By Leda Meredith
All of NYC’s parks are graced with elderberries (Sambucus spp.), but Prospect Park is especially rich in this treasure. Look for them along the edges of Long Meadow. The season for the flowers, sometimes called “elderblow,” is just starting and will last until mid to late June. Come back in August for the berries (leave some of the flowers to set fruit—no flowers, no berries).
Both the flowers and the fruit have edible and medicinal properties. Brewed into a tea, the fresh or dried flowers are a pleasant beverage that is good for colds and fevers. You can also make fritters with them, but honestly they don’t taste like much besides fried dough. Fried dough is always tasty, but a better use for elderblow is the “champagne” recipe below.
The berries have better flavor cooked or fermented than raw, and make great jellies and wines. You can make pie with them if you don’t mind the seeds (I don’t). They are one of the best anti-viral herbal medicines, so I always make some elderberry syrup to have on hand for flu season (recipe below).
There is a bit of folklore from Europe that says never to fall asleep under an elderberry shrub when it is in bloom at midsummer or you’ll fall asleep for a hundred years and dream of Faerie land. This is not so much a myth as code for a lot of information about this plant. The flowers have soporific properties (they help you get to sleep), bloom at approximately midsummer (most years a little earlier here in BK), and are also reputed to be mildly narcotic (dreams of Faerie land?).
I can vouch for the information in that folk story. I was teaching in Amsterdam years ago and staying in a little apartment with a backyard that had an elderberry growing in it. It was June, close to the solstice, and the plant was in bloom. I was fighting off a cold, so I thought it would be perfect to brew some of the flowers into a soothing tea and dry some for later use.
It was Amsterdam, and so of course raining. I brought the flowers indoors to dry them, and their scent quickly filled the little apartment. I sipped some of the tea. I had very strange, vivid dreams that night, and woke five minutes before I was supposed to be teaching across town. I had slept right through my alarm.
So…never fall asleep under an elderberry shrub if it is blooming at midsummer or…you will sleep right through your alarm and miss teaching your morning class!
Note: there is a Viburnum in BK parks that novice foragers sometimes mistake for elderberry. It flowers earlier, the outer florets on the flower clusters are larger than those in the center (elderberry’s are consistent in size), and it does not have compound leaves.
Please check your ID! Forager’s Rule #1: If in doubt, leave it out. I recommend Wildman Steve Brill’s new Wild Edibles foraging app as a convenient way to have a field guide with you at all times.
Elder Flower “Champagne”
Makes approximately 4 quarts
- 6 pints cold filtered or non-chlorinated water
- 2 pints boiling filtered or non-chlorinated water
- 1 lb honey OR 1 1/2 lbs sugar
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar OR 2 large lemons (juice & rind) plus 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 4-6 large elderberry fresh or dried flower heads (approximately 5-inches diameter, or use more of smaller flower heads)
1. Do not wash the flowers–it’s their natural yeast that will cause fermentation. Just shake off any insects and remove the thick stalks.
2. Place the honey or sugar in a very large bowl and cover with 2 pints of boiling water. Stir to liquefy.
3. Add 6 pints cold water. Stir in the vinegar or lemon juice and the flowers.
4. Cover and leave, for 48 hours, stirring occasionally.
5. Strain out the flowers (and lemon rind, if using). Pour into clean plastic bottles with screw tops (or, we hope, thick ceramic or beer bottles with flip tops), leaving at least an inch of headspace.
6. Leave at room temperature for a week, “burping” (opening briefly) the bottles occasionally. After that, move them to the refrigerator, but keep “burping” the bottles for another week. Store for an additional 1-4 weeks before serving cold. The earlier you drink it, the yeastier it will taste. Wait the full six weeks from bottling if you want it at its best. (Note: the honey version takes longer to ferment out than the sugar version. The final drink should be fizzy and sweet, but not cloyingly so).
Makes approximately 1 pint
To fend off the flu, take one teaspoon three times a day.
- 1 cup fresh elderberries
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup honey
1. Put the berries and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half.
2. Strain out the berries. Return the liquid to the saucepan over low heat. Add the honey and stir until the honey dissolves.
3. Let the syrup cool. Funnel into a glass bottle, cover, and store in the refrigerator for up to one year.
Editor’s Note: Elderberry will be one of the plants Leda will be looking for on her next foraging tour in Prospect Park, for Green Edge NYC on June 4th.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events is on her blog at www.ledameredith.com