Elderberries are blooming in the Tennessee Valley region, and will continue, depending upon elevation, until the end of July or thereabouts. Growing often in waste places, fence rows and disturbed areas, frequently on poor soil, the eastern North American species of elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, has been consumed by humans since prehistoric times. Both the flowers and the fruits are edible, but the leaves and other plant parts should not be consumed. In Europe, flowers from the related species Sambucus niger, is used to make elderflower syrup, a flavoring for beverages. When I came upon a healthy stand of elderberries while driving in the mountains last week, I decided to try my hand at making elderflower syrup from the local flowers.
In case you decide to follow in my footsteps, I offer two cautionary notes. 1) Be absolutely certain of your identification. The image above should give you an idea of what the plant looks like. It is a shrub about four feet tall or more when in bloom. 2) Do not collect flowers from plants growing along well-traveled roads. The plant in the image is within 100 yards of Interstate 75, and will be heavily contaminated with dust and pollutants from the highway. Find your plants on a country back road, or better yet, while hiking in the National Forest. It is permissible to collect elderberry flowers and fruits in the national forest. Don't try it in a state or national park, however. You can see from the image that the flower umbel is born on a long stalk. I cut off the flower stalk just about the pair of leaves with my pocketknife. In less than five minutes, I had a paper shopping bag full of blooms.
Upon arriving home, I washed the blooms by holding the stem and swishing the flowers in a sink full of cold water. This must be done carefully, as insects are fond of elderberry nectar. After rinsing, pat the flowers dry with a kitchen towel. To prepare the syrup, proceed as follows:
1. Grasp the flowers with your fingers and pull them free. If a bit of stem remains attached to each flower, no worries. You should, however, discard all the larger green stems.
2. Weigh the prepared flowers on a kitchen scale. This recipe is for 4 to 5 ounces of flowers. (If you don't have a scale, use about three cups, loosely packed, of the prepared flowers.)
3. In a large pot combine 6 cups of sugar with 4 cups of cold water. Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow to come to a full boil, the remove from the heat, cover and let stand 10 minutes to cool a bit.
4. Add the elderberry flowers and stir to submerge them. Cover, and leave at room temperature overnight.
5. The next day, remove the zest from 5 large lemons, using a bar zester or vegetable peeler. Avoid getting any of the white pith. Juice the lemons, strain the juice, and add it and the zest to the pot with the elderberry flowers. Replace the cover, place in the refrigerator, and let stand for three more days.
6. On the fourth day, strain the syrup into sterilized bottles and store in a cool, dark place.
(To sterilize bottles, wash in warm, soapy water, rinse until no trace of soap remains. Drain thoroughly. Add a tablespoon of pure grain alcohol to each bottle and shake well before adding the syrup. The alcohol also helps to preserve the syrup. If you don't want to use alcohol, place the washed bottles in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool before filling. CAUTION: if the bottles are too hot when filled with cold syrup, they will shatter!)
To use the syrup, place about two tablespoons (or to taste) in a glass and add club soda and ice. Stir. Enjoy.
Cultivated varieties of elderberries are widely available and make fine garden subjects. I think it is more fun to forage for wild elderberries, however. Later in the season, I will go looking for the ripened berries. If I get them before the birds do, I plan to make some elderberry wine. Stay tuned.