Elders (Sambucus sp.) are all around great plants. They can tolerate shade, sun, soggy bottoms, clay soil, and benign neglect. The only thing they don’t like is blasts of frosty air, so shield them with companions or buildings from the direction of your winter wind. Elders grow wild in floodplains and forested bottomlands all over the Virginia Piedmont. When April comes, listen for the buzzing of many honeybees, and follow your nose to the source of the delicate fragrance wafting on the breeze. Copious bunches of tiny ivory flowers, lush green foliage, and maybe a clutch of baby praying mantises will be your reward.
Elders are full of anti-viral and immune-boosting compounds. Their flowers are particularly good for coughs, and their berries for head-colds. Fortunately for those who normally prefer a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, both elderflowers and elderberries are delicious! Here’s how to make a syrup of elderflowers (check back in the summertime for what to do with the berries).
1. Collect several bunches of flowers. It takes about 25 flower-heads to make 1 quart of syrup. Baskets or paper bags are preferable to plastic for gathering, so the flowers don’t wilt.
2. Bring them back to your kitchen and process them the same day.
- 1 quart Water
- 4 cups Sugar
- Juice of 2 Organic Lemons*
- Zest of 2 Organic Lemons*
- 1 teaspoon Citric Acid
- 25 Elderflower Clusters, de-stemmed (about 2 cups flowers)
Prep Time: Less than an hour
- Clip the flowers from the stalks into a large bowl. Remove as much of the stem mass as you can.
- Zest the lemons and add to the bowl, then the citric acid and lemon juice.
- Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve. Let the syrup cool to room temperature. Pour the syrup over the flower and lemon mixture, and stir to combine. Cover the bowl with a towel and leave it for 2-4 days.
- When you are ready, strain through a fine-meshed sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel into a clean Mason jar. Seal the jar and store in the fridge.
- To serve, pour 1-3 tablespoons of the syrup into a pint glass and add water or seltzer. Or you can add a tablespoon to a glass of sparkling wine, or to a couple shots of vodka or gin.
Some Nourishing Cocktails
A Little Elderflower Syrup
One Cherry Garnish
One Nipperkin Prosecco
Some Elderflower Syrup
A Splash of Pechaud Bitters
Too Much Champagne
Just Enough Elderflower Syrup
*A Note on Lemons: Citrus trees (lemons, oranges, grapefruits) are among the most heavily sprayed crops deemed safe for human consumption in the United States. Many of the fungicides and insecticides used in conventional citrus production are known neurotoxins. Very little is currently known about the cumulative effects of a lifetime’s consumption of these toxins, but it is probably worth erring on the side of caution. If you are going to eat citrus zest of any sort, please use organic or home-grown produce.