Over the May bank holiday weekend, we made elderflower cordial and have put together this newsletter to assist you and your children on your elderflower foraging journey!
Finding Elder Trees
Elder berries are devoured by song birds in autumn then the seeds are dispersed by them. The seeds germinate very easily on almost any soil type so you find elder trees all over the place; in parks, gardens, hedgerows, woodlands, by the sides of railway lines or on wasteland. Here is a lovely time-lapse video showing an elder tree growing and here are some photos of the types of places where you might find elder trees growing.
Next to a railway line in Deptford (left) and tucked underneath other trees in Greenwich Park (right)
Growing amongst lilac trees and conifers in Greenwich Park
Intertwined with a rambling rose climbing up a brick wall in Ravenscourt Park
Identifying Elder Trees (Sambucus nigra)
An elder trees’ flowers grow from late May – mid June and are best picked early in the morning on a dry, sunny day away from busy, polluted roads or railways. They are in flower the same time as rowan trees and both have white, umbel flowers so be careful not to confuse the two. Here are some photos to help you correctly identify them. For a detailed identification guide via Woodland’s Trust, check here.
Elder leaves (left) and Rowan leaves and flowers (right)
Photo credit: first-nature.com
Young elder stem (left) and older elder stem (right)
Photo credit: first-nature.com
Here’s a video showing you how to identify an elder tree.
Choosing the Best Flowers
Make sure the flowers are fully open and have lots of yellow pollen on the anthers. You can test to see how much pollen there is by shaking the flower gently against your hand and you can see the yellow dust (pollen) on your skin!
Photo credit (left): fairwild.org
Try to avoid choosing flowers that have started to turn brown and dry as they are not as fresh and may not taste as good in recipes. Also, do not pick flower heads which have not opened fully yet.
Unopened flower buds (left) and older, dried flowers (right)
Labelling Parts of a Flower
Your children could have a go at completing this flower labelling activity while they are out foraging with you!
What to Take with you when Foraging Elderflowers
Take a pair of secateurs and some recycled plastic bags to put the flowers inside once you have cut them off. Cut the flowers with about 10 cm of stem remaining and put them in the bag straight away to keep them fresh until you get home.
Making Elderflower Cordial
Elderflowers can be used to make cordial, tea (or for the grown-ups, champagne!) to drink or you can make elderflower flavoured cakes using the cordial like in the recipe here. You can also cover the flowers in a light batter and fry them to make sweet-scented elderflower fritters like in this recipe here.
Many elderflower cordial recipes recommend using citric acid as it may help the cordial to be preserved for longer. We were not able to find any in the chemist or shops, so we just used lemons instead. However, this means the cordial will need to be kept in the fridge and may only last up to one week. If you want to preserve it for longer, you could pour the cordial into ice cube trays or ice lolly moulds and freeze them for a delicious, preservative-free and food-colouring-free treat, on a hot summer’s day!
Once you have harvested the elderflowers, you are ready to start making your cordial. Follow the photo guide below for step-by-step instructions:
1. Most of the elderflower heads were completely clean so we didn’t wash them as this removes a lot of the pollen which makes the cordial even more tasty! Some of the flowers had some black flies (aphids) so we picked them off using a pencil or you can squash them with your fingers, if you’re feeling brave! Then we gently swished them in some clean, cold water to get the last few insects off.
2. Wash the lemons, peel the skin and juice them.
3. Fill a very large pot with the cold water and pour in the sugar. Stir every few minutes while cooking on a low heat until all the sugar dissolves. Bring the water to the boil (when the water starts to bubble a little bit) and then turn off the heat.
4. Put the elderflower heads straight into the boiling syrup and leave the stalks poking out, if you can.
5. Tip in the rest of the petals, the lemon zest, lemon juice and pith into the pot.
6. Stir gently without pushing the stalks under the water, put a lid on and leave to steep for 24 hours!
7. 24 hours later, using a piece of muslin cloth inside a sieve, strain the cordial into a large bowl or jug. Luci, the cat, was very intrigued at this point, but not very helpful!
8. Re-use and wash any glass containers you have, such as: jam jars, Kilner bottles or old wine bottles with screw tops, in hot soapy water. If you want the cordial to last longer, you need to sterilize the containers.
9. To sterilize the jars: while still wet, place the jars or bottles (without the lids) into a pre-heated oven at 160C and leave for 10-15 minutes until they are dry. Soak the lids in boiling water and leave them to dry on a clean tea towel.
10. Remove the jars from the oven using a tea towel and while they are still hot, pour in the cordial, leaving 1/2 cm gap at the top, then screw the lids on immediately. Label with the name and date and store in a cool, dark place, or in the fridge or freezer. For more information about sterilizing jars using a water bath, the Kilner jar website has further instructions.
Here’s a useful video from Woodlands TV showing how to make elderflower cordial.
To make pink elderflower cordial, you can use Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’ or Sambucus nigra “Black Lace’ flowers like in the photo below, but remember to only pick and eat wild plants if you are 100% sure of their identification.
Photos via: bellandstar.blogspot.com/