The berries also make a delicious syrup which can be concentrated for medicinal purposes or sweetened for a refreshing beverage.
But please note, although the berries look sweet and delicious as they hang from the tree in voluptuous clusters, they should NOT be eaten raw. Because the raw fruit contains dangerous toxins, they should always be cooked first before consuming.
Some prefer to dry the berries before cooking them, but they can also be frozen or cooked right away. Again, you can find dozens of great recipes for elderberry syrup online, depending how you want to prepare it.
You know a plant has great healing powers when there is a body of legends and mythology surrounding it. English and Scandinavian folklore speak highly of Elder Mother, guardian of the elder trees. To avoid Elder Mother’s curse, a woodsman would have to recite a special rhyme before cutting down an elder tree.
In some cultures, they use elder twigs like a magic wand to ward off evil and misfortune. Harry Potter also uses an Elder Wand in one of J.K. Rowling’s bestselling books.
To read more about herbal remedies you can wildcraft from your own local wilderness, please take a look at some of our other articles.