In Switzerland, syrups are not just for mixed drinks. Most Swiss households will have a bottle or two of different flavored syrups to mix with water. Flavoring water seems like a strange custom to me in a place where fresh alpine waters are so easily accessible from every tap and fountain, but thanks to this strange habit I was introduced for the first time to holunderblütensirup. While in general not being a fan of flavored or sweetened waters, holunderblütensirup–flowery, light, fragrant, and just the palest of gold–won me over from the first sip. Everyone here knew the plant ofcourse, yet nobody seemed to know its english name, so it remained mostly a mystery and a magical memory of my time in Switzerland.
This summer, my first in Switzerland, came with a lot of anticipation because I knew I would finally get to see the holunder flowers and was determined to make my very own holunderblüten syrup. With each bunch of white flowers blooming in the spring, I would ask Michael “Are these holunderblüten? These? … How about these?” Of course summer has been late to come to Switzerland this year, so the holunder flowers took their sweet time, but now that they’re here, I can’t imagine confusing them with any other.
Strange really, that I haven’t come across these before because, as it turns out, holunderblüten are elderflowers, as in flowers of the elderberry tree, which is abundant enough in North America. Sure I’d heard of elder trees (which are in fact not trees at all but rather deciduous shrubs), and though I’ve never tried the berries myself I had heard of them too, but had always thought of them mostly as a boon to native birds and other wildlife. And somehow, I had never really heard anything about the flowers. Or, at least if I have, I don’t remember it. But now that I’ve smelled them, there’s no way I’ll be forgetting these flowers anytime soon. Pretty? Check. Fragrant? Check. Medicinal? Check. Edible? Check. Flavorful? Check, check, double-check. I think these flowers have just sky-rocketed to the top of my list of favorite flowers.
Ok, so maybe you think I’m being a little over-the-top. They are just flowers after all, wild ones at that. And so common that they can be seen everywhere- from alpine forests to railroad tracks (though if I had any land at all, it would most certainly have a place in my garden (hint, hint mom, baba!)). And yeah, maybe my excitement is really just a suburbian girl who clearly didn’t spend enough time out in nature growing up. But there is something really wholesome and satisfying about foraging something wild from nature’s bounty and creating something not just useful, but decadent. I dare you to try it- I bet you’ll be hooked too!
When foraging, make sure you do indeed have the right plant. Elder is a large bush that can sometimes even grow into a small tree, and is often found near rivers. It is said that sometimes flowers of the herbaceous, poisonous plant–hemlock–are confused as elderflowers, but they really are such different plants that I can’t imagine how one could make such a mistake. Moreover, hemlock smells gross, and elderflowers smell amazing, so if nothing else, just trust your nose.
Once you’re sure you’ve found an elder tree, you can get picking! Some bushes seem to have more fragrant flowers than others- pick only the flowerheads that are most fragrant and at their prime. As always with picking an flowers and herbs, a dry morning is the best time for picking. And I know it can be exciting, but don’t get over-zealous! Once the flowers were finally in bloom, Michael and I made the mistake of picking as many flowerheads as we could carry with us. Then we arrived home, and had to use every bowl and pan in the house to steep the flowers, and when it came time to boil everything down, well our biggest pot can hold only about 2.5 liters, so we had to do everything in small batches and it soon became a huge sticky mess, and in the end we only had enough bottles to store about 8 liters of the 12 or so liters we had. We ended up using the rest to start an elderflower wine, but otherwise it would have been an awful, awful waste. So remember when you’re picking the flowers to only pick as much as you have the capacity to do something with- no need to get greedy. You can always go back and pick some more once you have the resources again, and if you’re worried the flowers might be on their way out by the time you’re ready, just head north- the flowers generally flower slightly later the more north they are or at higher altitudes.
After my lesson from the first flower picking, I went out and picked more (in smaller quantities), and made several more batches of syrup- tweaking the recipe every time until I had it just how I like. Here’s the recipe I’ll be hanging on to for next year:
- 20-25 elderflower heads
- 1 lemon
- 2 L water
- 2 kg sugar
- 20 g citric acid
- Snip the flower stems off by cutting right above where the smaller stems come together to form a flowerhead. Repeat with all the flowerheads, placing the flowers in a large bowl and discarding the thick stems.
- Fill the bowl of flowers with the 2 liters of water.
- Cut the lemon in half and squeeze some juice into the bowl before placing the lemon halfs in the bowl too. Cover the bowl and leave everything to soak overnight.
- The next day, strain the liquid out through a fine mesh sieve lined with a dishcloth, and into a large pot.
- Add the sugar and citric acid to the pot of liquid and bring everything to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar & acid.
- While still warm, ladel the syrup into clean, sterilized bottles (flip-top bottles work really well) with a funnel. Close top and let cool to seal.
- The sealed bottles can be stored for months in a cool, dark place. After opening, the bottles should be stored in the fridge.