Tips for gathering elderflowers and making top notch elderflower cordial

Elderflowers have had a bit of a moment-in-the-sun lately after featuring in THE wedding cake of the year with their longstanding friend, the lemon. For me, like a lot of wild food, fresh elderflowers are hugely under-utilised by the general population. Elderflower cordial is very popular, but I am surprised that more people don’t make their own at home. Elderflowers are everywhere at this time of year – you really can’t get far without seeing them and it doesn’t actually require many heads of those teeny flowers to make a delicious cordial that can last a very long time.

How to find and identify elderflowers

Finding and identifying elderflowers is pretty straightforward as they will be in most parks and hedgerows at this time of year. The large, flat umbels of tiny white flowers are fairly distinctive and you can just double check that the leaf shape is like the photo below. There are some plants with similar white flowers at the time of year, some of which are poisonous, but sticking to the images below will see you right.

As always, remember My Golden Rules of Foraging, plus these extra tips for elderflowers:

  • Elder is a popular choice for people’s gardens so pay close attention to where you’re gathering them.
  • Make sure you pick flower heads that are a crisp white colour and not starting to go brown or developing little black spots on the bottom. I’ve included some photos below so you can see the difference. Once they start going brown they lose that lovely floral taste and develop a bit of an unpleasant medicinal/cat-wee-esque flavour. Yeah it’s not great…
  • Some elder trees can grow really tall so the flowers might be quite high up. You might want to use a shepherd’s hook or walking stick with a curved handle to pull branches down towards you so you can reach them.
  • Don’t put the flowers in a closed bag or leave them out in the sun for too long or they will sweat and start to go brown.
  • I already say in my foraging rules not to pick too much from one plot, but I’ll reiterate here as you want some of the flowers to become elderberries later in the year.

Here’s what you should be looking for:

Try to avoid flowers that are starting to go brown:

Using elderflowers

The obvious use is of course elderflower cordial, which itself can then be used in anything from cocktails and ice pops to salad dressings – you could even make a rhubarb and elderflower pickle to serve with smoked mackerel. The fresh flowers make really pretty ice cubes or you could try dipping them into tempura batter for a sweet fried treat. You could also infuse them with gin to make a great flavoured tipple.

Tips for top notch elderflower cordial

  • There are a lot of recipes out there – I personally like the River Cottage elderflower cordial recipe.
  • Shake the flower heads to get rid of anything untoward, and pick off any hard-to-shake bits with your fingers. However, don’t soak them, wash them or shake them too vigorously as you’ll lose all the beautiful pollen that brings a lot of the flavour.
  • Remove as much of the flowers’ stems as you can so that the flavour isn’t too “green” and is focused on those lovely flowers.
  • Don’t pour the water over when it’s still boiling as the harsh temperature can alter the flavour and you can lose sweetness. Instead leave the water for a minute or so, like you would when making green tea, and then pour over the flowers.
  • Its worth using citric acid so that you cordial lasts up to a year, or even Campden tablets if you’re really serious! If you don’t want to though, or can’t get hold of either in time, you can freeze the cordial in a tub and scoop it out when you need it so that it lasts much longer than the 3-4 weeks that it would last in the fridge.
  • Use orange as well as lemon, even if it’s just a little bit, to round out the flavour and contribute to the sweet rather than tart flavour.

What is your favourite thing to do with elderflowers?

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