- – the tree, the flowers, the leaves
- – plants often mistaken for elderflower
What does an elder tree look like?
The elder (also known as an elderflower tree or an elderberry tree) is a somewhat scraggy, untidy-looking tree which doesn’t usually have a single, main trunk. Instead, several stems tend to emerge from the ground and branch frequently, giving the tree a bushy, shrub-like appearance.
I have seen elder trees approaching 10m (approx 30 feet) in height (see the above photo), as well as much smaller specimens measuring just 2m (approx 6 feet) or less.
Where does Elderflower grow?
Elder trees can be found in parks, woodlands, forests, hedgerows, by the roadside and in many gardens, right across the world – Ireland, France, Germany, the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia etc.
The elder tree flowers for approximately 6 weeks in early summer. Sprays or clusters of flowers are dotted all over the tree.
When fully in bloom, each tiny flower is white/cream in colour and has 5 rounded petals, white/cream stamens (stalks) and yellow anthers (small pollen sacs attached to each stamen/stalk).
Viewed from the side, each spray or head of elderflower has a distinct shape, called an umbel i.e. the flower stalks all arise from a common, central point to form a flat-topped flower cluster. Across the flat top, each umbel can measure anywhere from 5cm to 30cm (2 inches to 12 inches) in diameter.
The leaves of the Elder have a slightly serrated edge. On each twig you will find one terminal leaf along with 2 or 3 pairs of leaves growing directly opposite each other.
(The above image also shows elderflower buds in the days before they burst into bloom.)
In full bloom, elderflowers have a beautiful, sweet, summery scent… however, until you become familiar with this scent, it’s better to use the identifying features above.
Elder trees bloom for approximately 6 weeks every summer. Depending on the weather and a number of other factors, the elderflower season may run any time from May to July (in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere).
Here on the East Coast of Ireland, elderflower season has varied by several weeks over the last few years.
2021 – (currently waiting for the first elderflowers of the season!)
2020 – Season began end of May
2019 – Season began mid May
2018 – Season began early June
2017 – Season began end of May
2016 – Season began early June
2015 – Season began early May
In other words, it’s important to keep watch for elderflowers from early May!
Note that in your first year foraging elderflower, you will have to keep an eye out for Elder trees… in the second and subsequent years, you can (hopefully!) return to the same spot to pick your elderflowers.
Plants and Flowers which can be Confused with Elderflower
As well as knowing the identifying features of elderflower as described above, it’s equally important to know what is NOT elderflower. Many small white flowers are in bloom in Summer, and to the untrained eye, can appear to be very similar to elderflower.
Some of the different trees, flowers and plants which can be mistaken for elderflower include: cow parsley, cowbane, pignut, hemlock, pyracantha, red osier dogwood, rowan and hawthorn. (Even Michelin-starred chefs have been known to get confused!)
The above picture is NOT elderflower. This is Red Osier Dogwood. Note that each flower has 4 pointed petals. Elderflower, on the other hand, has 5, rounded petals. The leaves have a smooth edge. Elder trees have leaves with a slightly serrated edge.
The above picture is NOT elderflower. This is Cow Parsley. Cow Parsley is probably one of the plants most often mistaken for elderflower. Note that the flowers are growing on green stalks, directly from the ground. Elderflower grows on the woody branches of an Elder tree. There are no leaves on the Cow Parsley stalks. Elderflower will be surrounded by leafy branches.
IMPORTANT! Hemlock is a highly poisonous plant that grows on a green stalk (with purple blotches) directly from the ground, and looks something similar to the cow parsley pictured above. Do not confuse hemlock and elderflower!
The above picture is NOT elderflower. This is Common Hogweed. Note that the flowers do not have 5 rounded petals – instead the petals are somewhat ragged and lack the white stamens and yellow anthers of elderflower. Common Hogweed also grows on stalks directly from the ground, whereas Elderflower grows on the woody branches of the elder tree.
The above picture is NOT elderflower. This is Hawthorn. Note that the flowers are larger than elderflowers and have brown/black anthers. Contrast with the delicate white stamens and yellow anthers on elderflower.
The above picture is NOT elderflower. This is Rowan. Note that the flowers are again larger than elderflowers and have brown/black anthers and an almost hairy appearance due to the number of stamen protruding from each flower. Contrast with the delicate white stamens and yellow anthers on elderflower.
The big difference between Pyracantha and Elderflower is that Pyracantha is a viciously thorny shrub. There are NO thorns on an elderflower tree.
In the picture above, we are looking at Cow Parsley vs Elderflower. I am holding a head of elderflower on the left beside a spray of cow parsley on the right. Note that cow parsley (and hemlock, pignut, cowbane and other similar plants) all grow on stalks, directly from the ground, rather than from a tree or bush. These plants also lack the surrounding leaves (with serrated edges) that you find with elderflower.
In the picture above, note the elderflowers on the left with a hawthorn tree on the right. The hawthorn tree is thickly covered in profusions of white flowers. The Elder is not so thickly covered with flowers – instead the elderflower heads are sporadically dotted across the tree.
Note the elderflowers growing on the two tall Elder trees in this photo. In the foreground, you can see cow parsley growing on stalks directly from the ground.
When and how to pick Elderflower:
The best time to pick elderflower is on a warm, sunny day. This is when the blooms will be heavy with pollen (and it’s the pollen which gives elderflower its distinctive scent and taste.)
For this reason, it’s best NOT to pick elderflower on a windy or a wet day as the pollen will be blown/washed away.
Choose heads of elderflower which are in full bloom, very fragrant and have a beautiful white/cream colour.
Avoid sprays of flowers which are still partially in bud (early in the season) – see below.
Avoid also sprays of flowers which are starting to discolour or decay (late in the season) – see below.
Beware of picking elderflower growing on the edge of very busy roads – the flowers can sometimes be tainted with traffic fumes.
Beware also of picking low-hanging flowers, particularly in areas where dogs, foxes or other animals may relieve themselves!
Transport your elderflowers home reasonably soon after picking… our expeditions usually last somewhere between 1 and 3 hours in total. It’s not, for example, a good idea to pick elderflowers and then leave them to sweat in a hot car for several hours. Instead bring your elderflowers home and either
- Use them immediately or
- Transfer the elderflower heads into plastic food bags, squeeze out as much air as possible from the bags, seal and stow immediately in the freezer. (my preference)
I have found that freezing elderflowers in this ways allows them to retain their taste and fragrance for at least 12 months.
Do not wash/rinse your elderflowers – this washes away the pollen and hence the taste and fragrance!
When we go elderflowering, we bring the following:
- Small scissors – instead of twisting or breaking the elderflower heads, it’s often easier to quickly snip the elderflower with a small scissors.
- Cloth bag – place your foraged elderflower heads into a cloth bag (or use a small basket or cardboard box). Do not use a plastic bag! Plastic can make the elderflower heads sweat and deteriorate on your journey home.
- Umbrella with a hooked handle – we use this to gently pull branches of Elder towards us – the best elderflowers always seem to be just out of reach!
(We also tend to wear long trousers or jeans, as Elder trees are often surrounded by stinging nettles and thorny brambles.)
- Although elderflower is highly identifiable as outlined above, only pick it (and any other wild foods) if you are absolutely confident that you have identified it correctly. If in doubt… leave it out!
- Always leave more than you take… for example, pick a couple of elderflower heads from several different trees rather than stripping a single tree of all its blooms. This means that you will leave plenty of blooms for others (both people and animals) to enjoy.
- Foraging elderflower for personal use on public land (e.g. parks) is generally acceptable in Ireland and is specifically allowed in England, Wales and Scotland.
- On private lands, it’s good practice to ask permission in advance from the landowner to pick elderflower. Many householders are very happy to allow you to pick some elderflower from their gardens, particularly if you promise them a bottle or two of cordial in exchange!
- Never pick elderflowers (or any other wild foods) in conservation areas or other protected sites.
It’s 27 May 2020 and we’ve gathered our first elderflowers of the year this week!
It’s 30 May 2019 today and the elderflowers are in full bloom all over the east coast of Ireland. I saw a few very early blooms at the start of May, but it was mid-May before the season really began. Have you always wanted to make your own elderflower cordial? Well don’t hang around! Go forage this weekend and make this year the year you start a new tradition!!
As of today (6 June 2018), elderflower trees are bursting into bloom all over Ireland. If you haven’t before, make this the year that you make your own elderflower cordial!
As of today (18 June 2017) there are still plenty of elderflowers in bloom in many parts of Ireland and the UK! Move fast though as you can never be certain how long these blooms will stick around.
Click for my Homemade Elderflower Cordial Recipe.
Please feel free to leave questions or comments below.
(And so ends my first ever blog post!)
First published 18 June 2017. Updated 18 May 2021.