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December 17, 2017
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community living

It’s elderflower season

The American elder shrub, widespread in our area, is currently in bloom with broad, white umbels. Both the flowers and the berries that later replace them are edible, though caution should be used as other parts of the plant are toxic.
Sambucus canadensis 001 by H. Zell - Own work, via Wikimedia Commons

REGION — Sambucus canadensis, or American elder, is a shrub that is conspicuous in our area at this time of year due to its abundant white flowers, which grow in broad-headed panicles that cover the plant. You’ve probably passed dozens of them recently on local roadsides.

Both the flowers and the berries of this plant are edible. There are a few cautions that are important to note, however. First, all other parts of the plant are toxic. Second, you should avoid elderberry species with red fruit growing in rounded, instead of flat clusters. Raw elderberries make some people nauseous, so cook before eating. Finally, avoid green berries.

Flowers are typically used to make elderberry cordial, which in turn can be used to flavor various sauces and desserts. According to Wildman Steve Brill, they also make a pleasant tea steeped in water, and “steeped in vinegar they add flavor and strengthen the stomach.” Or try frying them in tempura batter (see below).

The berries that succeed the flowers in the fall are a dark purplish color, and are perhaps most commonly found in elderberry jelly, which we’ve seen at local farmers’ markets, but can also be used in juices, teas, pies and wine. Weight for weight, elderberries have more vitamin A and C than oranges.

Fried elderflowers
Elder blossoms (clip at full open, fully fragrant stage, keeping a stem on the back)
Thin crepe or tempura batter (use your favorite recipe)
Vegetable oil -- just deep enough to cover the panicle
Dip the blossoms in the batter upside down, using the stem as a handle. Fry in oil in a skillet until browned, using the stem handle. There is no need to flip. Remove stem before eating. You can serve them with honey, powdered sugar, jam, or savory, with just salt and pepper.