Fighting a cold, locavore style

Elderflower tea

For the past three days I have been knocked out with a cold. Between feeling sorry for myself over cancelled weekend plans, and watching the entire first season of the US remake of the Danish crime drama The Killing (great program, by the way), I remembered that I had dried some elderberry blossoms for tea last May.

Elderflower tea is an old home remedy against common cold and fever. The formulas vary. I used 1 heaping teaspoon of dried elderberry flowers per cup boiling water, steeped it for 10 minutes, and sweetened with local honey from our neighbor. In grey chilly January weather, sipping the hot tea from blossoms collected on a beautiful sunny day already feels good.

Hot elderberry juice with lemon juice and honey is also an excellent cold remedy but I don’t have any elderberry juice this year, and can only hope that the elderberry bushes transplanted last fall will love their new, less wind-beaten location in moister soil and produce lots of berries in the future.

Elderflower feast


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.


Elderflower Vinegar

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

Are you jellin’?

When I first moved to the United States, I loaded up on all types of baking and cooking ingredients on each visit to my native Germany. Meanwhile I have found decent substitutes for most items, except one: jelling sugar.

In Germany, jelling sugar comes in three variations of fruit-to-sugar ratio, depending on the sweetness of the fruit and personal taste: 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1. It’s a natural product, made from pectin in apples and citrus fruit. And, it comes ready-mixed, or as a jelling powder concentrate to which you add sugar (lightweight and therefore perfect for airline travel). Some online stores specializing in German foods have it but when I inquired at Dr. Oetker USA, I was told they don’t carry it. Too bad, because there is really nothing like it in the US. Many American recipes call for twice as much sugar as fruit.

So don’t hesitate if you can get your hands on imported jelling sugar. Alternatively, you can use pectin products for less sugar or no sugar recipes, to obtain an jam or jelly that actually tastes like the fruit, not just sugary.

This was the first year I had enough blossoms on my elderberry bushes to dare snipping some off for elderflower jelly. The heavenly scent alone is worth making it. In the past few days I have spotted wild elderberry blooming along the roadside. As long as it’s not in a polluted area, and the plants have not been sprayed with any pesticides, you can use those. To make sure you are really harvesting elderflowers, check out some elderberry images, for example on the website of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has an excellent plant database.

I might go forage elderflowers myself to try some other elderflower recipes.

Elderflower Jelly

8 cups clear apple juice without artificial coloring or additional sugar

15 to 20 elderberry flowerheads

1 package fruit pectin for less or no sugar recipes

4 cups sugar

You also need:

A canning pot, or a very large stockpot

10 half-pint canning jars

8 bands

8 new (unused) lids

1. Shake the elderflowers to remove any bugs. Remove all the stems.

2. Immerse the flowers in a large bowl filled with cold water. Swish around and place in a colander. Repeat this process once or twice. If there are still tiny insects on the flowers, don’t worry. The juice will be strained and cooked.

3. Place the flowers in a large plastic container with a lid. Pour the apple juice over it. Push down; the flowers should be fully immersed in juice. Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours.

4. Pour the liquid through a fine sieve. Repeat the process. You may also line the sieve with a piece of damp cheesecloth if you are really worried about bugs.

5. Follow the package directions for your pectin product. When the mixture boils, remove any foam with a ladle or a large spoon.

7. Pour the hot jelly in sterilized jars through a canning funnel. Wipe the rim with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips and wipe dry with paper towel. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

9. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars. If processed properly, the jelly will keep for 1 year or more.

Makes 10 half-pint jars