Where and How to Hunt for Elderflower

Stop and smell (and pick) the elderflowers
Langdon Cook  |   May 2014   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
cocktails in seattle elderflower seattle magazine
Look for blue elderberry blossoms this month to infuse into syrup

Last year, I had an experience familiar to many a lazy mushroom hunter. I hit the snooze button one too many times and when I finally hit the road and sputtered into my favorite spring porcini patch well after sunrise, I was dismayed to find it picked clean. Evidence was all around like a crime scene: tire tracks, scrapes in the duff, even telltale trimmings left behind.

But the day was not lost. I drove the logging roads back toward town, and as I got closer to civilization, I started seeing them—the inviting creamy white blossoms of elder bushes. With a pair of scissors in one hand and a plastic grocery bag in the other, I walked the road, picking the nicest blooms within reach. Never mind my fungal goose egg; a Champagne toast was in order—or, more specifically, a round of elderflower cordials.

Elders are flowering shrubs found throughout much of the temperate and subtropical world. Northwest foragers seek out the blue elder (Sambucus cerulean), a species most commonly found in dry habitats east of the Cascades, and not to be confused with the inedible red elder that makes its home in moist forests around Seattle. The blue elder is an easy plant to identify, with compound leaves that are long, pointed and slightly serrated, and large flower clusters that paint the greenery with big splashes of white in springtime.

Although much of the plant is toxic, including the leaves and stems, its flowers are used to make infusions and desserts that evoke the feral sweetness of spring. It’s a hard flavor to pin down: fresh, floral, with a subtle accent of honey. Cream infused with the blossoms can be whipped into an ethereal dessert topping (think strawberry shortcake with elderflower whip), or try making a light air puff of an elder blossom fritter. Mostly, though, I bottle this essence of spring as syrup. (Later in summer, the berries can also be harvested to make preserves, sauces and even wine.)

Cocktail culture’s triumph in recent years has seen a commensurate interest in botanical mixers. St-Germain and sambuca, from France and Italy, respectively, are both liqueurs made with elderflower. You can make your own aperitif by steeping the freshly picked blossoms in a simple syrup for several days, the result being a fragrant infusion that fancies up a glass of inexpensive prosecco.  

Look for blue elder on the dry, eastern slopes of the Cascades and, less commonly, in the sunniest locales west of the mountains. The canyon country of the Columbia plateau is a good bet, and in May and June, this means driving the byways of foothill and orchard, where the tall shrubs can be found along riverbanks and roadsides. Remember, those big clusters of creamy white blossoms will become big clusters of deep blue berries, so pick responsibly. I look for flower clusters with a high percentage of fully open blossoms and move quickly from tree to tree.

Jeremy Faber of Seattle’s Foraged & Found Edibles once told me that he always pays for his gas. By that he meant that even if a trip in search of mushrooms or some other fleeting delicacy is a bust, there’s always another wild ingredient to save the day. Those hunting spring porcini and morels, in particular, are advised to diversify their spring foraging portfolios, because all foragers at some point have experienced the hangdog effect of coming home empty-handed. Elderflower is the perfect ace in the back pocket, and a festive way to celebrate the season’s bounty. 

Find a recipe for elderflower syrup here. Follow Langdon Cook’s further adventures at fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com