Say it out loud. Elderflower Cordial. Don’t you just feel fancy? Like you should be at an English tea, or conversely, sipping out of an acorn cap thimble with Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. But as fancy as it sounds, making your own elderflower cordial is super easy, and last week, I took the time to put some up.
Since the first walk I took along the river once moving to Sacramento in January, I’ve had this project planned. At that point, the elderberries were nothing but dormant sticks, but I recognized them. They were everywhere. I immediately started scheming all the things I would be able to make with this easy forage ingredient. I love projects like this because it forces me to be keenly aware of my surroundings and the changing seasons. And being in a new ecosystem, watching the changes of these plants has been a great way for me to establish a sense of place, and to connect with my new home.
Elderberries, or Sambucus, is a native plant found almost all of the United States and many places in Europe. You may be familiar with elderberry syrup, either the treat to pour over pancakes, or the medicinal one used to support your health in cold and flu season. The berries appear in the late summer and fall, but before that, first, we have the elderflowers.
Sambucus is an easy plant to forage for. They are found alongside rivers and creeks and can be shrubs to small trees. When there is one, there is usually many! They also well adapt to the garden, and a great addition to habitat gardens and hedgerows.
They are dormant in the winter, but they start to leaf out in February (at least, in my area). Their leaves opposite and pinnate, meaning they have multiple ‘leafs’ on one stem. They are a dark green, and each leaflet is finely toothed. In early spring, they start to get flowerheads at the end of each branch, and they open and turn from green to cream to tan. By early May, are in full bloom. After a few weeks, the blooms turn into clusters of berries, that will ripen over the summer. The elderberry flower heads are actually clusters of hundreds of tiny blooms. Known as an inflorescence, they appear flat on top. I’ve seen some as big as a small dinner plate!
General foraging advice:
Make sure you know what you’re picking. Elderflower is easy to identify. However, the flowers of poison hemlock do look lightly do look slightly similar (slightly in the fact they are white and are in a cluster) and are also blooming right now. Unless you’re completely clueless, you shouldn’t mix them up, but it’s always a good idea to check the plant you’re picking from just in case and take a look at the leaves. Sambucus goes by various species names, and you want S. mexicana, S. nigra or S. canadensis.
Don’t trespass and don’t be a jerk. Pack it in, pack it out, and leave light footsteps. Avoid harvesting elderflower (or anything!) from areas that have been sprayed or on roadsides.
Avoid harvesting all the blooms from one plant. General foraging practice is to take no more than 20%, of each plant or the population. The native wildlife also wants the flowers, and besides, if you take all the blooms, you won’t have any berries to come back to in the fall!
Tips for Foraging for Elderflowers:
Elderberries grow in the same conditions as stinging nettles. Horticulturally, I knew this, but apparently forgot, as I got a good lash on my calf. If you’re foraging in a wild space, wear long pants or watch where you step. If you fall victim, wet mud helps.
Choose blooms that have just started to open. You want the ones that are green-tinted or cream. Avoid the ones that have started to dry out and fade, or turn into berries.
Insects also love elderflowers, so you might encounter some on your flowers. Do a quick check before cutting, and give each flowerhead a shake before adding to your basket. Despite this, I still brought home some tiny beetles. Just pick them out as you are processing.
Harvest your elderflowers after any dew has dried, but go in the morning. Especially when it’s 100 degrees. It just makes life more pleasant.
How to Make Elderflower Cordial
Back to our fancy drink. A cordial is essentially a lightly fermented, flavored simple syrup. You can add it to soda water, regular water, cocktails, or anywhere you’d use a simple syrup (like ice cream, maybe? hummm….new possibilities!). It’s a super easy treat to make. If you have extra flowers left over, don’t toss them, but you can dry them and add to tea!
Scroll to the bottom of the post if you want a printable recipe!
Combine 6 cups of water and 4 cups of sugar in a pot, stirring, and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Let cool to room temperature, and while waiting, work on processing your elderflowers. There are many cordial recipes out there, with different ratios of flowers/sugar/water. Some are a 1-1 sugar water, but this one worked well for me. Feel free to experiment!
The blooms are perfectly edible, but the leaves and stems are mildly toxic, so you want to remove as much of the stems as possible. A few of the tiny ones up in the flower clusters won’t hurt you, but pick off as much as you can. I’ve seen some blog posts with beautiful photography of making elderflower cordial, they have full on leaves in the jar. Don’t do this. You want about 6 oz (weight) of flowers, which is about 4 cups of packed blooms. Place in a bowl along with 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice and the zest of 3 lemons.
Place the flowers in a bowl, or a jar, along with 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice and the zest of 2 lemons, the pour the sugar water over the flowers. Tightly cover the container with a tea towel or cheesecloth, and set aside.
Let the elderflower mixture ferment for 2-4 days. Mine took 2.5 days in my 75-80 degree house. It will depend on how warm your house is. I tasted mine after 2 days, and it just tasted like simple syrup. You want it to be slightly effervescent and have a tangier, more complex taste than just sugar water. I got up in the middle of the night after the second day to get some water from the kitchen and could SMELL the fragrance of the blooms and sugar, which is how I knew it was ready to taste again.
Strain your cordial, then transfer to clean swing top bottles. I used sterilized re-used champagne bottles that had the wire swing top enclosure. You could also store in lidded jars, but open every few days to release carbonation. Use your new cordial by adding 1 to 3 tablespoons of the syrup to water or seltzer, or to a glass of sparkling wine, or to a couple shots of vodka or gin. Or enjoy plain, best if sipped from an acorn thimble, surrounded by woodland creatures. Preferably wearing aprons.
- 6 oz (by weight) elderflower, picked from stems
- 4 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 6 cups water
- zest of 3 lemons, in strips
- Combine sugar and water, heat until dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.
- Place elderflower, lemon juice and zest in a bowl. Pour sugar water into flowers.
- Securely cover bowl with a tea towel and let sit at room temperature for 2-4 days, until the cordial has developed slight carbonation.
- Strain, and store in clean bottles or jars in the fridge. Use swing top bottles, or open every few days to release carbonation.
Important Update! 5/22
After about 2 weeks of my cordial sitting in the fridge, I went to open a new bottle and lost all of it down the sink because it fizzed and spilled over. The fermentation had built up pressure, causing it to all runneth over. Avoid my error and ‘burp’ your bottles or containers every few days. You might want to also open any bottles over a bowl, just in case!