When we drove up north to the Hudson Valley yesterday, the edge of the woods along the highway was lined with shrubs that looked like elderberries in full bloom. I could barely sit still in my seat. Last spring was the first time I took a few handfuls of elderflowers from my plants to make elderflower jelly. It is delicious but I am not sure I will dare to do that again, as the yield of those shrubs is so modest to begin with.
Here were enough elderflowers to try all the elderflower recipes in the world, and then some! Once we reached our destination, I quickly excused myself and, equipped with a plastic bag and a knife, strolled into the meadows behind the house. I did not have to walk far before I found a big elderberry bush in full bloom.
On the way home, I started to wonder. The leaves looked slightly different from the cultivated elderberries I have in the garden… I’d better do some research before processing my botanical booty.
Of all the areas of gardening, I find plant identification with plant identification keys the hardest, and I usually take the easiest way out by just comparing photos. Yet this time I had to dig a bit deeper. I was glad I brought home a twig with a full set of leaves, in addition to the flowers.
I needed to make sure it was American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and not Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), which is unfit for consumption and whose berries are toxic. The flowers and fully ripened berries of the American Elderberry are edible (its other parts are indeed poisonous). From the USDA database and other reliable sources I learned that the smell of crushed red elderberry leaves is strong and unpleasant, the twigs are pithy with raised pores, and the flowers are conical, pyramidal clusters. What I had picked was American Elderberry. Also, it reassured me that on local Hudson Valley websites and blogs people were raving about the abundance of wild American Elderberry in the area.
So I was safe and happily went to work, making a large batch of elderberry syrup and elderberry vinegar. The rest of the elderflowers are drying on a tray lined with paper towels to make herbal tea against cold and fever.
Some recipes require soaking the flowers in salt water, I suppose to get rid of any insects. Although this removes some of the pollen, for vinegar this makes sense to me because unlike syrup and jelly, it is not boiled afterwards.
1 tablespoon salt
1½ cups packed elderflower blossoms, all stems and leaves removed
3 cups (750 ml) white vinegar
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (75 g) sugar
¾ cup (190 ml) white wine
1. Fill a large bowl with cold tap water. Holding each umbel by the stem, gently move it around in the water. Exchange the water as necessary.
2. When the water is clear, add the salt to the water and stir to dilute. The blossoms should be fully immersed. Set aside.
3. Bring the vinegar, sugar and wine to a boil and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved.
4. Drain the elderflowers and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a 1-quart sterilized jar with a lid and pour the hot vinegar mix over it. Cover and let sit in a dark place at moderate room temperature for 2 weeks. Strain twice through a sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Fill in sterilized bottles.
Makes 1 quart/1 liter
Photo by Ted Rosen