in praise of the elderflower

Before we get into this, I need to confess that a few weeks ago, I drowned my fancy camera in my bag with contents of a very large water bottle. Some people can work magic with their iphones, but I don’t seem to be one of them at this point, and so I feel it’s only fair to let you know why everything is a little less shiny and lovely and clear. I have a camera warrior on my side, a pretty fantastic homesteader named Tony who owns a camera store in town, and I he gave me a little rescue kit and bundled it lovingly around my drowned camera. The camera is coming back to life, slowly, hopefully, maybe, and every time I pop back in there to give Tony an update he assures me that I should have faith, and that the camera will live to shoot another meal. Now if that isn’t an argument for supporting your local independent businesses, I don’t know what is, but there you have it. The camera is in recovery, or hospice care, depending on your level of optimism.

Let’s talk elderflowers.

A few years ago, a friend of mine brought me a few sticks with roots on one end. I shoved them in the ground in my side “bed” on the Northern side of my house that was mostly thistle, joined by a few gooseberry plants that refused to bear fruit. The gooseberries still have yet to perform (anyone? gooseberries dripping in flowers, but then not a berry to be found?), but the sticks? They’re now a monster in the most wonderful way–like a Where the Wild Things Are monster. Twelve feet tall, fifteen feet wide, with flowers the size of dinner plates. If a perfume could encompass even a bit of the smell, I’d wear it for life. And the bush has entirely enveloped the compost bin, so anyone who empties the compost bin comes back with a sprinkle of tiny star-like flowers in their hair.

Of course, elderflowers lead to elderberries. The berries can be harvested later in the summer for jam or an immune-boosting syrup. I’ve never gotten to it, but I hear that the berries will stain your hands a deep purple, and that syrup is the way to go over the jam, which can often taste too intense and medicinal. I give my elderberries attention when they go into flower in June, and then, if one more year passes when I don’t get to the berries in August, I leave them as a gift to the birds.

A week ago, I made a batch of elderflower cordial (non-alcoholic, unlike the elderflower vodka of a few years ago). I filled the fridge with bottles, laughing at how we’d never go through them. I thought it was one of those projects that I did just because it was easy and beautiful, and so I could say to myself, “I made elderflower cordial today,” with a British accent in my head. Today, it’s gone–every drop. So there you have it. Easy, beautiful, and even useful. And you have my full permission to say it with a British accent.

First, a few notes on growing elderberries. This is not my specialty (the growing, that is) so if anyone has any additional advice or corrections, please jump in.

1. Elderberry bushes need to be cross pollinated. So be sure to plant two.

2. They will get huge! Put them in a place where they can really take over.

3. Remember that if you harvest the flowers and would like to have berries later in the summer as well, you need to leave some of the flowers.


And now that you have it, what to do with it?

1. Elderflower soda: A few glugs in a glass of bubbly water

2. The drink I have yet to name but would be happy to drink all summer: elderflower cordial+vodka+lime+mint+bubbly water

3. Elderflower cupcakes: (Sadie’s brilliant creation) Add a bit to your favorite yellow cake recipe, and use more to flavor the frosting. Top with a few tiny flowers.

4. Elderflower ice cream: (This one is my favorite so far) For a super light, wonderful, and easy ice cream, combine 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1 1/2 cups whole milk, and 1 cup elderflower cordial in your ice cream maker. Churn as usual and freeze for a few hours. This freezes hard, so it’s better on the day it’s made or quite soon after.


  1. JoAnn C. says

    I love coming here to your website. You teach this old girl new tricks and it feels like a mini vacation every time I visit.

  2. Laura M. says

    Total guess on the gooseberries: do you need maybe another gooseberry male or female or another similar type of gooseberry? I remember when I had blueberries the Sky Nursery guy said to get two different types of blueberry so that they would pollinate each other. Either that or you need mason bees?
    I am not a trained gooseberry physician. YMMV.
    (And you said the crosspolination bit, so you must know it. But I’m commenting anyway.) :)

  3. says

    What a lovely idea. It makes me think of Anne of Green Gables and her Raspberry Cordial – so charmingly old-fashioned but somehow so perfect for sultry summer days. Also, here’s hoping your camera makes a full recovery!

  4. says

    I love Elderflower cordial! The berries make a nice jam if you mix then 50/50 with something super tart and acidic like sumac or crab apples. They have no acid to speak of and so just elderberries can taste insipid and kinda heavy.

  5. says

    Hi Alana – I have been enjoying your new book over the last few weeks! I make elderflower cordial every year – my husband is British and we drink it constantly. I just wanted to mention that the green stems are slightly toxic, so next time you make cordial, you should remove as many as possible. I usually just go through each flower and snip off the largest, thickest main stem. A little bit of citric acid will make this more stable and it can last for up to a year, refrigerated, if you want to make a monster batch for long-term drinking.

  6. Jessica says

    I also read recently that the stems are toxic. A syrup recipe was just featured in our local herb farm’s newsletter. I’m glad Ingrid beat me to the warning.

    I’m afraid the elderflowers near me in Indiana may already be spent, but I look forward to this next year. My mother shared some St. Germain liquor last summer, and it was heavenly! I understand elderflowers are a large component of its flavor.

    • alana says

      Thanks Jessica and Ingrid! I’ve done some research in the past to try to figure out if there’s any risk in having a bit of stem in the infusion, and as far as I’ve been able to get with the information, it seems to be pretty marginal. But yes- it’s a good idea to focus on the flower, not the stem–thanks for the reminder! I’ve adjusted the recipe to reflect it. Thanks again!

  7. Katy Davis says

    Elderflower cordial looks lovely, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to try it because it means fewer berries! We are always on the lookout for more wild elders around here, as elderberry jelly is our favorite scone topping and disappears long before the berry season comes around again. I also credit this jelly with our family’s good health–as soon as we started eating it, our constant round of colds and flu ended. Coincidence, possibly, but a delicious one!

  8. says

    I’m so sad that no elderflower bushes grow around here, expecially since I really like the flavor and so many blogs give recipes using them!
    By the way I can totally hear the british accent!
    As for the drink, I’d call it Evening Fairy Boost.

  9. says

    Thank you for the beautiful reminder…I LOVE elderflower cordial. Takes me back to living in the UK, and having incessant pregnancy cravings for it. And now I just may have to look into planting some elderberry bushes.

  10. Barbara Hecker says

    Just a week or so ago I heard the word ‘elderflower’ (for the first time) on Jamie Oliver’s “30-Minute Meals” show. He incorporated elderflower cordial w/ yoghurt and blueberry jam. a The name ‘elderflower’ stuck in my head, but didn’t surface until I saw your this posting. Thanks for the info! I don’t know if they grow this far north (southcentral Alaska), but I’ll do some looking about! Barbara

  11. says

    I just found your book. I saw the homemade pop tarts on the cover and I was a gonner. I can’t wait to try the tip with the ice on my next batch of mozzarella. I’m making the poptarts first, and then have to try the pudding which I have nevver made from scratch. (I’m wondering if the ice cube would work on pudding too0. It looks like the back cover is jello cups in a muffin tin. If so, it is brilliant, if not, I’m trying it anyway! Anyway, I’m thoroughly enjoying the beautiful photos, the recipes and the glimpse into your lovely family.

    • alana says

      Hi Natalie!
      So glad to hear you’re enjoying the book–yes, I think the ice cube would be good for pudding making (ashamed I never thought of it!), and yes- that is jello in a muffin tin. That was totally the idea of my friend Kari Chapin, who did the prop styling for the book. She found that cook vintage muffin tin, and brilliantly said- Jello! I love that photo.

    • alana says

      Okay Hannah, this might be my favorite. ElderTiniJito & Stormy it is. And don’t you think it’s only fair that there’s something you can’t grow in CA? You with your full garden in May…

  12. says

    Oh Alana! Your poor camera! I’m sending good thoughts that it recovers! Also, I’m entirely jealous of your elderflowers. I look for those blossoms constantly this time of year in the hopes that I’ll discover an unappreciated bush. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m ever hopeful!

    • alana says

      Next year, Marisa- you come out here and preserve your heart out! I’ve got hundreds, and you should experience it, I think you’d love it.

  13. Sibyla says

    Elderflower blossom are also very tasty fried in pancake dough. You can do it either salty and serve with potatoes or sweet and that way I like adding a little cinnamon into the dough, too. Just dip the blossom into the dough and fry and cut the stalks with scissors.

  14. Saeriu says

    One day I will have elderberries in my back yard. For now, I’ll have to settle for my strawberries and currants. I’ve read that some time ago, people used to store apples in elderberries flowers and the apples would develop a lovely pinapple flavor.

  15. Catie says

    Thank you so much for this recipe! I am just leaving Germany after a year here, where Elderberry and Elderflower spritzers are absolutely everywhere and just one of those ‘things’ everyone knows and orders (along with rhubarb spritzers, which I had never even contemplated). I had been wondering how I was going to recreate this at home, and along comes this wonderful recipe.

    I can’t wait to return and pick up a copy of your book for my new kitchen, either. Thanks for all of your lovely thoughts, recipes, and stories!

  16. says

    Oh Alana, no wonder you looked so happy the other day. And I looked so sad. I waited too long for my flowers, had marked this same recipe in RCC, and as I cut the heads free, the blossoms rained down on my in a flurry. Neither berries now, nor cordial. The jays and crows consumed my currants all, and if I don’t but netting over my elderberries next year, it will be my own darn fault. So…there are many other things to buoy me like plums. And I love plums. xoxoox All my love and hope we can have tea sometime soon, S

  17. Margaret Hansen says

    NZ is not known for elderberry trees. BUT they are getting known and people a looking for them. apparently a lot go wols in differnt parts of teh country. i have one tree i took from a cutting, well actually it is in a pot and i think it has grown right through teh bottom into teh ground. it is about 8ft tall. i harvested the berries this year and put them in the freezer. have a TB on my breakfast every morning. woudl love to have a lot more. i buy the flowers as Elder Tea from our local health shop it is a little tart but you get used to it adn when you are feeling a bit off colour it si teh best drink to have. it is also available as a children expensive cough mixture. Sambuccus Nigra i think or Sambucol.
    could you make this cordial from dried flowers and how much woudl you use? thanks

    • alana says

      Hello Margaret! Sambucol is actually made from the berries (not the flowers), although I have a friend who makes it with both through a long infusion process. I’ve never worked with the dried flowers, but I’m going to poke around and do some research, and I’ll let you know what I find!

  18. tess says

    I don’t know about non-fruiting gooseberries as I’ve never needed to cross pollinate or such-like BUT – I have found out by experience and observation that if I grow my rhubarb with gooseberries I never get the dreaded mildew on the berries. A friend confirms this!
    Worth a try if anyone’s afflicted with their gooseberriesberries

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