A plant of our hedgerows and abandoned fields that are being reconquered by the forest, the elder favors the sides of ditches and embankments – especially those with a bit of shade. Oh, it grows well enough in full sun, but it seems to appreciate the extra moisture that accumulates in ditches.
Elder is a plant of the edge – maybe a plant ON the edge – making do with full sun or part shade – unable to decide whether it wants to really be in the meadow. Because of its widespread natural habitat, Sambucus (the botanical name for the genus) plays a role in many folklores: Scandinavians, Mediterraneans, North American Indians all had legends of the Elder … giving rises to conflicting stories of goodness and evil, stories that bellies its sun/shade qualities. At the edge, neither sun nor shade, neither evil nor saintly.
Even its name – both the common and the botanical name in fact – harks back to old times. The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld, meaning ‘fire’, supposedly because young branches can be easily hollowed out, and were used as pipes to blow on/start a fire. Sambucus is a possible derivation from the Greek σαμβυκη, a musical instrument probably made of elderwood. There is a also long history of the plant used medicinally, although such usage is no longer recommended today, because of certain poisonous compounds in all of the plant parts, except for the flowers and the ripe cooked berries (according to my Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs). Still, Elder is a cherished ornamental shrub (or small tree) with its lacy leaves and its creamy masses of flowers; some even have black foliage and pink blossoms. Around here, Sambucus canadensis grows wild and abundantly, so if I want some, I just go on foraging mission. The flat-topped white fragrant ombelles bloom in mid to late June for us (right around the summer solstice): when the elder blooms I know summer has arrived.
And what can you make with the blossoms? Well, elder water, syrup, cordial, wine, vinegar. And with the berries: jam, jelly and pies.
While I don’t buy soda, once in while I want a little something sweet; so I make syrup which can be added to water (flat or carbonated) for homemade soda: more fun, cheaper & in many way healthier than chemical-laden store bought soda. In the fall, cranberry shrub is a bright and tartly pleasant drink that I like making; I want to try my hand at other shrubs this summer (currant? wine berries?) and as you know from here and here, I have this thing with making fruit liqueur. My mom made plenty of fruit & herb liqueurs when I was growing up – and still does (her litchi liqueur is divine, so is her coffee and orange liqueur). Extracting flavor with alcohol must be in my genes, because I remember, when I was still a little girl, steeping herbs and flowers in alcohol to try to make perfume… But that’s another story.
While elder blossom syrup is not a boozy recipe, fear not! You can add elder blossom syrup to a neutral spirit like vodka for an evocative pale spirited lemonade or to sparkling wine. Or you can just mix it with water to make Elder Blossom Lemonade. For my taste, a couple of tablespoons of syrup in 10 to 12 oounces of water does the trick. You can see in the picture how pale my elder blossom lemonade is compared to the syrup.
Pick ripe, fully opened blossoms, once they have a chance to dry from dew – but before it gets too hot in the day. Avoid the ombelles where some of the tiny flowers have already turned brown: they are spent. Since they don’t open all at once, you may have to pick when some of the individual flowers are still in buds. Because of the aforementioned (don’t you love that word) alleged toxicity, I took care to snip off all the blossoms from the stems – that took a long time, maybe an hour, given how tiny the flowers are. But I learned my lesson from making dandelion wine: follow the instructions, even if they take forever to execute; what’s the point of spending time making something and ending up with a drink that’s bitter – or , in the case of elder, worse? This is a case, of do it well, or don’t do it.
Besides that, it’s easy to make, and now, kept in the fridge, th syrup (or concentrate) can be diluted at will with cold water to make a delightful elder blossom lemonade (have not added it to vodka yet…) and I can see using it for fruit salad and maybe even to flavor ice-creams…
Elder Blossom Syrup
yield about 1 quart/1 litter
- 1 dozen large elder blossom flower heads
- 1 Tablespoon citric acid
- 1 large lemon, preferably organic, washed clean
- 2 cups + 2 Tablespoon/500 ml water
- 2 1/2 cups/ 500 g sugar
- Snip the tiny flowers off the stem (I ended up with 130 g when I made my syrup), and cram them into a quart size wide-mouth Mason jar or other non reactive lidded container.
- Add citric acid to jar
- Peel the lemon, taking care not to take any of the white pith. Add to the jar. Juice the lemon and add to the jar.
- Mix sugar & water in sauce pan, and bring to boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Let boil for 30 seconds.
- Carefully pour the syrup over in the jar (carefully so as to not break the jar – another reason to use a Mason jar), just a little first, tilt the jar and then add more. Repeat. Let cool and cover. Let sit out for 2 or 3 days (depending on how hot it is. 3 days if it’s cool, two days of it’s warm. More than that and it will start to ferment, and who knows what you’ll get!!!)
- Strain the content into a clean bottle, using a fennel, a small fine sieve. Press on solids to extract as much liquid and flavor as possible. Cap bottle and store in fridge.
For the recipe only, click here.
Locavore log: elder blossoms from the property, lemon from my tree (yes, that’s lemon without an “s” – better than no lemon, no?), water from the well (don’t laugh)