How and When to Pick the Best Elder Flowers
Pretty aren't they!
And a lovely scent (as long as they haven't passed their prime, in which case they'll smell like cat pee).
Though this blog isn't about the pretty things, it is about how to know when to pick elder flowers, and when to leave them. These are some of the tricks that foragers follow to ensure they get a good crop of elder flowers and also ensure that the plant is cared for, for its own welfare and sustainability. This way people, birds, animals other plant-life can all benefit from the magical Elder tree.
Here are just 3 points to help you get the best Elder flowers, oh, and a 4th point for luck.
When to Pick Elder Flowers
I'm sorry, I can't give you an exact date, though I can teach you what to look for and the skills that foragers use in harvesting. A general time is May and June.
If they smell of cat pee, be disciplined and walk away. Yes - it is essential to walk away! It's time to leave the flowers (they'll come again next year, and won't be of any use to you at this stage), not as flowers anyway. Instead, walk away and allow the Elder (Sambucus nigra) to go to seed and produce the elderberries. Ah, wonderful life-giving elderberries,, here's some notes on how to take care of Elders and my elderberry and apple jelly recipe, more to come under my autumnal blog section.
Back to the flowers of the Elder Tree, these are at their best when they are full of scented, pale yellow dust. Elder flower pollen. This is the only time to pick them. You might brush against an Elder bush and unsettle the pollen (a small cloud of visible yellow pollen hits the air), or smell a flower head and end up with pollen on your nose. These are all tips on how to tell if they are ready, and if there's no pollen that brushes off, or hardly any, it is best to walk away empty handed. Discipline is a virtue.
If the flowers are only unopened buds - you're in luck! The elder hasn't flowered yet, and all you need to do is wait a little while, a few days, until they do. This is much better than finding them when they are passed their best. On that note, the flower heads will open at different times, so if you find heads that are mostly unopened, leave them, and if you find heads that are mostly shrivelled and dried, leave them too. This will leave you with just the best flowers to pick - perfect!
Of course you know this, you know to pick when the weather is dry, the sun is out and the scent of the elder flowers will be at their prime. Isn't common sense a wonderful thing, as is the bright, burning, life-giving sun.
The edibility of elderflowers
Now you know when and how to pick your perfect elder flower heads for making cordial it would be easy to assume that elderflowers are edible, right? Wrong. It is best not to eat elderflowers raw, as the plant has a mild toxicity, which is why it is best to cook them or make cordial from them. Some people get an upset stomach from eating elderflowers or elder berries (elder flowers and elder berries come from the same plant).
Elder flower cordial recipes vary, a lot. Of course there are many ways to make something and it's great to have the choice of recipes, depending on how much time and elder flowers you have collected. I have two recipes here; a Classic Elder flower Cordial and Elderflower Sorbet recipe and here is an Elder flower Cordial with an Orange Twist.
There will be other blogs on Elder flowers in the future, essentials to know about this plant so that you are using your time and the plant well. Happy foraging, and do look out for wild food foraging courses, if you'd like to know more.