Just as the sweetness of June gives way to the more sultry days of high summer, the elderflowers begin to bloom. Their cream colored blossoms appear everywhere, dotting roadsides and drooping over ponds and ditches, scenting the air with their delicate perfume.
Look at the flowers closely, and you will find a multitude of tiny stars, woven together as fine as lace. They bring to mind moonlight and magic. And indeed, the elder has always been associated with faeries and other worlds, dabbling at the threshold of this world and the next. An old legend goes that one can glimpse the fairy king himself by falling asleep under an elder at midsummer. And how easy to believe these stories, filling your basket on a hot summer’s day, your fingers dusted with golden pollen, breathing in their sweetness. You really feel you might get whisked away.
Medicinally, elderflower is known as a plant that clears heat. Taken hot in tea, the flowers promote circulation and open the sweat glands, helping to cleanse the skin and cool the body. This is especially useful in bringing down a fever, for which purpose elder is often paired with yarrow and peppermint. Soothing and decongestant, elder makes a wonderful ally for hot and damp respiratory conditions, from allergies to colds; a weak tea makes a nice solution to use in the neti-pot in such instances. They also make a lovely topical remedy for irritated skin, helping to reduce redness and speed healing time. Taken as a daily tonic, they soothe the nerves, helping to promote restful sleep and lift the spirits (I believe they bring a little of that fairy magic into one’s life).
In the kitchen, the delicate, almost ethereal scent of elder lends itself to all manner of summer treats. The flowers pair especially well with fruits – from June’s gooseberries and strawberries to the stone fruits of July, with cherries or peaches being particular favorites. Sprinkle the tiny blossoms over fresh cut fruit or tuck a few sprigs into the pot when making a compote. Dipped in a light batter and fried, they are delicious served with a squeeze of lemon, and a dusting of cinnamon and sugar.
By making an elderflower infused syrup (known as elderflower cordial), one can enjoy the flavor of elder long after the flowers are spent. The syrup can be added to sparkling water with lemon and a sprig of mint for a delicious drink, baked into cakes (especially almond), used in place of the flowers for poached fruits or used as base for sorbets and granitas. To make, combine equal parts sugar and water in a pan, heat to dissolve and then add as many elderflower heads as you can cram in the pot. Infuse overnight and strain into a clean bottle, which will last several weeks in the fridge.
Here is one my favorite recipes for the summer; an elder scented aqua fresca made with sweet summer strawberries. Delicious and refreshing, it draws on elder’s power to clear away that summer heat and keep you cool.
Strawberry and Elderflower Aqua Fresca
This is a perfect drink to bring along for a picnic on a hot summer’s day. Feel free to substitute another fruit for the strawberries – cherries, peaches or apricots would be delicious as well.
- 4 cups water
- ½ cup honey
- 10-12 large elderflower heads
- 4 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced
- juice of 1 lemon
- crushed ice to serve (optional)
1. To make the elderflower syrup, bring the water to a boil in a medium pan and then reduce to a simmer over low heat. Add the honey, stirring until completely dissolved into the liquid, and then remove from the heat. Add the elderflowers, cover with a lid, and leave to steep at least 30 minutes.
2. Remove the elderflowers from the syrup by straining through a mesh sieve. Add the syrup, strawberries and lemon juice to a blender and blend until the mixture is smooth.
3. Pour the mixture through a mesh strainer or sieve into a clean jar. You will need to do this in several batches, pushing the liquid through with a spoon, clearing away the fibrous strawberry bits collecting on the strainer (and don’t throw those bits away – take whatever you have left after straining out the liquid and heat gently in a saucepan with a little honey or organic cane sugar added to taste. It makes a delicious seedy jam).