Foraging Guide: Elderflower

Usually found growing in hedgerows and along country lanes, creamy-white elderflowers can be picked to make a refreshing cordial that is the quintessential taste of British summer.

19th June 2024 | Words by Dave Hamilton

Often found in gardens and hedgerows, the Elder ‘tree’ is a flowering shrub that grows to around six metres in height. It is at its most conspicuous during the late spring and early summer, producing multiple heads of creamy-white flowers. By the end of summer, the pollinated blossoms produce hundreds of dark, hand-staining berries.

The true origins of its name are now lost in time. The author and naturalist Richard Mabey claims that the name derives from a compound of ‘Hylde-Moer’, a Scandinavian tree spirit and the Anglo-Saxon word ‘eldrun’, meaning fire. The hollow stems were sometimes used as primitive bellows, so there may be some evidence to back up this claim. However, others argue that the word Elder is a corruption of alder, an unrelated species which gets its name from the pre-Indo-European word for tree. Elder seeds have been found in Scandinavian settlements dating back to at least 2,000 BC, so it would seem an ancient origin for its name is also in the realms of possibility.

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that elder was the wood that formed the holy cross and that Judas hung himself from the branches of one. These negative associations led to the tree becoming cursed. From then on, the tree’s branches became too weak and brittle to hold a man’s weight.

Another interesting bit of folklore dictates that elder wood should not be burned in a hearth as it contains the souls of witches. Intriguingly, this story may have some basis in science. Elder tree sap does contain small amounts of cyanide which when burnt is released as cyanide gas. Burning elder wood in a small, enclosed cottage could have led to cyanide poisoning which, at the time, without any scientific knowledge, must have seemed like a curse.



Elder leaves (technically leaflets) are toothed and arranged in 4-6 pairs on either side of a grooved petiole or leaf stem with a single leaf at the top. The tree has a very distinctive smell when you run a fingernail into the bark which, although hard to explain, could be described as a mixture of cut grass with a petroleum undernote. Once smelt you will never forget it! When young, the trunk is a green to light brown colour with a knobbly or warty texture. As they age, the trunks become more cork-like. The flowers always point up to the sun and the fruits always droop down. The blossoms are delicate with five petals. Lookalikes such as the rowan also have five petals, but the blooms are larger, denser and shaggier. If in doubt smell the flowers – they should smell like elderflower cordial.


Where to find it

Elders can grow from cuttings or seeds sown by birds and small animals. Because it grows so readily from seed it has become a very common shrub anywhere with a temperate climate. Look for it in hedgerows (especially on farmland and alongside country lanes), in parks and gardens, in woodland and on wasteground.


Preparation and use

Elders contain a compound which can convert into poisonous cyanide. These are concentrated in the berries, the bark and the stems. The berries should therefore never be eaten raw and when preparing the flowers you should aim to remove as much of the stem as possible. The flower umbels can be dipped in batter and then either deep-fried or air-fried. They are especially good with the addition of a little cinnamon and sugar syrup (although this is hardly a healthy food). For savoury fritters, use gram/chickpea flour for the batter and add spices such as cumin, coriander and chilli.

Elderflower cordial

Elderflower cordial

Very much the taste of summer, elderflower cordial can be used as a mixer for spirits or cocktails or as a soft drink for adults and children alike. Try it with a little fizzy water and add a meadowsweet leaf or two for extra flavour.

Elderflower cordial can have a very short shelf life. You may even find it has fermented in the fridge. The addition of citric acid can help but when making large batches it is worth freezing some in plastic bottles for later use. Do be mindful that ice expands, so always leave a gap at the top of the bottle for the frozen cordial to expand into.

(Makes roughly 1.5 litres of cordial)


  • 500g caster sugar (or granulated if that’s all you have)
  • 1 litre of water
  • 20 elderflower heads (depending on size) 
  • 1 unwaxed lemon 
  • 30g citric acid


    1. Pick the elderflowers on a sunny day and give them a gentle rinse to remove any bugs. 
    2. Dissolve the sugar in the water in a large pan, heating gently on the hob.
    3. Remove most of the elderflower stalk, keeping the flowerhead intact. 
    4. Discard (or compost) the stalk and add the flowers to the sugar solution. 
    5. Zest the lemon into the pan before slicing it and throwing these in too. You can also add an orange or two for added flavour.
    6. Sprinkle in the citric acid.
    7. Cover the mixture and leave for 24 hours. 
    8. Sieve the mixture into a large jug or pan before decanting it into bottles.
    9. Dilute with still water or fizzy water (about 10 parts water to 1 part cordial) to serve.

Elderflower cordial

Dave Hamilton is the author of Where the Wild Things Grow: the Foragers Guide to the Landscape, published by Hodder and Stoughton. He has led the Guardian Masterclass in foraging and currently works as an instructor for Britain’s leading foraging course company, Wild Food UK.

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