24 January 2011

Growing elder flowers for drinks

In his books, the late John Seymour tells us that in addition to the many foods found in fields and pastures, like rabbits, berries, nuts and fruit, some weeds are also edible.  In the UK, elder trees grow in the wild, are often thought of as weeds, but the berries and flowers are collected to make drinks and relish.  They're not common in Queensland but we have an elder plant and yesterday I pruned it. 

I have never seen an elderberry plant in a plant nursery here and I was surprised to see one being sold, about a year ago, at our local organic co-op shop.  Sitting in there among the unusual herbs they generally sell, I picked it up when I saw the label and brought it home thinking I had found a rare, fragile jewel in a six inch pot.  Well, a year later, I know it's a jewel, but fragile, it is not.  I thought it would take years to grow, and definitely a long time to flower and set fruit, but I didn't care, the thought of elder cordial and champagne kept me going.  A year later this rare and fragile jewel is taller than me and has been covered in flowers for the past six months.

The only thing that disappoints me is that so far it's not set fruit.  There are many flower heads but they just die without setting the dark red berries I was hoping for.  Maybe over our winter, when the weather is much cooler, we'll be lucky.  Then I'll make red elderberry wine about which John Seymour wrote: "Elderberry wine is one of the kings of country wines - it matures well and can almost pass for a claret after 3 or 4 years in the bottle."

When the flowers fade, these reddish-purple skeletons are left.  They're very attractive but I'd prefer the berries.

In the meantime, when I have a bit more time, I'll make the cordial and champagne, which only needs the flowers.  The secret to a good elder cordial, according to John, is to pick the flowers on a hot day, from high up in the tree, and don't put too many flowers into the mix.  I cut our plant right back yesterday, it's still taller than me but I reckon in a few months those flowers, and hopefully some berries, will be just right for picking.

John Seymour's Elder Champagne
12 heads of elderflowers in full bloom and scent, picked on a hot day
1½ lbs|0.7kg sugar - white sugar is best
1 lemon
2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Put the blooms in a bowl with the juice of a lemon.  Cut up the rind of the lemon and put that in (no pith).  Add the sugar, vinegar, one gallon|4 litres water [cover with muslin] and leave for 24 hours.  Strain liquid into bottles, cork, leave for a fortnight and drink the following week.  

I also have Hugh Fernley Whittingstall's recipe and he leaves his  mix until he sees it's fermenting, then he strains it into bottles.

All this talk about fermented drinks - I'm going to start another ginger beer plant today.  Ginger beer, here we come.  Who is making fermented drinks here?  Who is scared of doing it?  Is anyone making elder drinks?



  1. I have made the cordial, I love it. Pour a glass in summer and its so refreshing, pour one in winter and it instantly makes you feel that summer is here.

  2. I'm not making anything with our elderberries, just cutting them back - once you have them you can never get rid of them it seems! But I should get to and make something with them - but I'm a little afraid of fermenting.

  3. Hmm... I wonder does the Elder need a mate in order to produce fruit? You might need to plant another one? In Ireland they grow all over the place - looking forward to elderflower pannacotta this year!

  4. Coming from the UK where elder berry plants are almost a weed, yours looks very straggly! I would prune it hard in the autumn (which you must just be going into) & don't give it too much care!!

    Elderflower champagne is lovely & a few elderflowers added to stewed gooseberries really make them!

  5. Hello everyone!

    Sonya, see if you can find the book Wild Fermentation. It's a very good guide.

    Eeyore, I thought that too. I've taken cuttings and some are almost ready to plant.

  6. I'm wondering if your climate may not be too warm for your elderberry. They generally do well in areas that have a "real" winter season; maybe it needs a regular cold period to prosper.
    It seems odd that it should be flowering for 6 months. Our shrubs only flowered for a short time in spring, the produced berries that could be harvested by early summer.

  7. I made my first batch of ginger beer after Christmas (following a few failures) and it tastes fantastic!

    Next I'm trying a fermented citrus lemonade. Fingers crossed it works :)

  8. Rhonda, I made cordial last summer for the first time and froze it in batches so we could indulge in it all winter long...heavenly! I followed this video:


    Love, Tina xxx

  9. I make kombucha, water kefir and recently tried your ginger beer. Love them all. You dont have to have another elderberry plant to cross pollinate do you? It just seems funny you havent had any berries yet with it being so big.

  10. I love your elderflower bush...hope mine looks like that one day....

    You wouldn't believe it, I just brought an Elder Flower plant on saturday at the markets...It has one flower head on it....so it will be a while till I can use it....After paying for the plant, I then read that it can grow up to 4 meters...oh Ohhhhh!!! hope it doesnt mind being pruned....How old should it be before we prune it...early days yet, will transfer to a pot first....

    I dont have photos, but will take them next time I make Rhubarb champagne....
    thought you might like the recipe....

    Rhubarb champagne
    2lb rhubarb
    1 sliced lemon
    8 pints of cold water
    1 lb sugar
    1 dessert spoon of vinegar
    nylon curtain to strain it.

    Wash rhubarb and cut up roughly, add sugar, finely sliced lemon, vinegar & water...Let stand for 24 hours, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
    Strain through nylon curtain. Bottle and seal tightly. Screw top coke bottles are good because they allow for expansion from gas...
    The champagne is ready to drink in a few days, but becomes alcoholic after 2 weeks....

    The sugar is converted to alcohol with fermentation. The longer the fermentation the dryer the 'wine' due to less sugar.......

    For a sweet wine, store all of it in the fridge to stop fermentation.
    For a dry wine, store at room temperature in a cool place to allow a longer fermentation . Bottles will expand greatly with this method, hence the plastic coke bottles.....

    Remember if wanting a dry wine, the bottles can warp and explode....The gas needs to be released once in a while....

    I prefer it sweet, and we generally drink it over a few days from the fridge, after bottling, I taste it every day until I get the flavour I like, then pop it in the fridge. All of it.....

    you will be amazed at the lovely pink coloured drink you get....
    very yummy.

    At the homebrew shop the other day, I told him I wanted to stop fermentation, so I could store it at room temperature and it remain sweet......he suggested Campden tablets for stopping fermentation when making wine.....
    the instructions say....
    Add 1 tablet per 5 litres of juice after crushing. Leave for 24 hours before adding yeast....... ( I wont be doing that because this would stop fermentation when I don't want to...I am seeking out the wild yeasts in the room to start fermentation).........
    Then add 1 tablet per 10 litres at the end of fermentation to protect the wine..... I will try this soon, as I dont really have the space to store it all in my fridge...I will et you know how it goes with the campden tablets.......

    should I copy this to a new thread in the forum???? or will everyone see it from here? Its a truly lovely cheap drink that I want to share with as many ppl as possible....

    Great post on Monday Rhonda, keep up the fantastic work...

  11. I've made elderberry syrup, for medicine, but haven't felt I had enough to cut the flowers yet. They're multiplying, so maybe this is the year I'll get to try fermenting the flowers. I had St. Germaine (elderflower liqueur)on my Christmas list. Yum!

  12. I love this post. Thank you so much Rhonda.

    I have never heard of, nor seen, an elder bush in this country.

    A few months ago I made a decision that, given the shortage of water, world wide, I would not grow anything in my garden which was not of use as a productive garden plant, or which could not be used in a culinary sense.

    So no new plant (tree or bush or flower) would be brought home from the nursery and find a home in my garden if it was for a "pretty" value only.

    With that in mind I purchased, amongst others (including John Seymours' "The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency" and The New Self-Sufficient Gardener" - which were re-written with the assistance of Will Sutherland), two other books, James Wong's "A Year with James Wong" and "Grow your own Drugs".

    James uses the elder leaves as an insect repellent, and the leaves, flowers and berries (cooked)in an antiviral / anti-inflamatory distillation

    He advises taking cuttings of the elder bush / tree in autumn. They tolerate coastal winds / salt spray / sandy soil.

    Elder flowers can be used to make cordials, and elderflower wine - which is traditionally drunk as a remedy for colds and flu. The elder berries can be used for throat irritations (in a gel) and for respiratory infections and as an effective anti-viral / anti-flu remedy.

    He does stress that elderberries should NEVER be eaten raw.

    All it takes is one person to change a mind set - and Rhonda, thank you - for you are the newest person to do so with this posting - less growing for pretty sake only, and more for practicality - one person at a time will heal this wonderful planet and provide for all our needs.

  13. Claudia, I agree, it's too warm here most of the year. But I'm hopeful that in winter, berries will grow. The rest of the time it will flower so we can make the cordial or champagne for most of the year.

    Thanks for the link, Tina.

    Denise, I took some cuttings and one is almost ready to plant.

    Nellymary, could you make a post on the forum with it? Thanks.

    Dani, I'm sure elder would grow in South Africa. You might have the same problem of no berries, but I think they'll grow in winter here and maybe there too. I hope you find a plant. Thanks for the info, it was very interesting and is going in my homemaker's journal.

  14. Elderberries grow wild in Pennsylvania, and my Dad used to make wine from them ( along with rhubarb, and even dandelion wines, and wine from his concord grape vines).

    We also gathered the berries for pies and jam. Alot of work for those little berries, but well worth it for the taste!

  15. Hello Rhonda I had Elderberry juice once, I really did not know much about it only that it tasted great. You are lucky it grows there wild. Around here I know many people that make dandelion wine. Sounds weird to me but it grows wild here. I have never tried it.Probably not sweet.I am OK with never trying it. We have lots of wild berries in our bush in the spring.I look forward to seeing that and picking some in May and June.

  16. I've tried root beer and creme soda here in the states. It's fermented with yeast but I must have gotten the measurements a little off because it tasted more like alcohol and less like the root beer extract or vanilla.

  17. I make the champagne and we love it...When we lived in Hungary they made two kinds, one to drink as soon as it was made and one to bottle and keep. I never had the recipe for the second one, but the short lived one is delicious and we enjoy it once a year. My grandmother always made elderberry jam. I also made elderflower fritters with my daughter (she's 35 now but was about 9 when we did this) by dipping the flowers in batter and frying them as one does with zucchini blossoms. These are fun things to make when in season and add to the joy of life rather than being a staple food.

  18. Tina, what a good idea to freeze some. I never thought of that.

  19. tina, we can't view the video here. :- (

  20. Hi Rhonda, How long does it take for an elder berry plant to yield fruit? I'm wondering if it initially takes awhile? I think that's the case with blueberries..and maybe it's the same for this one too? I'm very familiar with the plant name. I'll have to check around here, because I'm sure it grows here in the Northwest of the United States, too. Well, I do hope you will be able to make some elder berry cordial or something soon. I've never made fermented drinks, ever.. I did have Kombucha tea once..I'll have to be honest, I'll not have that again, most likely!!! Ginger beer sounds really interesting :) :) have a lovely week. Love and hugs from Oregon, Heather :)

  21. I've never made cordial - another great idea I'm going to bookmark from here. Thanks Rhonda Jean.

  22. Hi Rhonda,
    I've made ginger beer many times (actually got the sugar syrup in the pot as we 'speak'), and also rose syrup as an icecream topping - the kids love it :)
    I've also discovered purslane, which grows rampant in my vegie garden, next to grass, is an edible weed, though I think it will take a bit of courage to taste it!

  23. I've been looking for an elderberry tree for years but unless I want to pay a horrific (well, to me) price for it to be bought into a local nursery it looks like I'm not having one. Good luck with your fermenting Rhonda and would love to see the bottles of elderberry products.

  24. Lana, purslane grows wild here too. It comes up in the gravel along our driveway and in the back yard. It's delicious and full of good things. Throw a handful in the salad and watch everyone eat it.

  25. Rhonda,if you're getting flowers I don't know why you wouldn't get fruit. I KNOW you need two plants to cross-pollinate to make fruit, so do plant another one. Also, lore says that Elder does not like to be pruned,so I would let them grow wild if possible. I have two in my yard in Minnesota and they do grow like crazy, but I love that.

  26. How interesting that your shrub does not fruit. Do any of your neighbours have an elder? Perhaps you could phone a local nursery to find out what's up.
    Have you noticed any insects (bees/flies) visiting the flowers and pollinating them? I seem to recall having read that some flowers (especially small ones) need certain types of insects to visit to achieve pollination. Just a thought.

  27. The little elderberry plant I put in a few years ago is basically a tree now and it keeps on growing. We have plenty of room so its size is not an issue. I would hesitate to plant one in a small garden. Its branches arch over the path and the blossoms hanging down have created a very pretty arbour to pass through on my way to the washing line. We have a similar climate to yours and are frost free in winter and the tree set fruit in the first year but the birds beat me to the berries. I have made cordial but reading about the number of explosions in kitchens and garages, as people across Britain were inspired to make the champagne after it featured on Hugh Fernley Whittingstall's programme has made me rather apprehensive about making the fermented drink! Would you be using plastic bottles? I much prefer my drinks out of glass bottles but the thought of those bottles shattering - yikes! Those who succeeded said it was very nice indeed but beware it was so pleasant to drink that they probably over indulged as I recall some saying it made them quite tipsy!

  28. Ann, I'll probably use plastic bottles for the first batch, to see how much gas builds up, then I'll use glass bottles with corks instead of the pull down metal top.

  29. I make elderberry syrup from wild growing bushes.It is said to be a good cough medicine, but we just drink because it tastes so good. Up to the 1950s, a big elderberry bush belonged to every farmhouse here in Germany. You could use every part of it, and it also was thought to bring good luck. Nowadays, sadly they are all gone, because they look rather crooked when they get older and don´t fit in with the new orderly yards and farmhouses, but sometimes you can find very old, big ones near old neglected buildings in villages which haven´t yet been cleared and modernized.

  30. Elderflowers grow like weeds in NZ, and I made my first batch ever of elderflower champagne with foraged flowers this year. It looks like a very similar recipe to the one you posted - it was divine! Lovely on it's own, but especially good with gin and tonic... :)
    Would like to give something with the berries a try but I have heard they are not quite as delicious...


  31. HI RJ
    I don't think it is the sun. I think it is just that the plant is young. I'd definitely see what happens in the next 2 years as the plant matures. If it then does not yeild berries, then perhaps it needed another one to pollinate. If you have the tag that told you what 'type or name' of elderberry species you have, try looking it up on the internet. Good luck.

  32. There are a couple of elder trees growing wild around where I live, and a few summers ago we tried making syrup from them. Except for an initial problem (mis-translation of 'berries' to 'flowers', and the resulting winging-it), the syrup was very yummy. Except one bottle went mouldy very quickly. I'd like to find a recipe originally in English before I try again, and I want to be able to store it for winter.

    I really want to try making ginger beer, and perhaps creme soda if I can find a recipe - the only other way to get them here is buying expensive and not-very-good imported ones. Not my ideal :(

  33. I have been making elderfower cordian and elderberry cordial for some years. The only cordial recipe I have had success with is Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall's, the others end up too potatoey!!
    I freeze the cordial in bags as it tends to go off too quickly. It is also brilliant as an ingredient for gooseberry and elderflower ice-cream among other things. the elderberry juice is a great restorative as packed with vitamin c.


    20-30 freshly picked heads of elderflower
    Zest of 2 lemons and 1 orange
    Up to 1.5 kg of granulated sugar
    Up to 200ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

    Shake insects off flowers, but don't wash them - it ruins the flavour, then place them in a large bowl with the lemon and orange zest. Pour over just enough boiled water to cover them completely (approx 1.5 - 2 litres). Cover and leave for at least 4 hours, or overnight, until cold.

    Strain the liquid through muslin or a jelly bag, gently squeezing to extract all the juice. Measure the amount of liquid and pour it into a saucepan. To every 500ml liquid add 350g sugar and 50ml lemon juice. Heat gently to dissolve all the sugar, stirring occassionally. Bring to a gentle simmer and skim off any scum. Let the cordial cool, then strain it again through muslin or a jelly bag.

    Funnel the cordial into glass bottles and store in the fridge - will keep for 2-3 weeks.

    This is the recipe as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells it. We made one bottle for the fridge and put the rest into ice cube trays/bags. According to the site I was perusing yesterday it'll keep for up to a year if frozen. We also found that this recipe made a cordial a bit too sweet to our taste, so it might be worth going a little gentle on that front and adding it to taste.

  34. rhonda, that's great! i have to tell, as much as i adore hugh, his recipe for the elderflower champagne is somewhat flawed - i've got a recipe to a wise woman on his forums who posted an alternative to his. you can see the recipe here. http://url.appleturnover.tv/champagne

    we used the swing-top brewing bottles without any problems. have fun! we love our elderflower recipes! x

  35. We make elderflower syrup (cordial?). I'm sure I must have written about it before - most probably both in the comments here and on the forum somewhere!
    I'm one of those afraid of fermented drinks. In part because in our house, things tend to go mouldy if left on their own for some time.

  36. Yaaaaaaaaaaay for elder trees! I'm sure your wee sapling will no doube reward you in time, Rhonda:)

  37. Ginger beer is a traditional Christmas drink in our islands. Here is how we do it:
    1 lb. fresh ginger
    8 cups water
    1 1/2 cups sugar (or to taste)
    lime peel
    Wash and remove the skin from the ginger. Chop the ginger and blend in a little water. Pour into a large pot with the rest of water and leave to soak and ferment for about 24 hours or longer if you want it stronger tasting. When fermented, strain the mixture. Add lime peel to the ginger beer and sweeten to taste. When sweetened remove the lime peel, bottle and refrigerate. Serve chilled.
    This year I used the remains after straining to also make a ginger jam. Just add sugar and pectin and bring to a boil. Absolutely delicious an nothing wasted.

    Trinidad & Tobago

    p.s. We also make a drink and jam with the sepals of the Roselle plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa) which is commonly called sorrel in the Caribbean. Another Christmas tradition. I heard mention that the young leaves can also be tossed in a salad.

  38. p.s. Both Ginger and 'sorrel' are harvested from the end of November to January here. 'Sorrel' in particular is partial to the abbreviated daylight hours around this time of year.
    Both of these have also become commercially popular throughout the year as shandy drinks.
    A passion fruit harvest is also possible during the same period and drink and jam also made from it.

    Trinidad & Tobago

  39. I too wonder if your elder bush need a companion for some cross-pollination?

    We have wild elders in field hedges and in the garden. Last summer they all produced a plentiful crop . Enough for birds and people. I made jam with the berries, combined with some blackberries. It is crunchy, but so delicious. There is almost a taste of honey in the sweetness.

  40. A little scared of it I must admit! But it is something I want to try someday

  41. Thanks for the recipes, everyone!

  42. Hi Rhonda. I make Elderflower cordial, we all love it, it's a real taste of summer.Elders grow wild here and can be a pest but i love them, I have 3 growing in the garden.My aim each year has been to make enough to last all year but they're only flowering for a certain length of time and my family drink the stuff as fast as i can make it.The berries are starting to ripen now so I'm going to make elderberry jam..have heard that's scrummy so would like to see for myself.

  43. I suspect one of the reasons that so many people experience exploding bottles these days is because the bottles they use are unsuitable. The glass for most bottles is much thinner than it used to be and therefore cannot take the pressure. Even when using glass beer bottles they can still be too thin to take the pressure as most beers no longer ferment in the bottle. Add to that people live in much warmer homes than they used to (especially in the UK) means that they don't have a truly cool place for storage during fermenting.

    Hoiping to make ginger beer in a plastic bottle using the most recent method show by HFW (his programme may not have reached Australia yet). That involved a short fermentation in around 3 days followed by filtering and drinking immediately. I am hoping that it will be safe to filter and then decant into glass for storage in the fridge. Time will tell!

  44. Hi Rhonda,
    I planted an elderflower about 10 years ago (just outside Sydney). I never pruned it or worried about it, just enjoyed the flowers lol... it has sprouted new stems around the base and is now quite a nice little thicket about 2.5 m tall. This year, for the first time, it has given more than a few stray fruit!!! I managed to harvest a whole 1/2 cup full of ripe berries lol. I have frozen those and am waiting for the unripe berries to be ready in the hope of gathering a cupful :D I want to make elderberry honey syrup: http://www.ehow.com/how_5458246_make-syrup-boost-immune-system.html

    PS. I know the bowerbirds and others are sharing the harvesting task with me :D but I really was surprised to see a proper harvestable quantity of berries this year... I had just about given up on it!!!

  45. I love elderflower cordial, and we've made elderflower wine which is absolutely delicious (but also one batch which didn't work out.) I would imagine you'd need the weather to turn colder in order to get the berries - in the UK elders flower for a few weeks, not six months. I'm sure I've read also that you need to decide whether you're going to harvest flowers or berries as it could exhaust the bush if you try for both. It's less of an issue here where there are so many growing wild. The other thing I would advise is to sniff each flower before you pick it - some elder flowers have a distinctive smell of cat pee which could then contaminate the entire batch. I haven't worked out whether this is because of a specific type of elder, or whether the flowers are low or high, or how long the flower has been in bloom, or something else! I have had to throw out all the flowers I've picked before now because they all ended up with a distinctly unpleasant aroma.

    We've been making wine for a few years now - favourites include Spring Oak leaf, and strawberry - I'm looking forward to sampling our dandelion later in the year. This year we tried making cider (fermented apple juice) for the first time, after an apple pressing day with neighbouring households - the leftover apple pulp was then used to make several batches of apple wine (or could be used for pigs if we had some!)

  46. Good evening... I'm thrilled to learn that Elderflowers will grow and flower in Brisbane... now all I have to do is track down a plant or two. So far I'm not having any luck on the usual websites... can you give me any suggestions

  47. Michelle, I bought my plant at the Maleny Co-op in Maple Street http://www.maplestreetco-op.com/, failing that, you might try Isabell Shippard in Nambour http://www.herbsarespecial.com.au/

    Good luck

  48. Hi - A little something my garden told me, lol... elderflowers are pollenated by little flies, so if they're not setting berries you can VERY GENTLY take your fingertips or even your palm and just rub it softly over the flower heads. Takes less than 10 minutes to do 6 elders. I tried this when I wasn't getting berries and sure enough, the flower heads I did this to berried-up wonderfully!

  49. Does anyone know where elderflowers grow wild in Melbourne?

    I just got back from Germany where they grow like weeds and am itching to make my own syrup, champagne and jelly.

  50. I bought an Elderflower plant today at Bonnyrigg Garden Centre, they are from Renaissance Herbs. Hugh Fearnely Whittingstall had gotten me intrigued with his cordials and champagnes, figured the only way I was going to try some was to grow and make my own. Cheaper than a flight to England, which is on my bucket list.

  51. Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I'm trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it's the
    blog. Any responses would be greatly appreciated.
    Here is my web blog - internet florist

  52. We live in Western Qld where summer gets to 43 degrees and our winters to minus 3 degrees and our elderberry shrubs thrive. Rhey both fruit and flower as long as the water is kept up to them regularly.

  53. I'm in SE QLD and have the same problem. My plant is less than a year old and started grewing over winter, but it is rather straggly and never fruits after flowering. I water it regularly, but it seems to go thirsty soon after. Maybe next year.

  54. Hi Rhonda, great to hear you got hold of an Elder Flower tree in Brisbane. I have been looking for about 20 years at local nurseries with no luck. Im curious to how it grows here in the warm conditions? Are your flowers scented? Have you tried making the champagne. I used to make it years ago in uk, and I would love to make it again.

    1. I got mine at the Maleny Co-op. It grows well, the flowers are scented and I've made champagne with them. For the first few years we only got flowers and the berries fell off when they were still green. When the tree was about three years old, the berries started maturing and now I have a few bags of berries in the freezer to make cold remedy during winter.

  55. Hi Guys, just did the Orange NSW Bunnings Garden Centre over and Wallah!!!!for $3.99

  56. Hi..... just found a second Elderberry at Bunnings in Orange, NSW only $3.99 couldn't believe my luck.... I only had $4 to spend .....must be a sign of better things to come:)


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