Gardener’s Path: Elderflowers for Food and Medicine

It’s 93 degrees F and rising. Summer is here. Luckily we’ve been enjoying refreshing elderflower spritzers in the evening heat. When we started expanding our vegetable garden to various berries, elderberry was one of the first on my mind. One reason was for medicinal purposes. Hippocrates was writing about medicinal elderberry as the medicine chest hundreds of years B.C. Second was ornamental. And third because of a delicious elderflower spritzer we had shared with a friend in Oregon. We first started making cordial using the River Cottage Preserves Handbook recipe which can be found at their website. The article below, however, comes from Gardener’s Path and describes not only cordial making but several other elderflower uses – How to Use Elderflowers for Food and Medicine.

You may have heard talk about the benefits of elderberries, or even come across elderberry syrup on the shelf of your local health food store. But you likely never heard anything about the flowers.

Often overlooked, the lovely little white or yellow blossoms of the magical elder shrub are also edible and medicinal, with some very special benefits of their own. 

What You Will Learn

These enchanting little white or yellow clusters of flowers emit a summery sweet fragrance. The flower essence is said to instill a sense of youthfulness, vigor, and restore inner strength.

These delightful blossoms have a long history of medicinal use and are often used to flavor food and drinks. Read on to learn about their miraculous properties and some of the many ways you can use elderflower.

Medicinal Benefits

Both the berries and the flowers of the elder plant have been used for medicine for thousands of years. While both have similar affinities for boosting the immune system and fighting off infection, elderflowers have some additional unique uses.

Oblique view of a wooden mortar and pestle with freshly harvested edlerflowers preparing to make a tincture.

As an immune stimulator, elderflower tea can provide soothing relief for acute cold systems. The booms are a key component of a traditional tea blend taken to reduce flavor. A concoction of elderflower, yarrow, and mint is a great fever fighter, and was often used historically for measles and chickenpox.

Blooms can also be used to treat conjunctivitis and soothe red itchy eyes, reduce pain and swelling in acute joint inflammation, and relieve toothaches. They are natural antihistamines, and when taken prior to the appearance of pollen, can ease symptoms of seasonal allergies.

As a nervous system support, it is said they have the capacity to heal deep grief, helping to open people’s eyes to the magic of the world.

Clinical studies are even starting to show that these flowers can reduce blood sugar, potentially useful for addressing type 2 diabetes.

Harvesting and Preparing for Use

Depending on your climate, elder shrubs may bloom at various times over the summer between June and August. To harvest, pick a warm dry day when the plant is in full bloom. Harvest during the morning or evening to keep the picked flowers from wilting in the sun or try to find a shady place to set them while you work.

Pluck off entire clusters of blossoms at the base, shake gently to dislodge any hidden insects, and place each bundle into your basket or bag.

If you don’t have any elder plants in your yard don’t worry! Just look for wild ones on the edges of streams, ponds, or along other disturbed edges such as fences or roads.

If you also plan to harvest the berries later in the season, pick flowers selectively, leaving some clusters intact here and there. I would recommend taking no more than a third on each plant. This is good practice anyway, as it is best to always leave some behind for the birds and the bees!

Once harvested, you can preserve for later use by drying and storing in tightly lidded jars in a dark place.

To dry, lay flowers on trays or mesh screen and leave in a dark, dry place for about a week. When fully dry, make sure they are still a similar yellow or white color to when they were fresh. Browning can be prevented by avoiding light during the drying process.

Fresh and dried elderflowers. Top down view.

If you prefer, you can also leave flowers attached to the stem while drying and hang in bunches in a cool, dark location. I often dry herbs in a back closet.

Caution

Before using for food or medicine, it is important to separate the flowers from the stems. Leaves, stalks, and roots of these plants are toxic and should not be consumed.

Ways to Use for Food and Medicine

There are so many great ways to use this enchanting herb. The following are a few ideas on ways to utilize them in food, medicine, and even cosmetics. Try out a few of these suggestions or concoct your own recipes!

1. Tea

For relief from colds or flu, pour boiling water over fresh or dried flowers and steep in a covered container for 10 minutes. Mix in a spoonful of local honey and feel those pesky symptoms ease as you breathe in this steamy sweet beverage.

The cool tea can also be used as a mouthwash. Gargle and rinse to combat sore throats, toothaches, and abscesses.

2. Tincture

The flowers can be tinctured in alcohol for use as an herbal remedy for various ailments. Just place crushed dried flowers in a jar, cover with 60% alcohol, and let sit in a cool dark place for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking daily.

Homemade tincture of elderberry flowers in a glass jar.

Consult with a clinical herbalist and your doctor before starting any herbal medicine.

3. Salve for Inflammation Relief

Use a salve or lotion made from the blossoms to reduce inflammation and pain from sprains and strains.

You can incorporate other healing herbs such as calendula, comfrey, or st. John’s wort for additional support.

4. Soothing Eye Wash

Make an eye wash for relief from itchy eyes, conjunctivitis, or hay fever. Just make a batch of elderflower tea, let cool, and rinse! You can also try soaking a washcloth in the cool tea and use as an eye compress.

5. Syrup

A syrup for fighting off colds, flus, and winter blues can be made with flowers of the elder tree as well as the berries. Or combine them for maximum benefit and flavor!

A glass filled full of liquid and dried elderflowers to make syrup.

This article on elderberries includes an easy recipe for syrup (see unpublished elderberry harvest article) Just incorporate or substitute in the blossoms.

6. Cosmetics

Back in the Victorian era, elderflower water was often used as a skin cleansing lotion, believed to keep the skin young and free of blemishes. Use of elder blossoms in cosmetics is beginning to make a comeback, and can often be found in lotions, oils, and body butters that claim to reduce wrinkles, soften skin, and slow aging.

7. Cordial

A cordial is a type of sweet soft drink that is historically popular in Western Europe and has been brewed since the Roman era.

Delightfully fragrant and sweet, this concentrated syrup can be added to drinks or even mixed into recipes such as cakes and pancakes.

Elderflower cordial steeping in a large pickle jar.

To make a cordial, boil the flowers for at least minutes, strain, and add in equal parts sugar to the remaining volume of water. Including a splash of lemon juice and citric acid will help preserve the cordial and add a pleasant tartness.

To use in drinks, pour 1 to 3 tablespoons into a glass and add water, seltzer, tonic water, sparking wine, vodka, or gin.

Tip: Make a large batch all at once and freeze the extra for later use…(continues)