Elder trees are steeped in a rich, magical history. Since 2,000 B.C.E., humans have been using the elder tree to make instruments, ward off evil spirits, and make herbal concoctions.
The Elder Mother in some Celtic traditions, or White Goddess to the Druids, was believed to be the spirit of the elder tree and would provide protection. Others believed that stepping into the forest like center of the elder tree would lead directly to the land of the elves. (1)
Not knowing the folklore, I sought out the elderberry to continue to grow my food and herb garden. I planted the smallest of elder trees (which are many times referred to as shrub and look and act like a shrub).
Each year as the shrub expanded, the quantity of the berries grew. It was a rush of who would get the berries first - me or the birds. I was, of course, happy to share. They were not. My dogs would walk and hide in the center as if they were discovering clues in a cave. My chickens use the space to cool off from the sun and as cover from the rain when they are not quite ready to go back into the coop. Whether they have spotted any elves or seen the Elder Mother, I do not know. I like to imagine that they stay there, in her cozy middle space, absorbing the love of this beloved tree, learning from her wisdom.
When the flowers would come into bloom, the sweet smell would permeate throughout my yard. The shrub would become the most stunning part of my yard, begging for everyone to stare in awe. Yet, I had no idea what to do with the flowers. It wasn't until Claire Ptak of Violet Bakery debuted a Lemon Elderflower Cake at the wedding of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, that I saw the potential of elderflower. A remake of that cake was, to-date, the best cake I ever made.
Skip forward to this summer when I finally harvested the flowers and made an Elderflower Syrup (also known as Elderflower Cordial). It has the most remarkable, full sweet taste. Each summer I revel in making simple syrups from violets, lilacs, and more. None of them can stand-up to this syrup.
Whether you are looking to add elderflower syrup to sparkling water, drizzled over a piece of bread, turned into sorbet or jam, or baked into a yellow cake, here is a simple recipe that is worth the time.
2 quarts of water
8 cups sugar
Bowl of elderflowers (approximately 4 loosely packed cups)
In saucepan, add water and sugar. Bring to a boil. Leave at a low boil for a few minutes and then cool.
While your syrup is cooling, remove the stalks from the elderflowers. Remove as much of the stem as your sanity will permit. (Stalks and stems contain toxins, but small amounts will be fine.)
Shake the elderflowers and make sure to go through them carefully. (Some people recommend running water over them to remove any small bugs. Some prefer to remove bugs by hand to not lose any of the flavor of the elderflowers in the water. I create a little catch and release rescue area and bring them back to the elderberry bush thereby not diminishing the taste of the flowers or harming any bugs.)
Get your container(s) ready and add elderberry flowers.
Grate the zest of all lemons and place into the container.
Juice two of the lemons and add to container.
Slice the remaining two lemons and add to container.
When syrup is room temperature (or close enough), pour into the container. Seal.
Put into the refrigerator for 2-5 days. (The longer the more infused the flavor will be. Note, don't go passed 5 days or you might start to have a rancid product with the elderflowers breaking down.)
Strain into smaller containers and seal with a lid.
Keep in the refrigerator. Syrup should remain good for several weeks. If you would like to extend the shelf life, freeze or sterilize your jars and keep in the refrigerator for approximately 6-12 months.
Norm's Farms. Elder Tree Folklore – Part 1 & Part 2. normsfarms.com/blogs/growing-and-harvesting-elderberry/elder-tree-folklore-part-1. normsfarms.com/blogs/growing-and-harvesting-elderberry/elder-tree-folklore-part-2.