June – Elderflowers

Elder – Sambucus negra

Linked articles: Elder – Identification, Distribution, EdibilityElderberry vinegar recipe, elderflower champagne recipe.

Elderflowers are one of natures finest edible treasures and for me, the signature wild food of early summer. This is all the more welcome during the ‘June gap’, when the fresh shoots of spring start to look (and taste) tired and other bounty is still to fruit. Their elegant, sweet, heady fragrance translates into lots of  delicious drinks and desserts. Occasionally, this delightful scent can develop from muscat bananas through musky to cat pee. You should be able to avoid this if you harvest them on bright, sunny mornings. Good luck finding one of them this “summer”!

Elderflowers – Essence of Summer

Elder is a common low-growing large shrub/small tree that produces a near blanket of creamy-white umbeliferous flower heads from mid may to July,  so you should not find them hard to come by. Do be sure that you are picking them from a substantial woody-stemmed plant or you could be harvesting a member of  the carrot family which all have superficially similar umbels of white flowers. It is this and a passing similarity in leaf shape (pointed ovals with a serrated edge growing from a central stem) that got ground elder its name. This is a painless error as ground elder is edible, but you may be disappointed at how your wine turns out!

The gnarled and lichen-laden trunks of elder are a key feature that differentiates them from rowan and wayfaring trees which also have sprays of off-white flowers. I suspect that these tormented trunks are largely responsible for the wealth of folklore associated with elder. Like many such traditions, some of the myths at first seem contradictory, but on reflection can be seen as different types of reverence. For example, elder was widely refered to as ‘The Witch’s Tree’ and to hang a cradle from its boughs would invite her wrath. Nevertheless, it was considered bad luck not to have one near your house. On no account should you burn elder if you are of a superstitious nature as this will surely curse you for eternity. If, like me, you lean more towards bushcraft, perhaps you might risk it as the hollow stems flare up nicely. Its this that got elder its name – from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld for fire.


In the unlikely event that you do have trouble finding it, you are probably looking too far from civilisation. I was helping to make a TV program a couple of weeks ago, and fruitlessly trailed two celebrity chefs and a film crew around dense forest for an hour before I remembered this. Sure enough, when we headed back to where we had parked there was a huge elder tree right by a farmhouse. It was a tricky afternoon all round actually – after banging on about how common wood sorrel is in January’s seasonal notes, we had to search quite hard before finding one measly patch. Foraging loves to bite you on the bum sometimes!

…and the beast.

When picking saintly, angelic elderflowers, always keep an eye out for their sinister, twisted step-cousin the edible jelly ear fungus (Auricularia auricularia-judae) which only grows on elder trees that are past their prime. This rather dubious looking little mushroom’s latin name comes from its traditional name of “jew’s ear”, which I suspect isn’t very PC nowadays. It also references the christian tradition that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree. Either he was very small, or it was a particularly substantial specimen, or, as I suspect, christianity was trying to enhance its plausability by  ‘cashing in’ on pagan traditions that long predate it. Despite its slippery and somewhat sinister appearance, jelly ear is revered in chinese cookery, lending itself well to miso soups and stir-fries.

Elderflower champagne

As already mentioned, pick the flower heads on bright mornings before the bees have stolen their nectar. Shake free of insects but do not wash them or they will lose their charm. Flower heads are often used whole, but if a recipe requires you to use the individual blossoms they can be easily stripped with a fork in the comfort of your kitchen.

My very favourite non-alcoholic drink is elderflower champagne. It is light, fragrant and if you get it just right, full of naturally fermented effervescence. If you try only one recipe from this site, try this one which comes from Roger Phillips excellent “Wild Food” book.

Elderflowers are great in any number of other recipes – wines, sorbets and turkish delight spring to mind. Tonight I am pairing them with their ultimate summer companion, gooseberries, in a fool.

Don’t get too carried away with the wonders of elderflowers though. If you strip the trees of reachable blossoms in summer, you will have no elderberries come autumn. Elderberries make excellent wine, chutneys and jams, but best of all, a magnificent vinegar.




  • Lucy Jones says:

    Great post thank you very much! I love the folk lore/spiritual history of our wild plants and trees, and of them all elder has to have the richest tradition! Happy foraging 🙂

    • mark says:

      Thanks Lucy. I agree – all the myths and superstitions add a whole new layer of interest to wild plants. It is interesting that 2 different elder trees right next to one another can have quite different scents…perhaps one is favoured by the elder mother…? 😉

  • Katy H says:

    hi, I found this site. I’ve recently moved to Dumfries and Galloway and was wondering when elderflower actually flowers up here? I’d like to make some elderflower cordial for my daughter’s wedding (Aug 2nd) and don’t want to do it last minute. Am I right in thinking I can collect flowers in June? I’ve come from down south and it was definitely May down there! Thanks for any help you can give.

    • mark says:

      Hi Katy, You should be able to find plenty in June. If you have any trouble, you can buy dried ones which also make good champagne.

  • denise lamb says:

    What does elderberry smell of plz

    • mark says:

      Denise, The berries don’t have much of a smell. Until you squish them – then they smell fruity I guess – nothing specific.

  • denise says:

    Or the flowers

  • James says:

    Dear author,

    I agree with most of the details you include in your article, however you point out that Jews ear fungi isnt very PC. It does come from judas iscariot, and has nothing to do with the religion (see the latin species name, Judae), the “Jews” ear derivation is actually a common misconception. They are also called monkeys’ ears, but because of the above misnomer that it was calling jewish people monkeys, this name has been dropped (even though they actually look more like monkeys’ ears than human).

    You might also like to point out that the green and woody part of the plant also contains naturally occuring cyanide (strictly speaking it is a glucoside which when broken down by the body, releases cyanide, but same difference), though not enough to kill, can give headaches and migraines if not removed.

  • kylaaaa says:

    If u crush the leaves of elderflower the leaves give off a nasty smell or an aquired smell similar to woundwort…and it is like and insect repellent…the trees defence mechanism so to speak…flowers taste almost like raw brocoli and kress in 1 :0)….

  • Elaine Cook says:

    My friend and I live in Dorset and was wondering if there is anywhere down this way that we can pick Elderflowers for the farmers. I hope you can help. Many thanks

  • rob says:

    Thank you for sharing.

    Elaine: there is a wonderful elderflower tree located on Christchurch, Dorset.

  • Domino says:

    I have been looking for Elderflowers and thought I had found them but on closer inspection the flowers have 4 pointed petals, not 5 rounded ones and the leaves, although they look the same in shape do not have a serrated edge, also it smells quite unpleasant, can anyone tell me what I have found.
    Many Thanks

  • John says:

    If anyone is making Elderflower wine or champagne. You only need to use the petals of the flower for the best tasting wine, not the little light green ball at the centre of each floret. This can be tedious and time consuming but worth the effort because that little green ball at the centre is full of tannin which will impart a bitter taste that you don’t want. I had been doing this for years until about ten years ago. Then I unexpectedly came across a beautiful smelling Elderflower tree in flower while on a walk but I had no paper bags. However, I did have a couple of plastic carrier bags which I filled. A couple of hours later at home, when I came to pick all the flowers from the stalks, stems and green centre, I discovered that leaving them in the plastic bags for that couple of hours had made the flowers ‘sweat’ and all I had to do was shake the petals off into a bowl. Wonderful! It was a revelation and I’ve been doing that ever since. A hand full of elderberries in the must of blackberry wine or mead helps to impart a little tannin and flavour. The tannin from the elderberry helps a full bodied wine in this case. Hope this helps.

    • mark says:

      Thanks for the great info John. I love how accidents combined with experience uncover great tricks and techniques. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Karen martindale says:

    I understood that the reasoning behind not burning the wood was that it gave off cyanide.
    I had German student staying with me who said that a particular ancient army was defeated because; camping late at night they cooked small pieces of meat over a campfire and chose elder twigs as skewers….acording to the students this would have been ok in the daytime but the cyanide accumulates at night and this poisoned them.
    Just wondered if you’d come across this?

    • mark says:

      Hi Karen, that’s very interesting – thanks.
      Many things that we eat/imbibe regularly contain hydrogen cyanide (apples, almonds, other stone fruit etc). As always, its all about dosage.

  • Nathan says:

    Hi, interesting article! So I seem to be victim to the musky cat pee smell – I did pick them late in the day. Anyway I proceeded with my elderflower and lemon vodka and also elderflower cordial. Both steeping now. Will it taste of the cat pee too or will this pass as it infuses? Thanks 🙂

  • Chloe Walker says:

    Can I use elderflowers straight from the tree to decorate my orange and elderflower cake – they are so pretty?

  • W Metherne says:

    We live along a bayou in south east Louisiana, where there are many of these trees. A good friend now deceased who ran a swamp tour and taught me about several eatable swamp plants. One was the elderberry. He said that when the tree was in bloom with the white clusters , the clusters could be dipped in a batter and fried. They were great!!! FYI

  • Carol says:

    I picked the flowers and now last year and this there are no flowers or berries.Is this normal will the tree never produce flowers again.

    • Mark Williams says:

      This is unusual. Perhaps someone is beating you to them!? Or the tree is sick/on the way out…?

    • Marilyn Blake says:

      Our elderberry plants are just starting to bloom (May 30, 2018). Here in WV, USA, they typically bloom in early-mid May. Last year was mid- late May & early June. This year, last 3 days of May and they are just beginning to bloom. The weird thing is, they ripen at the same time (late August-early September), or even a little earlier than usual!

  • Tim Langdon says:

    When I was just a young boy I would pick the flowers for my mom every June and we would dry them out in the sun and proceed to pick off the stems once they had fully dried. She would then put the dried flowers into paper bags and keep them for the Winter. Most times she would steep the dried flowers and make a tea from them. It helped her ease the pain in her back from her kidneys, usually within 20 minutes her pain would be gone. She also made a poultice to draw out infections which she would warm up on the old wood stove with a bit of water mixed into it to make a paste and them slightly burn some cotton cloth on the stove to wrap around the infection. My mom has long since passed but I can’t help myself every June to continue picking that wonderful and most useful flower and I think of her every time I am out in the woods doing so…..Miss you mom,xoxo.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Thanks for taking the time to share these lovely memories and time-served tips Tim. Connecting with wild plants as food and medicine also brings powerful connections with the people who share their knowledge. So lovely to read this. Mark. 🙂

  • Caroline says:

    Like this article , especially the extra bits of info .
    I’ve just made pink champagne using pink elder flowers .

  • D prince says:

    Hi all, I wondered if you can cinfi that the black shrub with pink flowers, sambucus Nigra, is also suitable in the same respect? It is an elder, but it is hard to have complete clarification. Any ideas?

  • Alistair Munro says:


    I’ve just picked (today, 1/7/19) what I think is elderflowers and pickled them in cider vinegar. Any chance that they would smell a lot like marzipan, or have I picked something else?


    • Mark Williams says:

      Sounds like you have a member of the rosacea – possibly rowan blossoms, or hawthorn, which can smell almondy.

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