Both elderflowers and elderberries are found on the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) in North America and the UK. Found in abundance on woodland walks and great for the amateur forager.
Both elderflowers and elderberries come from the same shrub, with the flowers being ready to harvest from May to mid Summer. The flowers each turn into dark berries which have a more concentrated flavor than the floral flower clusters, both are edible when cooked.
There are differences in the way we harvest and use them as well as the health benefits. Let’s delve a little deeper into our foraging opportunities.
Differences Between Elderflowers & Elderberries
1. Aroma Of Elderberries Vs Elderflowers
The smell of elderflowers is like a summers day, full of light floral and citrus notes. Some people describe it as almost like a grapefruit in scent but I think it has note of apple blossom as well. Elderberries are rich and more fulsome and once you start to cook them there is a strength to the flavor which can be almost eye watering.
2. Appearance Of Elderflowers vs Elderberries
Elderflowers are umbers that are like upward facing umbrellas of small white to cream flowers. Each one of those flowers then produces a berry. Elderberries are ready to harvest when the umbers are then so heavy with fruit that they turn downwards.
The elder tree is a shrub which can grow to around ten feet in height. With leaves that grow from a central spine and alternate as they spread. Leaves are green with a serrated edge and grow to around 4inches in length. Found along riversides, woodlands and most commonly alongside motorways.
Tempting though it is avoid collecting and foraging near to busy roads. This is to reduce the amount of toxins that you actually harvest alongside your plants.
3. Taste Of Elderflowers Vs Elderberries
Even though they are from the same plant there is significant difference in the flavor of elderflowers to elderberries
Elderflowers are delicate and floral with the citrus notes present but not overpowering. Sweet and light, compared to the sharp and tangy tartness of elderberries. Elderberries will also not lose their flavor during the cooking process, elderflowers will only stand a small amount of heat.
We have a few recipes further down that will hopefully tempt you into try each of these out!
4. Harvesting Times Of Elderflowers Vs Elderberries
When harvesting take only what you will use, 4 large elderflower heads will make a fair bit of cordial!
Harvest elderflowers between May and Mid Summer. Wait until the flowers have just opened and it is a dry day. We like to take only around 10% of a plants total flowers as the pollinators will then turn them into elderberries. Harvesting these can take place in late Summer until Mid Fall.
As each of those tiny little flowers has the potential to become an elderberry it is important to not overharvest your elderflowers. You want to work with nature and leave plenty of elderberries as an important food source for local wildlife.
If you want to grow your own then you are looking at a bit of a wait from planting a seed to harvest. Better to buy an elder tree sapling in a 2-3 liter pot, check availability here. Then you will be harvesting your own elderflower and elderberry in no time and without fear of getting the wrong plant!
Harvesting Tips – Elderflowers & Elderberries
- Avoid foraging elderflowers where there may be pollution from cars or traffic. It will really not be ideal to eat any plant that has been subjected to that!
- Do not over forage – leave enough for nature. Elderflowers turn into elderberries as well, as long as they have not all been foraged first!
- Collect elderflowers first thing in the morning before the sun has had a chance to draw all of the nectar away.
- Avoid flowers that have been wilted or starting to turn brown. Elderflowers are best just as they are opening up.
- Turn the elderflowers upside down and gently shake loose any wildlife that may be living on it. Do this before you even take home to wash as then you can make sure to not carry the bugs into your kitchen.
- Avoid gathering any leaves or bark from the elder tree as they are toxic and should be avoided.
- Smell your elderflowers and if they have a slightly wee like aroma then do not pick them. This is a sign that they are starting to go over.
- With elderberries gather them when the fruit is dark but not puckered and not squishy to the touch.
- Do not be tempted to try as you pick! Make sure to get this message across to any children helping you out as well. Raw elderberries and even elderflowers are toxic. But it is seriously something to keep reminding yourself as I do a lot of eating as I pick normally!
5. Cautions & Toxic Qualities
When harvesting elderflowers or elderberries make sure to get an actual elder shrub rather than a similar looking but toxic one like Aralia spinosa or water hemlock. Water hemlock does look a little like the elderflowers, but the link should help you identify which is which. Aralia spinosa looks more like the berries of the elder shrub. However by going with an experienced forager to start with or even by close monitoring over the space of a growing season should give you a strong indication of which is which.
When you are harvesting your elderflowers or elderberries, care should be take to not accidentally include bark or leaves within your cuttings. This is because the of toxic effect from the glycosides. Glycosides are compounds that when metabolized will create a build up of cyanide in humans. Even the seeds contain this cyanide inducing chemical.
When we process the elderflowers a light heating is all that is needed to kill of the very small concentrate of these glycosides, they are more prominent in the seeds of the elderberries. By cooking the elderberries for longer we are denaturing the cyanide inducing compound.
This does not work on the bark and leaves of the elder tree, so be careful to remove any before processing the berries. You do not want to introduce any possible toxins to your recipes.
With cyanide poisoning you may experience; weakness, nausea, overall difficulty breathing, seizure, cardiac arrest and confusion. This depends upon the quantity that you have ingested. If in any doubt contact emergency services immediately.
If you want to remove risks of eating toxic elderflower cordial altogether then you can buy a ready made cordial, like this one from Belvoir Farm.
6. Health Benefits Of Both Elderflowers And Elderberries
Elderberries are packed with nutrients and are basically the more mature version of the flowers.
Elderberry is used to help boost your immune system. This is due to the high levels of vitamins B6 & C as well as iron and potassium. This combination of high levels of vitamins and minerals means that elderberries have been used to help with; headaches, fevers, flu, joint and muscle pain and many more. However this is the vitamin content in raw elderberry, which we know you will not be eating!
So how do we then translate the healthy fruit into an equally healthy form to consume? Really if we are looking for complimentary medicines we should be taking them in a medicinal form. Seek professional guidance first but purchasing gummies or capsules is a great way to receive the quantities that your body will need.
Not that there wont be health benefits to eating elderberry crumble, but perhaps the levels of sugar needed may mitigate those effects otherwise.
Elderflowers are full of vitamins and nutrients, but in nowhere near the levels you find in the berries.
7. Uses & Recipes
Because they are both harvested at different times of the year we tend to make seasonal produce with elderflowers and elderberries. The flowers are used for light Summer cordials or puddings whereas the berries are used in heavier crumbles or jams and sauces. Both are equally welcome in our home!
- Elderflower Cordial – this is an absolute must if you have gathered the flowers and is a total taste of Summer. Here is a recipe that requires the addition of citric acid as it helps to draw the flavor out as well as acting as a preservative.
- Elderflower Jellies – this is a simple way to make the most from your cordial and you will be able to produce some quite arty looking jellies quite easily. Follow here for a basic recipe, but mix it up by adding fresh mint leaves and different seasonal fruits as well. The beauty of this recipe is that you don’t have to make your own cordial to get that wonderful taste and buying premade is not all that bad!
- Elderflower Sparkling Wine – some people call this elderflower champagne but it is a great excuse for an alcoholic tipple. We follow the recipe from riverside cottage available here. It is a real winner but only needs 8 heads of elderflower, so really you don’t need to over forage!
- Elderflower & Lemon Cake – cards on the table here this recipe is a bit of a special occasion one, not for everyday. But well worth it. Have a look at the recipe here and see what I mean.
- Elderberry Jam – A recipe with three ingredients sounds easy, but there is a bit of knack to timings. This is a good basic recipe and you can then get to grips with adding a few more botanicals like basil or even oregano to kind of lift it a bit.
- Apple and Elderberry Crumble – sometimes the best recipes are the classics and this crumble is not exception. Pair with a custard that includes plenty of vanilla and you have a bit of a hit on your hands.
- Elderberry Wine – I really couldn’t have got away with not including a recipe for elderberry wine could I? So here it is and very well thought of it is too! A bottle of this goes very well in a winter hamper as a gift for loved ones!
- Elderberry Clafoutis – I know I struggle to pronounce clafoutis but it is a great way to get the flavor from the tiny elderberries through an entire dish. This recipe is simple to follow and gives a good size winter warmer.
- Elderberry Syrup– Do use this recipe as a base and then choose to add more unusual ingredients like ginger, cloves, nutmeg or cinnamon sticks.
Are Elderflowers & Elderberries Edible
Freshly picked and raw elderflowers contain a small amount of cyanide causing glycosides. These will work when they are digested to release dangerous chemicals in our bodies, once heated they are denatured. In elderberries the seeds contain a higher concentrate and therefore need a longer cooking period.
Do not eat raw elderflowers or elderberries!
What Next & Further Reading
I hope we have inspired you to get out and do some foraging or to plant your own elder shrub. Make sure to check that you have the correct plant and avoid poisoning by going with an experienced forager until you are certain of the correct plant identification.
Good luck and let us know in the comments of any recipes you have tried at home!
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