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“Elderflowers in the Fencerows”
The elderflowers are blossoming in Missouri. Destined to ripen into elderberries used in dyes, pies, wines and jams, elderflowers are useful as well for teas, cordials and wines. A common native plant, John Avery and Dr. Martin Kaps of the Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station are working on wild selections of this crop for commercial applications in cooperation with researchers from the University of Missouri and Lincoln University. For gardeners and native plant enthusiasts (or those of us who like free food), however, elderflowers and berries remain a roadside treasure. As long as you are sure of the plant’s identity and that they were not sprayed with herbicide (yes, some people consider them weeds), you are good to go.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis) is a large shrub or small tree, native to Missouri, reaching six to 12 feet in height. It has compound leaves, and the stems can be hollowed out to make flutes. The large white flower clusters blossoming in May and June develop into individual small, bluish-black fruit with prominent seeds in large clusters ripening in late July, August and early September. Elderberries are not eaten fresh due to their tartness, but both wild and cultivated elderberries can be processed. Some people swear by the health benefits of elderberry elixir.
Popular in the Victorian times, elderflowers were a favorite of prim and proper tea parties. Patricia French, who resides in northern Arkansas and is otherwise known as the “Hillbilly Botanist,” is a specialist in native Ozark plants and wild edibles. She has used iced elderflower tea for an authentic Victorian themed Ozark wedding.
Here is an easy recipe for elder flower tea borrowed from Sarah Head of the Herb Society in England: Pick the flowers when it is sunny and dry. Pick 2-4 elderflower heads and place in a teapot. Pour over just boiled water, replace the lid and let steep for 10 minutes, strain and enjoy. The tea is naturally sweet and refreshing. For other recipes including elderflower cordial and elderflower vinegar, see the Hedgerow to Kitchen website at http://www.herbsociety.org.uk/kh-hedgerow-to-kitchen-elderflower.htm.
Remember – it is important for your safety to be certain of the identity of a native wild edible. If you are not certain, don’t try it until you have had the plant properly identified. If you are familiar with elderberry, go ahead. You might even throw a proper Victorian tea party – with tight-laced dresses, fancy hats and refreshing elderflower tea. The flowers are here for the picking!
Direct comments or questions concerning this column to Marilyn Odneal via email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; write to Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711; or call (417) 547-7500. Visit our website at http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu.