How to Identify Elder Flowers and Elder Berries and How to Cook Them
Elder is a fantastic shrub, for me the floral and fragrant aromas floating off its flowering blooms signal the beginning of our long English summer days.
In winter I’m always amazed at how dead the Elders you find look, if you accidentally push on one of its shoots too hard it will snap as if decayed and rotten, but come back a couple of months later and the same shoot that was once ready for the grave is now producing vibrant green leaves and heavenly flowers.
Elder – (Sambucas Nigra)
Elder is a deciduous shrub or small tree, growing up to 6m tall and the same wide. The bark of this tree is a light brown-grey and can be found cracking with a yellowing revealed in between cracks.
The light green and lightly serrated leaves, spear shaped are 5-12cms long and 3-5cms wide, grow in opposing pairs, arranged with five to seven pairs.
The flowers 5-6mm in diameter each have five petals and are borne in large, flat umbrellas which are 10-25cms in diameter. The flowers later turn to fruits, they are almost perfectly round, glossy dark purple and cause the branches they hang on to droop when they are ripe.
Officially all the green parts of Elder are classed as toxic and not to be eaten (although there is some reference of the leaves being eaten in the past – cooking thoroughly with several changes of water) so to make it simple we stick to three parts to eat off this plant:
- Elder Flowers – Ideally picked on a sunny day, they can be used for making a cordial, fritters, cheesecakes, sorbets, ice lollies, jelly, lemonade, beer, sparkling wine, flavoured gin, vinegars and much more.
2. Immature Elder Berry Buds – when the flowers first fall off and before the berries appear you get clusters of immature elder berry buds. These can be nicely pickled and used as a substitute for capers in any recipe that calls for them. I use them on pizza, baked lamb, crisps and dips and to serve with cheese. The key for this is to hot pickle the buds – so heat your pickling vinegar up and simply pour it over the buds before jarring up.
3. Elder Berries – when the berries are a deep purple and ripe they will hang down from the tree, almost pulling the branches down with them. this is when you can picked them. If you don’t want to crush the berries take the whole tops. If you want to make a sauce with it then cook the berries as they are and pass through a sieve – they make fantastic cordials, compotes, gravies, fruit leathers and chutneys. or take the heads and put them in the freezer – it’s easier to knock the berries off the stalks when they’re frozen – either let them defrost and serve as is or serve them frozen on your dessert to give a berry explosion and an interesting change in heat.
what you could confuse it with:
in theory you could confuse this with a whole bunch of umbellifers – the key is that this elder is a tree – it has wood and bark – all the umbellifers don’t they have green shoots from the ground up.