The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Elder, Sambucus nigra var. canadensis is in bloom right now all over north central Arkansas. Tiny flowers are borne in flat-topped, umbrella-shaped corymbs, in masses—they are cream-colored and sweetly fragrant—some can be as wide across as a dinner plate. Elderflowers begin to appear in our zone 7 areas in late May and last a couple of weeks. This is a small window of time in which to harvest the blooms. We are careful to harvest a small percentage of the flowers in order to insure a bountiful berry harvest for songbirds, wild animals and human use.

Sometimes the entire corymbs are used to make elderflower fritters however, eating too many of the green stems could result in a stomachache. The best sounding elderflower fritter recipe I found while researching this article was by Hank Shaw on his blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. (Those with Internet access can readily find the recipe at honest-food.net.) Mr. Shaw separated the flowers from the stems and placed them in a thick batter which was moistened with elderflower cordial and buttermilk. His recipe actually makes elderflower beignets.

We quite enjoy homemade elderflower liqueur. This is done by covering the freshly snipped flowers with 90-proof vodka. The flowers are left to macerate for at least two weeks in a cool, dark, place, being sure that the flowers are completely submerged in the alcohol. Then, the flowers are strained out through a fine mesh screen. For best clarity of the spirit, the tincture is filtered again, using a piece of tightly woven cheesecloth on top of the mesh screen. To one quart of this elderflower tincture, stir in 1/4- to 1/2-cup sugar or agave nectar. The liqueur is tasty in sparkling water, over ice. It can be added to champagne, sparkling water and fresh fruit to make a cocktail or sipped straight.

We also dry the flowers to make teas and medicinal tinctures. The flowers are mild and astringent and have been used in folk remedies to soften the skin, for inflammation of the eyes, for congestion, headache and indigestion. Elderflowers have been used for tea for centuries and are safe and effective when taken to reduce fevers relating to colds, flu, chicken pox and measles. Note: Michael Moore reports that children with a history of high fevers or convulsions, should avoid the tea since it occasionally can spike high fevers.

When preparing the flowers for fresh use or for drying, gather the corymbs just after the dew has dried from the flowers on a sunny day. The fragrance will be at its peak before the day gets too hot.

Take the flowers to a shady, cool place to separate the flowers from the stems. Tiny green berries may be present. Unripe elderberries contain prussic acid, the precursor to cyanide. Be sure that any berries are omitted from the flowers to be processed.

Here’s to knowing and using elder for pleasure and good health. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!