Though often called a tree, the elder is a shrub that grows like a weed. It is widespread in Britain, growing on railway embankments, parkland, roadsides, and in hedges. The elder’s creamy yellow flowers start appearing in May and continue blooming through June and into July.
The European elder Sambucus nigra is edible (as is American Sambucus Canadensis), however mountain elder and dwarf elder are not.
Think of elderflowers as a flavouring – something like a fresh spice or herb. You could add them to a gooseberry compote or apple jelly, or steep them in hot cream to use for making custard. Elderflower cordial is very easy to make and can then be turned into sorbet. Traditional Italian recipes blend the flowers with ricotta and spices to make tart fillings and fritters. In Holland they are added to doughnut, cake and pancake batters. Whole flower heads can be dipped in batter and deep-fried to make a dessert. Savoury uses include mixing elderflowers with honey, wine, mustard and garlic to make glaze for roast lamb. In Alsace they are distilled in make an eaux de vie (water of life) spirit.