The joys of Elderflowers...
Posted on 3rd June 2020 at 07:07
Early Summer is the time of the Elderflower, those lovely frothy white flowers that festoon the hedges in late May and early June. A welcome sign that Summer has arrived, along with Swallows, House Martins and Swifts; making it hard not to wax lyrical about them!
As an established part of the English countryside, Elderflowers mark the turning of the farming year, from late Spring into early Summer. They also play an important part in Celtic folklore, associated with the Flower Bride. And making it easy to see where the inspiration for all those traditional white frothy bridal dresses and bouquets came from…
These days, Elderflower is usually thought of for its culinary uses. Elderflower cordial – more about this later (!) – or, for the more adventurous, Elderflower Champagne. Perhaps sprinkled over summer fruits, such as gooseberries or raspberries, or added to smoothies.
However, Elderflower also has many herbal and health giving qualities, making it a valued medicinal herb.
Elder – Sambuccus Nigra, if you prefer – is a small, bushy tree. Well, more of a large shrub, really. Not only are the flowers used but also the berries, more about this later. It’s found in many different parts of the world including North America, Australia and Asia; each with their own subtle differences. While the flowers are usually white, the berries vary in colour from black to blue to yellow and even white. However, regardless of the location, it’s used in similar ways to here in the UK, both in cooking and healing.
Now, before we go any further, a quick “health and safety” reminder.
While the flowers are perfectly safe to eat, the rest of the plant is toxic to humans. So, please don’t try to eat the leaves, branches or roots, as they can cause a build up of cyanide in the body. And, we’ve all read – or seen – too many murder / mystery novels to know what that’s used for…
So, what is Elderflower used for?
Traditionally, Elderflower has been used to make a hot tea – tisane – for Colds and Flu. Encouraging sweating – which helps the Immune System function more efficiently – it also rids the body of toxins created during the immune response. It’s also a very soothing and comforting drink when you’re feeling under the weather.
This has been backed up by research finding that Elderflower has antiseptic, anti viral and anti bacterial qualities.
In addition, a recent study in Ireland found that Elderflower extract was effective in neutralising many pathogens, including antibiotic resistant MRSA. This ties in with Elderflower’s traditional use, particularly in combination with Elderberries picked in the Autumn, for syrups for winter bugs.
Elderflower also helps relax muscles in the walls of the tubes lining the Lungs, so reducing catarrh, bronchial spasms and difficult breathing. This makes it particularly useful for acute respiratory and bronchial problems such as Bronchitis and Pneumonia.
These toning / relaxing abilities can also help in Hayfever and Allergies, soothing the mucous membranes lining the Mouth, Nose, Throat and Lungs. This, in turn, helps reduce the amount of mucus / phlegm, so acting as a general decongestant. Finally, Elderflower can help reduce the dreaded itching, which many sufferers say is the worst thing about Hayfever.
Interestingly, Elderflower can be used in two different ways for Hayfever. Proactively, before the Hayfever season starts, to help reduce the tendency to Hayfever. More reactively, once symptoms have appeared, to help reduce their severity.
We’ve already mentioned using Elderflower tea as a hot drink but it can also be drunk cold. Either as it is or diluted with water. Cold it has a noticeable calming and cooling effect, making it ideal for hot summer days. Added to this, it’s high in magnesium and potassium, both of which are lost in sweating; so helping us replenish our levels.
Cold Elderflower tea can also be used as a mouth wash or gargle for its antiseptic properties.
Elderflower also has a gentle diuretic / laxative effect, making it useful for helping with occasional Constipation. Simply drinking Elderflower tea before going to bed can have the necessary effect the next morning (!).
Elderflower’s cooling properties can also be used as a compress for swollen or painful joints associated with Arthritis.
More generally, its calming effects mean that Elderflower has also been traditionally used to help encourage sleep and calm the nerves, reducing Anxiety. Together with mint, it makes a soothing tea to “gentle the spirits.”
And, finally, here’s an interesting use for Elderflower. Research has found that Elderflower extract helps to reduce and maintain blood sugar levels.
Simply snip off the large frothy flower heads with a pair of scissors and pop in a carrier bag – or basket (!). Easy. The tricky bit is getting the individual flowers off the stems when you get home. So here are a couple of tips that will make your life much easier, as well as reducing the amount of clearing up afterwards. Trust us, we’ve learnt the hard way!
To start with, don’t waste any time when you get home as, once the flowers start to droop, it makes the whole process much harder. And, before you start, put on an apron as they have lots of very yellow pollen which spreads a remarkably long way and stains easily.
Put the bowl you’re catching the individual flowers in the kitchen sink. Why? For the simple reason that the flowers go everywhere when you start trying to get them off. If you don’t believe us, do it somewhere else and see what happens!
Then run a fork through the flowers, which knocks them off into the bowl. They come off quite easily and a few run throughs is usually enough to dislodge most of them.
You can then use the flowers in several different ways. Fresh, to make a tea – tisane – or in cooking. If you want to dry them, simply spread them on a tea towel in a warm dry place for a few days. Then store in an airtight container in a cool dark place until needed. And you can use them dry, there’s no need to soak them in water first. Finally, you can freeze them fresh. Just lay them on baking parchment on trays and pop them in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer them to bags or boxes until needed. Again, you can use directly, without needing to defrost them first.
What about the bugs?
You’ll always find a few bugs in Elderflowers. They aren’t harmful, but some people do get a bit twitchy about them. Picking Elderflowers when it’s cool – first thing in the morning or just before it gets dark – does help reduce numbers.
If you’re concerned, the easiest way to “encourage them on their way” is to put the flowers on a large plate or tea towel and let them crawl towards the outside. Then pick up the flowers and repeat with a clean plate or tea towel. This usually gets rid of most of them.
How to use Elderflowers
As a tea – or tisane – whether drunk hot or cold, just add a couple of teaspoons of Elderflowers to a teapot. Let it “brew” for a few minutes before drinking. If you’re drinking it cold, dilute with water to taste and keep in the fridge.
You can also use it as a mouth wash / gargle, as well as a compress for painful joints.
As a traditional winter bugs remedy, Elderflowers can be added to honey and stored until needed. Making this can be a bit messy – and sticky (!) – but it works very well, taking it by the teaspoon as needed. It can also be used to make our favourite Elderberry syrup later in the year, which is very similar to Sambucol, found in health food shops. We wrote about Elderberries and other autumn berries a while ago, which can be found here.
Now the bit you’ve all been waiting for! Not only is it really easy to make Elderflower cordial, but it freezes really well, so can be enjoyed long after the Elderflowers are over. A great tip is to make several batches now which will see you through for the rest of the year. And, if you’re then bitten by the bug (!) dried Elderflower from a herbal supplier works just as well. The only difference is that the cordial is slightly darker in colour, otherwise there really is no difference in the taste at all. The recipe we use comes from BBC Good Food and can be found here.
One final tip. If you make cordial regularly, it’s much easier and cheaper to buy the Citric Acid – which acts as a natural preservative – in larger amounts on line. Chemists only sell it in small amounts, which can end up being quite expensive. It can also avoid slightly difficult / unexpected questions, as Citric Acid is often used to “cut” illegal drugs, hence it only being available in small amounts off the shelf. You have been warned!
There are lots of other ways Elderflowers can be used. For the more adventurous, Elderflower Champagne, as well as in sweets, cakes, crumbles and smoothies.
So, why not enjoy one of the delights of this time of year? And have a good walk and dose of fresh air at the same time.
As always, the choice is yours.
Picture by unknown artist
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