Elder is a small tree with a whole load of uses. You can eat its berries (in moderation or cooked), use the dried out pith to clean watch parts and of course if you're a wizard you can use its wood to make an all-powerful wand (attention Harry Potter fans).

If we’re being honest, it’s unlikely we'll use elder for these things, but a flavour that’s everywhere in supermarkets these days is elderflower. With June's arrival, now’s your chance to bottle some of that wild flower flavour in a delicious cordial. 

The flowers are only out for around six weeks and their bloom - along with swallows and any number of other things in nature - is considered the start of summer.

Their heady smell is half reminiscent of lychee and half a bit like something unpleasant, but don’t let that put you off! Once infused into syrup only the good flavours remain.

This recipe contains loads of sugar but once this batch is made you can dilute it with fizzy water (or even fizzy wine) and it’ll last you all through the summer.

Finding it

Elder is actually quite a scruffy little tree and can be found in woodlands, hedgerows and in scrubland.

The flowers are a wonderful feature of British hedgerows, but ensure you're picking from the right plant, there are various other plants with clusters of white flowers that aren’t good for cordial making (wild carrot, hemlock, hogweed).

Elder can by identified by its woody trunk with cork-like bark and leaves that look like this:

Elder by NAT at NKM Flickr CC

It’s fairly common so keep an eye out on your next walk if you fancy a spot of foraging.    


2.5 kg white sugar (this amount of sugar means it keeps for longer and is more like a syrup)

2 lemons

20 heads of elderflower (that’s the big round heads not individual flowers) with the stalks trimmed.

85g citric acid (from chemists)


For a recipe that you can print out to try at home click here.

This is just one of a whole bunch of different activities available in our family members pack

Elderflower and lemons by Elisabet S - Flickr CC

This requires lots of space so get the biggest saucepan you have to start.

  1. Pour in 1.5 litres of water into the pan. Pour in the sugar and heat it up without boiling until the sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally.
  2. Get the zest off your lemons then slice them width-ways.   
  3. Now heat up your sugar water to the boil and turn off the heat.
  4. Put your elderflowers in a big clean bowl full of cold water, give your flowers a gentle swish around to get rid of stowaway insects.
  5. Transfer the flowers, sliced lemons, zest and citric acid to the pan, cover and leave to infuse overnight.
  6. Line a colander or sieve with a clean tea towel and sit it over a large pan or bowl. In fairly small batches pour your concoction through the cloth and let the syrup drip through.
  7. Throw away the bits in the towel and transfer the syrup to sterilised bottles using a funnel (you can sterilise bottles by filling and submerging bottles in boiling water then leaving them to dry in a very low oven, this will make your cordial last a lot longer).
  8. Your cordial is now ready! Dilute and enjoy. 

Elder in nature

Elder tree by Stephen Craven - Wikimedia commons

The berries of this small tree provide abundant food for robins, blackbirds, you might even see shy skulking birds like whitethroat

Small mammals such as dormice and bank voles also favour elder berries and flowers.

The leaves are a food for many species of insect including the caterpillars of moths and butterflies like the swallowtail.

As a tree they reach a maximum height of 15m and live up to 60 years. Not even in the same league as our great oaks that can live to 900 years old, but they are quick growing early colonisers, using their berries to disperse their seeds far and wide in the bellies of obliging birds.