Two Reasons to Love Elderberry Flower

Elder flowers with yarrow leaves


Reason # 1: Medicine

Sure, the flu is just about the farthest thing from anyone’s mind during these sunny days of early summer, but this is the ideal time to harvest flu medicine in the form of fragrant elderberry flowers, Sambucus spp., which can be tinctured or dried and infused in a tea. (More on elderberry for the flu here.) 

I decided to make an elder flower tincture with some yarrow (Achillea millefolium) flowers and leaves mixed in because yarrow is another herb for the flu that works in a complimentary way. Whereas elder is an anti-viral, yarrow is a diaphoretic, helping the body cook pathogens and sweat out toxins.

Tincture recipe: Fill glass jar with flowers. Then fill halfway with Everclear or similarly ridiculously strong alcohol. Fill rest of the way with water. Cover and let sit in dark place for six weeks. Voila.

Here I am psyched about making medicine.

Reason #2: Food

I’m looking forward to frying the elder flowers into fritters after being inspired by another foraging blogger, Wild Food Girl (no relation, despite our similar faux blogger names), who lives in Colorado. She posted photos of deep-fried elderberry flowers on her Facebook page and I started thinking, hmm, I’ve got some left-over acorn flour from last fall, why not give that a shot? So I think I’ll try a few different kinds of flower fritters: elderberry, dandelion, and day lily.

How to Identify Elderberry

Elderberry

You can identify an elderberry shrub by its leaves, which are smooth in texture; lance-shaped with toothed edges; and compound, arranged opposite each other in groups of five to nine leaflets. The tiny flowers hang in flat clusters. Elderberry is in the honeysuckle family, botanically speaking.

There are three main kinds of elderberry, American (black), Sambucus  nigra, which is a shrub up to 4 meters tall; blue, Sambucus cerulea, a tree up to 12 meters tall that grows in dry, open habitats; and red, Sambucus racemosa, which likes stream banks, moist clearings and open forests. I see red elderberry most often in the local parks. The distinction between these kinds matters not at all in terms of harvesting flowers. But when the berries come around for eating, the black and blue are far, far tastier, and good to eat raw, whereas the red must be cooked first because they reportedly contain higher levels of toxins in them. The red elderberries are indeed red, or else yellow-orange. The black and blue berries are good candidates to become jam, syrup, wine, etc.

There are actually even more varieties of elderberry, especially in urban and suburban settings, where people like to plant it as an ornamental. Normally the flowers are a spray of white, but the one I found was pink and growing on a purple tree. I knew it was elderberry because of the leaf pattern and shape of the flowers.

All parts of all elderberry species other than the flowers and berries contain cyanide-producing compounds, so it is a good idea to avoid the leaves, stems and bark when harvesting for food or medicine.

My dear friend Chickpea, a nurse/traveling yogi/disaster-relief worker who helped me make the medicine.


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Then explore many more wild plants on the Search Plants! page.

15 thoughts on “Two Reasons to Love Elderberry Flower

  1. Harvested elderflowers and yarrow today and made tincture. Want to make a syrup tomorrow for my two year old….would I boil water, cool a bit , add flowers? and then honey? Or boil flowers till it is cooked down (strain), then add honey? I cant seem to find a recipe for a medicinal elderflower syrup. Any ideas? Thanks so much!

    • Hey Olivia, you would boil the flowers and reduce, strain, then add honey, yes! Here is a guide I wrote:

      Gather together whatever herbs you would like, using the ratio of 1 cup of dried herbs per 1 pint of water. Bring them to a boil. If you can use a glass pot, that is ideal, because metal can interact with herbs and alter their chemistry. But stainless steel is OK; use whatever you have.

      Simmer until the water level is reduced to one-half to one-quarter of what it was. This is your herbal concentrate.

      Let it cool, and then strain the herbs out. You could use a coffee filter or a mesh screen or a handkerchief. Squeeze the herbs to get any last bits of medicine extracted in the water.

      Add 16 tablespoons honey or vegetable glycerin per quart of herbal concentrate. Stir it in. Refrigerate it. Voila!

  2. Just to be sure – red elder flowers are as edible as the blue and black varieties? I harvested some to make cordial today and am itching to try it. Thank you for the wonderful blog and book resources! I’ve learned so much from you.

  3. This is fabulous! The elder and yarrow colors together are just so heart healing. It was lovely to meet you yesterday, loving all the great knowledge on your blog
    xo
    Liberty

    • Thank you, Liberty! It was great meeting you, too! I’d love to keep in touch. Let me know if you post your stories anywhere! :)

  4. I have blue elderberries all over in my neighborhood. 10 trees within a quarter mile. Not to mention all the service Berry, st. john’s wort, red elderberry, the few hundred oregon oaks right around my house, oregon grape, a few fruits I can’t identify yet, hawthorne, small bed of camas, daisies by the truck load, salal, thimble berry, black locust trees, and a truck load of others. All this is within blocks of my house. All in this small pocket of vacant lots surrounded by city. We live in an awesome area of the country.

  5. I need to try this. Blue elderberries are one of my favorites, though they’re less common than the reds on the wet side of the state. I freeze the berries and then add them, frozen, to pancakes or biscuits. The frozen berries don’t smoosh while being mixed in but quickly cook when heated.

    • Nice of you to say. I’ve been wondering, is there some way to subscribe to your new posts by email? I’m a fan.

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