If you are interested in herbal remedies/ holistic health, you might have heard of elderflower. Elderflower is the name given to the blossom or flowers of Sambucus nigra, or the elder – a common tree or hedgerow shrub.
The elder is a tree or shrub that can grow prolifically across much of the UK. Even if you do not grow it in your own garden you may well be able to find a wild source of elderflower somewhere in your area. Elderflower is a typical foraging option in the spring/ early summer.
If you do decide that you would like to grow elder in your garden, then that could be an excellent idea. The blossom is not the only beneficial thing about this useful plant. The blossoms are followed by berries, which can be used to make preserves, or wines.
It is important to note, however, that while both the blossoms and berries have edible uses, the leaves and stems of the plant are poisonous, and elderberries should be cooked before they are consumed.
The Benefits of Elderflower
Elderflower has a very long history of herbal use. In modern herbalism, the flowers are commonly used in various ways. The fresh flowers are used in making a distillation of elderflower water, which is often used, for example, as a mild astringent and gentle stimulant in eye and skin care. Dried, the flowers are used in a wide range of further herbal remedies.
Even disregarding the herbal medicine properties of the flowers, however, these can be useful. They can, for example, make a delicious cordial, or sparkling wine.
Elderflowers can also be useful when added to a composting system, helping create a good quality compost from food scraps and other organic/ compostable materials.
You should also note, when considering whether or not to grow elder in your garden, that the plant is also useful when in growth. When elderflowers are in bloom, these plants are excellent at attracting wildlife to your garden. A wide range of pollinators and other beneficial insects will enjoy them. Later, the berries will be beloved by the birds visiting your garden. And so planting an elder could help you keep them away from other fruit bushes.
If you want to establish an area of native woodland on a degraded or brownfield site, elder can definitely be a great pioneer plant to help you in doing so. Elder also works extremely well as a hedgerow plant.
When to Forage for Elderflower
Sambucus nigra is in leaf between around March and November. It is in flower from June to July. The flowers are fairly easily recognisable, not just from their appearance. The umbels of small whitish-cream flowers also have a strong and rather pungent smell. From a distance, they have musky and not unpleasant aroma, though close up there are sometimes slightly unpleasant undertones and can be somewhat overpowering.
You should look for umbels of flowers that are fresh, and which have recently opened. Be sure to gather unblemished flowers, on a dry day. Then snip off these to use them at home. (Note, however, that you should always forage responsibly. Make sure you leave plenty of flowers so that berries can form for the birds, and to attract beneficial insects to the area.)
How to Grow Elder in Your Garden
If you decide that you would like your own source of elderflower in your garden, then the first thing to consider is where to place your plant or plants. As mentioned above, elders can be very useful as part of a mixed hedgerow along a garden border. Though they can, of course, also be grown as stand alone shrubs/ small trees.
If left unpruned, they will grow to around 6m x 6m at a fast rate. But they are very tolerant of pruning or coppicing and will readily regrow from the base when chopped back hard. Though they prefer a moist soil, these plants are remarkably unfussy. When it comes to the soil in which they will grow, a range of options will suit. Elder can grow well in sandy, loamy or even heavy clay soils, of almost all pH levels.
Elder can be grown in full sun or light or dappled shade. It will work well on the edge of a woodland or forest garden, or beneath/ among taller deciduous trees. Though it is shade tolerant, it is worth noting that it will flower and fruit better in sunnier areas. Elder can be useful in a city because it is tolerant of atmospheric pollution. And it can also cope well with maritime exposure.
Young elder trees/shrubs are typically planted in autumn. Bare-root specimens can also be planted out over the winter months. (During the dormant period.) As long as the ground is workable and not frozen solid, or waterlogged.
Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root system of your new tree/shrub. Then simply place the elder in this hole. Consider adding mycorrhizal fungi to aid in establishment. How much space your elder will need will depend on how you plan on pruning it, and whether you would like it to be a tree or a shrub.
Some common elder varietals to consider for UK gardens include ‘Marginata’, ‘Black Lace’, and ‘Black Beauty’. They not only offer the elderflowers and berries, but also give ornamental interest throughout the year in your garden.
Caring For Elder
If you are growing elder as a wilder tree, it will typically require less care. If it is being grown as a shrub or as part of a mixed hedgerow, it will usually require pruning back on an annual basis in early spring. Prune back hard for best results.
Largely, however, even when you do need to prune it, elder will be a great low-maintenance native plant for your garden. Just mulch around your plants with a good quality organic mulch to retain moisture and maintain fertility.
If you have one elder and would like more, it is very easy to propagate new plants by taking semi-ripe in late summer/ early autumn or hardwood cuttings winter.
Harvesting and Using Elderflowers
Once you have harvested your flowers, leave them aside for a while for any insects to escape. Then you can use them in the recipe you have chosen. One of the most common ways to use them is in elderflower cordial.
To make 1 litre of elderflower cordial you will need – 75ml lemon juice (or another fruit to provide acidity and zesty flavour), around 12 umbels of elderflowers, and 500g sugar (or honey or other sweetener). Add the elderflowers to a little under 1 litre of water and leave in a covered container overnight to infuse. Strain and then boil with lemon juice and sugar/ sweetener for a couple of minutes. Then place your cordial into sterilized bottles which seal well.
There are plenty of other elderflower recipes to choose from. So whether you forage for elderflowers in your area, or grow your own, it is well worthwhile exploring all the options.
How do you like to use elderflowers? Do you make cordials, sparkling wines, fragrant desserts, or even beauty or skincare products? Let us know and share your suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.