Elderflower, or elderberry? Sambuccus is one of the few plants I can think of whose name is doubled in this way, to reflect the dual harvests it provides. Right now, it seems right to call them elderflower; all over the county, in riparian zones especially, or on sun-dappled hillsides, the creamy umbels of elderflower are flaring brightly against the leafy green background of May. The tiny flowers are arranged in flat-topped clusters at the tips of the branches, and the overall effect is quite lovely, somehow both prim and carefree at the same time. We have a few varieties of elderflower/elderberry that grow wild in these parts; Sambuccus nigra, or blue elderberry, is the most common, and the one we're looking to harvest. Some of us also have Sambuccus mexicana planted in our gardens, which is more common commercially grown species, also with blue/black berries in the late summer. If you're not sure about a particular plant, or you have trouble keying it out, you may have to wait a year to make sure that the berries are a dusty blue/black color, and not red. Only berries and flowers from the blue elderberry shrubs should be gathered, as the red elderberry (Sambuccus racemosa) is poisonous. And for those who prefer to have others gather for them, the flowers are available dried, in the bulk herb section at our favorite local organic grocery.
If you're sure of your identification, you're in luck this year; the elderflower crop appears bountiful! If you are wild-crafting, it's best to distribute your harvesting over several plants, taking only a few flower clusters from each bush. Taking too many flowers will lessen the crop of berries that animals depend on for food in the fall and early winter, and some of us will want to infuse some of the mature berries into medicine. However, it would be silly to take more than was needed for a batch or two of this delightful simple syrup. It's a good bit of work to get the tiny flowers off of the green stems, but it's really important to to only infuse the flowers, and not the green stems, lest a bitterness creep in. Insects also tend to love elderflowers, so we like to soak the whole umbels in cold or even ice water for a few minutes, to release their six-legged grip on the petal parts, and come bobbing up to the surface, where they can be skimmed away.
Elderflower is a subtle scent on the tree, but the smell intensifies as it infuses in this week's featured recipe for Elderflower Cordial. This recipe makes early summer sipping feel special, and just a dash in a cocktail or mocktail is enough to set a whole mood, at brunch, lunch, or after dinner. It made an especial treat, recently, after a long day of grubbing and sweating to get a new section of the garden in order. I was working carefully, snipping three foot sections of poison oak, blackberry, and bedstraw, all of which were intertwined with flowering kale plants and a few stray aeonium succulents, and dusty hay raked up from the haystacks at work (the margin of my garden is often a wild place!) Scratchy, itchy, clingy, all at once, but at the day's end, the lower edge of the garden was tamed and a new terrace formed that we can use to grow beans on this year. I made sure to transplant some of the soil from a bed that had already grown beans well, so that the microbes that make nitrogen fixation possible would be present in the soil, a kind of farmer's method of inoculating the soil.
After all of this work was done, I got to enjoy an ice-clinking glass of sparkling water with a splash of this cordial and a squeeze of lemon. No joke, it helped me remember why I do so much of the work that I do. Elderflower is known to reduce inflammation of the sinuses, and that might have had something to do with the feeling of well-being that crept up on me as I sipped, after the dusty day of wrangling brush. But it was something in the flavor, too, something about the way it whispers and doesn't shout, but makes itself heard all the same. Elderflower has something to say about ease, and settling in. Elderflower has something to tell us, about slowing down to taste the moment. After the work is done, there should be rest and ease. Real talk: our world doesn't always allow for this, and we can't always devote all the time we'd like to this noble ideal of work/life balance. But elderflower tastes of the world the way it ought to be, a world of the imagination and the earth, where action is balanced with repose, and enough flowers are left to grow into berries, which are medicine of a different sort.
Cheers, friends. May you find the time, may you make the time, and may you taste ease often enough to know its subtle, perfect flavor.
By Jessica Tunis