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Foraging Favourites: Elderflower (Holunderblüten)

For the next instalment of our foraging series, we feature Elderflower (Holunderblüten), which is in season right now! Excellent for beginner foragers, it is easy to identify and makes for lovely syrup and jams, not to mention an excellent gin cocktail!

What is it?

Elderflower is a large shrub from the Sambucus nigra family. It produces small white flowers with pollen that has a light citrus-floral flavour. Elderflower cordial is very popular in Northern Europe and can be even traced back to Roman times.

When is it in season and where to find it

Elderflower blossoms are generally in season in the Basel area in late May and early June, this is when the flowers are open and are most fragrant. They flower until July when the fruits begin to develop. Elderflower grows in small shrubs often alongside streams and rivers. In Basel you will find them everywhere (once you know what you are looking for) and one of the hot spots is Lange Erlen along the Wiese.

How to identify it

Elderflower is generally easy to identify and use. That being said, and with all foraging, it is important to know what you are picking. Make sure to confirm the following characteristics before you pick it.


  • Small white and yellowish flowers 5-6mm in diameter with rounded petals

  • Elderflower buds are tight and green, becoming lighter as they bloom

  • Flowers grow in large clusters 15-20cm in diameter coming off a single stem

  • Flowers are honey scented

  • Leaves are oval with a serrated edge and have with alternating pairs of leaves and a single leaf at the end

  • Bark is rough on larger stems

  • Plants are in large shrub form, not single small plants

  • This article by Stay and Roam shows some great pictures of common look alikes, but as you will see the Elderflower is quite distinct and easy to identify

This video from English Country Life also shows in detail the ways to identify it.

How to pick it

When picking Elderflower, simply cut the stem of the floral cluster with a pair of scissors. Make sure to pick clusters with flowers that are fully open (not tight green buds). The pollen in the flower is the part that flavours the syrup, so you want as much of it as possible. You may notice that your hands and clothing are yellow with it by the time you are finished. Be aware that Elderflower often blooms next to steep river banks and is surrounded by stinging nettle, so be sure to know where you are stepping. It is also good to follow the general rules of foraging:

  • know what you are picking

  • only pick from public spaces (private property only with permission)

  • only pick if there is a plentiful supply

  • leave enough for others (as well as wildlife)

  • pick in areas that are off the main road

How to use it

Elderflower is most commonly made into a syrup (cordial). The flavour of the flowers infuses into a sugar solution and then can be used for any number of sweet recipes. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to make it:

Step 1: Remove as much as possible the green stems from the flowers, remove any bugs (small black flies are common since that is how they are pollenated).

Step 2: Rinse briefly, you do not want to wash all the essential pollen away so a quick shower under the tap will suffice.

Step 3: Place the blossoms in a large bowl with the rind (yellow part only) and juice of a couple lemons and pour boiling water over top.

Step 4: Weigh the blossoms down with a plate (any blossoms that are exposed to air will turn brown). Let sit for 48 hours.

Step 5: Strain the blossoms from the liquid (don't worry if some are brown). At this point it may have a funny vegetable like smell, but that will soon dissipate when the debris is removed.

Step 6: Boil and reduce the liquid for about 10-15 mins then add equal parts sugar to the amount of liquid and stir to dissolve. Boil a few more minutes to thicken. To make a jam at this point simply add pectin and boil until thickened. Strain again through cheese cloth into bottles and enjoy!

This syrup can then be used in a number of sweet recipes, the easiest being simply with sparkling water for a fresh summer drink.

Some others to try are:

I hope this inspires you to take a stroll and find some for yourself. If you discover a great recipe, please share it in the comments. Happy foraging!

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