Picking elderflowers can be great fun, and you can turn them into a myriad of things. One of the most common ones is elderflower cordial. You can use it in drinks and add it to baked goods, but before you get to cook with them, you need to find and pick them first.
How do elderflowers grow?
Elderflowers grow on bushes, the specific term for these is Sambucus. Depending on how old they are they can turn into a giant tree-like bush the size of a house. You can find them everywhere ranging from parks, fields, forests and alongside big streets. They grow nearly everywhere and usually their sweet scent will lead you straight to them.
Before we get to the picking and the identifying, there is something I would like to address. No matter how excited you are, never overpick. This not only means that you should never wipe an area completely clean but it also means to be respectful. Don’t tear twigs and branches or cut more than you need. While we are talking about picking: never pull flowers carelessly off the shrub. Cut them on the most bottom end, so you only harvest what you need. There is no use for the leaves so why cut them.
And most importantly, be respectful to your surroundings. Don’t break shrubbery or damage trees and tread carefully. There are little friends sitting everywhere that would like to keep their home the way it is.
Can I pick the wrong flowers?
In theory yes. There are a few plants that give similar flowers. Two of them grow straight from the ground and you should not pick them. Look at the pictures below and remember that elderflowers grows on large bushes, not like flowers from the ground like these two.
So stay clear of flowers that grow from the ground. Pick those on large bushes and that have a delicate, sweet smell and make sure the leaves of the bush look like in the pictures below.
Where to pick?
The problem with picking them in public areas like parks or alongside roads is the road traffic next to them; you do not want to have exhaust fume infused flowers. It is always best to stick to forests and open grasslands for various reasons.
Once you found a bush, you can get on and pick your first elderberry flowers. I tend to carry a scissor with me and only cut as much as needed. It helps to place the cut off flower heads in an open basket or cloth bag to allow bugs and beetles to evacuate the cut off flowers. If you place them in plastic bags there is little chance for the insects to escape and your flower heads will wilt very quickly since the air is trapped in plastic bags and heats up quickly. Make sure to pick only the freshest flower heads. When they have brown or wilted flowers, leave them. They've turned bitter already. Same with flower heads with too many buds. I have picked a few of those, however, to take pictures for you so you can see precisely what I mean.
If you see a bush with a vast amount of flower heads that only show buds then remember the spot and return a couple of days later. There will be fresh flower heads for you to pick if nobody else picked them ahead of you.
Depending on how old the bushes are you will have to reach up rather high to get the best flowers. I usually let whoever is taller than me and willed to accompany me while foraging pick those further up. It also helps as a reference for you to see how large those trees can get. The person in the picture is 1.80m / 5' 11" tall so you can see how big they are. We're fortunate to live close to open land that has a substantial amount of those bushes, albeit they are surrounded by pesky sting nettles. Hence the long jeans.
Be prepared. Wear sturdy shoes. Bring a basket or burlap bag, a scissor and an extra pair of long trousers just in case you encounter sting nettles or other prickly shrubbery on your foraging trip. And most of all have fun and use common sense!