How to identify elderflower

We are now officially in elderflower season, which means it’s time to make elderflower champagne, cordial, jelly, whatever takes your fancy! Identifying this plant is simple when you know what you are looking for. If you’ve never picked elderflowers before, here’s how to identify them.

Elderflower blooms

Elderflowers have a ‘spray’ of flowers. I say spray because they look like they are spraying out of the stem rather than growing in a neat, compact bunch.

Elderflower flowers and leaves

Creative Commons photo credit: elisabet.s

Elderflower colour

Elderflowers have a light creamy / pale yellow colour. The pollen gives the flowers their smell and colour.

Pale yellow elderflower heads

Fresh elderflowers

Avoid picking elderflower with a slightly brown appearance because it won’t be as fragrant…or tasty.

Elderflower leaves

The leaves have a serrated edge and are commonly found in clusters of 5.

5 elderflower leaves

Creative Commons photo credit: wynk

Growing from a bush

Elderflowers grow from bushes, not the ground.

Big elderflower bush in a field

Creative Commons photo credit: Jean Mottershead

Over time, these bushes can grow very large and look tree-like. The trunk will be not be visible and you can’t see branches (like you would find on a tree) because the elderflowers grow from the trunk. Use the other information on this page to help you identify the correct plant.

Smell

One of the most distinctive things about elderflowers is the smell: floral, creamy and ‘Summery’. Quite often you can smell the scent as you get closer towards the plants. Elderflowers should not smell like wee, musty or damp. If they do, find fresher smelling blooms.

Elderflower stalks

Elderflowers have slender, pale green stalks that break into delicate ‘florets’ with flowers growing at the end.

Elderflower stalks with flowers on the end

Creative Commons photo credit: Erwin Schoonderwaldt

Blackfly

You will often find black fly on the stems and flowers of elderflower plants, especially once they have flowered.

Elderflower buds (pre bloom)

Before elderflower has bloomed, the flowers are tight buds. They start off green and as they become larger, turn a more creamy colour before flowering.

Closed elderflower buds

Elderflower buds

Elderflower can be confused with…

The following plants are those often confused with elderflower. From a distance they may look like elderflower but close up there are some key differences. These plants are not elderflower.

Pyracantha

The flowers are larger, paler and more tightly packed than elderflowers. Note the brown anthers.

Pyracantha flowers

Creative Commons photo credit: Andy / Andrew Fogg

Cow parsley

Grows from the ground, white flowers, no visible pollen and there are no leaves near the flowers.

Cow Parsley flowers

Creative Commons photo credit: willowgardeners

Cowbane

Very poisonous, do not eat. Grows from the ground and has tiny white flowers that grow in a radial pattern.

Cowbane plant

Creative Commons photo credit: Neil Hunt

Safe identification

Please note: never eat something if you cannot identify. Do your research. If using illustrated books, look for reputable photos online to make sure you are definitely picking the correct plant. If in doubt, don’t eat it.

49 Comments

  1. Lawrence

    Thanks for this brilliant blog. I found the fact that the pollen gives the Elderflower their distinctive smell very useful. I saw some flowers this morning but they did not smell very Elderflower like! but this will come later. cheers

  2. Lesley

    Fantastic guide….just what I needed. Lots of sites telling you when to pick and what to make, then vague references to things not to pick but none took the care to show exactly what the shrub and flowers looked like. Huge thank you. I’m now armed for my Elder hunt!

    • Thanks for your kind comment Lesley 🙂 I hope your elderflower hunt is bountiful!

  3. Farida aziz

    Thank you very much for the very useful information. I have an elderflower bush, have had it for nearly four years now. I have not seen any berries. Are there any varieties without berries. Please let me know.

    • That’s really strange! Perhaps there is something wrong with the bush if you are sure it is elderflower?

    • I too have what is supposed to be an elderberry but it also does not fruit and is and evergreen. Honestly I have no idea what it is, does anyone else?

      Susan

  4. lovely clear photos Gemma, I have been making cordial for a few years, but have yet to have a go at champagne, and wondering if you have a recipe by any chance? also, I made a liquer from the berries one year but didn’t like it, but if you know of a nice one, or anything else to make with them maybe you would like to include in your blog? I love elderflower cordial, it is as you say the absolute summery smell, and taste! I’m trying to convince my Sister-in-law to have ago and your photos will be forwarded to her, so thank you!

  5. Louise higgins

    I think I have a elderflower tree the leaves and flowers look the same last year there were little black berries on the tree I cut them all off I took one of the flower stems off last night but it didn’t smell like elderflower is this ok

    • Hi Louise, I would say if you’re not 100% sure don’t pick it. It’s easiest to identify when it’s flowering, partly because the flowers are so fragrant – more so on a warm dry day. Do you have a photo?

  6. Beatrice

    Hi Gemma… thanks for a great outline on elderberries.. wonder if you could just verify for me that picking the flowers from an elderberry BUSH is the same as from a tree.. It put me off from gathering last year because someone had said ‘make sure it’s a tree not a bush, as the bush has poisonous flowers’! I can’t see this myself, because it looks like the elderberry ‘tree’ is the result of a bush growing stronger… but would appreciate your confirmation, please 🙂

    • It is actually a bush but over time it can get so large it starts to look more like a tree. The easiest way to identify elderflower is from the actual flowers. If you can successfully identify the elderflower you know that the berries will be elderberries and not something else. You should look for dark, ripe berries and don’t eat elderberries uncooked as they can make you sick. Hope that helps!

  7. Today I collected loads of elderflower blossom for wine, and now I’ve decided it was rowan! Something not yet in flower might be elderflower, though.

  8. William Stewart

    I have for sometime wondered how to identify Elderflower, many thanks for your easy to follow pictures and comments, I now find it easy to see what I was clearly very unsure about looking at.
    Looking forward to picking my first batch for a summer cordial.
    Superb information.
    Many thanks.

    William.

    • Thanks William, I’m really glad you feel more confident. Hope your first batch of elderflower cordial tastes amazing 🙂

    • There can be more leaves further down the branch but the tip normally has 5 leaves. If you aren’t sure about the number of leaves you might need to do some more detective work: look for a serrated edge and the presence of buds/blooms. Hope that helps!

  9. Beatrice

    Brilliant! Thanks for all the help.. have just picked some delightfully fragrant elderflower.. and the room is filled with the perfume 🙂

  10. Thanks so much I am told that the addition of elderflower complements that of gooseberry in a pie so I was so pleased to find this blog.

  11. I’m making elderflower champagne for the first time and was worried about using the wrong flowers. Thanks for providing just the information I was looking for with helpful photos!

  12. Yvonne weeks

    When does the elderberry bush flower where can I get the flowers to make a desert if I do not know where there is a tree? Thank you Yvonne

    • Elderflower usually starts to flower from mid May (although this will depend on how warm/cool it has been) and flowers for around 4 weeks. The best way to find trees is to ask others or have a drive/walk around. I’ve mostly found them by accident on walks.

  13. Thank you for the wonderful article especially the photographs. Elderflower cordial is my children’s favourite drink! I have thought about picking elderflower for homemade cordial but never had the confidence that I am correctly identifying elderflower. Could I make a request please? While there is a good photo illustrating the shape and type of leaf, the individual flower-lets are difficult to see. A closeup photo of the flower lets (to look at the shape and number of petals as well as shape, location, number and distribution of the stamen/anters would really complete your article and would be very useful for people like me.

  14. Hi,
    Thank you for the informations you shared with us and also for the pictures. I have a question: I live in Ga and I would like to get one of those plants in my back yard. I was born in Europe and in our garden we used to have 4 of those big trees, I can say. They are beautiful and they smell gorgeous. Can you please help me find the real Elderflower tree? Where i was born, my mom she used to make a drink from the flowers. It was so delicious. I wish I can do the same for my family. Thank you for your time and help.

  15. Thank you! We recently bought a house with what I could swear is an Elder flower bush. It’s older and trimmed to a tree now, about 7 feet tall. The bees and butterflies love it. I wanted to be absolutely sure before picking the flowers for tea.

  16. Samuel Reed

    Thanks for the help, I’ve only been picking cow parsley for the last 4 hours, rookie mistake! Off to find a bush now. Thanks again.

  17. I’d like to send pics I took just today of what I believe is Elderberry. My Dad noticed it last fall with berries.but for some reason he decided it’s not elderberry. Taking pics today of it in bloom – I’m almost positive. Can I send you pics?

  18. Hi, thanks for so clearly defining the elderflower in comparison with other like plants. I’m just waiting for the rain to clear before I check out the plant I have in my hedge. Then maybe, when it’s dried out, elderflower cordial here I come!

  19. Hello Gemma,
    hope you don’t mind but I put a link to this page on my website howtomakewinerecipes.com for my Elderflower Wine recipe.

    I wanted to reference some ways of correctly identifying the flowers and found your post to be ideal! Thanks, Laurie

    • That’s absolutely fine Laurie. Thanks for letting me know 🙂 I will check out your website!

  20. Hi Gemma,

    Thanks a million for such clear descriptions & photos, to help distinguish the elderflower. I discovered a bush while on a walk the other day. I took some florets and made a cold infusion which I really enjoyed. Then I checked a bush/tree at the end of my garden only to find plenty of fragrant elderflowers. I have harvested about 30 florets and I am going to try my hand at making a cordial. I have never attempted anything like this before. I just want to say thanks again for opening my eyes to all the elder has to offer.

    Kind Regards

    Derek

  21. Hi, I picked wild elderberry flowers for the first time today. I read all about your identification which is very helpful. I am sure, that all flowers I picked are elderberry. The only confusion I have now is that some of the stems have had slightly purple scubs, which I found out is a description for cowbane. Also, after picking, I saw that a poisonous plant grew on the ground of it (looked like a very small cowbane). I did not pick that one as it clearly is not an elderflower. They do look distinctly different. However, it does slightly worry me that such a poisonous plant was growing right next to it…. Not sure if I shall skip it all.

  22. Hi, grate blog. I have been collecting Elderflower a few years to make E.Fizz. I also like to forage and collect for a local restaurant.
    I have found some Elderflower that have no smell all year it seems, so I don’t bother with them. Personally I think of Elderflower as a small tree or shrub rather than a bush.
    Ps I followed the River cottage method for E.Fizz and am working my way through 45 Ltrs of the stuff weighing in at 7•8%.

  23. Carol Churcher

    Hi Gemma I have a question this year my Elderflower tree was full of black fly I dont have any fruit can you suggest what I can treat the tree with or are there any traps I can use on the tree.I was a mass of flowers then it was infested with Black Fly I dont want to cut it down it is very old say 70 years +

    • Sorry to hear about your black fly Carol. The only thing I use for black fly is Ecover washing up liquid diluted with water – they hate it. I don’t know what effect this would have on the taste of the flowers, but if you did it early enough in the season when the problem first started you might be okay. Let me know how you get on.

      • Carol Churcher

        Hi Gemma
        I dont harvest the flower’s I leave them for the birds love to see it full of Starlings in the Autumn thanks for reply my Gardner is gonna prune the tree this year as it ha a lot of dead branches.I’ll let you know how things go love this blog you have x

  24. Maria Gamba

    Great blog, excellent pictures, useful information. Thank you. Have you heard of the Blacklace elderberry? It’s a variety that has pink flowers and reddish black berries. Any information you can share on it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • I’ve never heard of Blacklace elderberry before Maria! I’ll check it out. Thanks for mentioning it 🙂

  25. Thanks for the info! I feel a lot more confident in foraging for elderflower! Is it still in season late September? When does the season start and end? And is it true you can identify elderflower because the actual flower has 5 pollen heads on each bud? Thanks

    • September seems a little late but I suppose it’s possible if Summer was slow to start or long and warm. I’ve not heard that about the pollen heads before – thanks for the info!

  26. Hi Gemma, I got cut off from an Elderflower bush from a friend about 2 years ago. This year it has flowers for the first time but they don’t seem to have the distinctive smell. Otherwise it does look like elderflower. Spring has only just started here, so could it be that the first flowers don’t smell ? Thank you for your advise

    • Sometimes it takes a while for the flowers to become fragrant, especially if it’s not been very warm; heat makes the smell stronger.

  27. Thank you for this post i hope I have not missed the season and wished I’d done a google search earlier. How exciting. Thank you heaps for showing look a likes as that makes a world of difference in increasing confidence with ID.

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