People once planted elder trees to protect their homes from packs of trolls and evil. According to Norse mythology, Freya, the goddess of love, lived in one. Different parts of the tree have long been used in herbal medicine—and in cooking.
Where to Find It
Elder grows in fertile soil at the edge of woods, in parks, and hedges—and quite often in the natural areas near around human habitats, where it often crosses over from being a cultivated garden plant to become a wild stray. It can tolerate wind, frost, salt, and shade.
Salt marshes, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, towns, hedges.
When to Find It
Elder typically blooms in June and the flower umbels are ready for picking around Saint John's Eve.
How to Spot It
Elder is a very common bush or tree that grows up to seven meters tall. In July it blooms with tiny, creamy white flowers clustered in round umbels that are 10-20 cm in diameter. Break off a branch and notice the white core that runs through the tree. The bark is greyish-brown and often covered with a greenish layer of algae. Each flower produces a single small elderberry that is a deep purple color and shiny.
How to Pick It
Clip off the whole flower umbels with a pair of scissors, but don’t strip the tree entirely of its blossoms, or it will have no chance of growing berries later in the year. If you're only going to use the individual flowers (and not the whole umbel), you can shake the branches so that all the loose flowers fall into a pillowcase or bag, leaving the rest on the plant to produce berries. Elder is frequently attacked by lice and thrips, so before picking, it's a good idea to make sure that the plant is free of any little creatures.
On the palate
Elderflowers have an appealing perfumed, summery scent.
The flowers have a sweetly creamy and floral scent.
The flower-packed umbels are quite fragile. Elderflowers are commonly used to make juice, but they can also be used raw or dried.
Elderflowers can be dried and used as tea or seasoning—especially in dishes with pork, which marries well with the elderflower's sweetness. Elderflower and gooseberries make a lovely pair, and compliment one another in a marmalade or a jelly made from their juice. The most traditional use for elderflowers is to make elderflower juice by dissolving one and a half kilos of sugar in a liter of hot water and then adding 20 big elderflower umbels, lemon, and a touch of citric acid. The elderflower juice can be diluted and drunk as a refreshing summer aperitif (adults can mix the juice with white wine or champagne). The fresh flowers can also be sprinkled in bread dough, or you can dip the whole flower umbel in a simple pancake batter and deep-fry it.
Cover the elderflower umbels with a moist cloth and store in a sealed bag or airtight container inside the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. It's best to use them as quickly as possible, but they will normally stay fresh for up to three days.
No equivalent substitutions.
Risk of misidentifying the plant
Edible elder can be confused with the toxic dwarf elder, which isn't a tree, but an herbaceous perennial. Dwarf elder also has pale red flowers that smell a bit like marzipan. Red elderberry is also toxic and can be recognized by its berries, which aren't as dark as the edible kind, and grow in egg-shaped umbels, rather than circular ones. The pith in the branches of the red elderberry isn't white like it is on the edible elder.