Elderflowers are the short-lived and delightfully fragrant flowers of the elder plant. If you aren’t familiar, you have at least likely heard that oft repeated quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” At least that was MY first knowledge of the elder plant.
Elderberries are the better known production of the elder plant. In Boulder, though I cannot speak for the less hippy dippy parts of the world, elderberry syrup is everywhere in the winter. It is believed to significantly reduce the duration and symptoms of cold and flu when taken within the first 48 hours of infection. While it is less common to see elderflower products, they are made and are similarly said to treat things such as influenza, swollen sinuses, etc.
Elderflowers themselves show as delightfully fragrant sprays of tiny white flowers. Like most flowers, there is a short window to pick them before they are pollinated and begin to set fruit. This happens around midsummer, and the fragrance they impart into foods and beverages certainly recalls that time of year.
Elderflowers and elderberries come from several species in the Sambucus genus. They are both common in gardens and the wild. I recently climbed a 14er outside Gunnison and the trail was lined on both sides for miles with elders setting fruit.
In addition to the sprays of tiny white flowers, elders can be identified by their leaves. The leaves are compound with five or seven leaflets. Leaflets grow opposite with a single leaflet at the tip. Leaves are pinnate, with fine teeth around the edge.
Elderflowers are best harvested early in the day when there has not been recent rain. Rain washes away pollen and delicate fragrance, and I have heard that harvesting in the heat of the afternoon can lead to an unpleasant flavor that some have likened to cat urine.
When harvesting elderflowers or elderberries, be sure to avoid ingesting too much of the stem. The flowers and berries are good to eat, but the plant itself is toxic, and too much stem in a liqueur or other preparation can lead to an upset stomach.
Additionally, if you are in an area with pokeweed, the toxic berries of the pokeweed plant can resemble elderberries, though the rest of the plant is quite different.
Disclaimer: Always be certain of your plant identification before ingesting something. Use multiple sources and don’t eat anything if you aren’t sure.
Directions: I will leave this one quite vague because it is dependent entirely on how many elderflowers you have access to. Collect as many flowers as you can and trim them off the stem directly into a large jar.
When all your flowers are in the jar, pour in vodka to cover them. Add a couple small pieces of lemon peel with the white pith trimmed off per pint of vodka. Seal the jar, give it a quick swirl, and put it on the shelf for a week or two.
After a week or two, taste the mixture to see if enough flavor has been leached into the vodka. If not, put it up and taste again in a few days. If so, it is time to make liqueur.
Make simple syrup on the stove by dissolving equal parts sugar and water. All the syrup to cool before adding to the liquor.
Strain the elderflowers and lemon peel from the vodka.
Once the syrup is cooled, you can mix it with the vodka at a ratio of 1:3 syrup:vodka.
Taste that mixture. If the elderflower is too strong, add a bit more plain vodka or water. If it is not sweet enough, add a bit more syrup.
And voila, you have your own, homemade Elderflower Liqueur. It’s fancy stuff, so I would suggest putting it in a nice looking bottle.
1 tbsp elderflower liqueur
This cocktail is about as simple as they come. Pour 1 tbsp of elderflower liqueur into a champagne glass and top with champagne.
The elderflower liqueur imparts a sweet, floral flavor and fragrance which elevates the champagne delightfully.
1 oz. elderflower liqueur
2 oz. gin
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 oz. champagne
Add all ingredients to a shaker and shake gently with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass and top with a few elderflowers if you have them around, or a lemon twist if you don’t.