Elderflower Madness

It is just not easy being me.  As it is Monday, and I savour the mix of post-emergency room embarrassment, missed Father’s Day guilt and travel exhaustion, I feel I must share my tale of woe to try to ease your life journey with a cautionary tale from my own.

The Culprits

The Culprits

For the past several years, our lifestyle TV presenters have urged us to get out and enjoy the riches of our countryside.  And the example that almost ALL have advocated, the virtual training-wheels exercise of foraging,  is to get out and make yourself some Elderflower Champagne.  All you need to do is to look for the little white flowers that grow in bunches in wild roadside settings…

Elderflower in Bloom

Elderflower in Bloom

ferment them with a little lemon and a whole lot sugar, and SHAZAM, home-made champagne.  Do a quick internet search and you can find videos, kits and endless blog posts about how easy and wonderful this elevated yet homespun delight is for the taking.

Home-made Elderflower Champagne

Home-made Elderflower Champagne

So, several months ago I set my cap for this project.  I shared my enthusiasm with friends, family & anyone else to please keep their eyes peeled for the first sign the fleeting but bountiful blossoms.  I was NOT going to miss them this year.  At last, the word had arrived.

vicky text

Elderflower Updates from Friends

That was the good news.   The bad news was that the start whistle of the season had blown right in the middle of a few very busy weeks, with family events, lovely house guests and a tag-a-long trip to my sister’s self-declared mid-life crisis in the south of France.

However,  I returned from France and my champagne kit  had arrived, so I was pleased to still see a few of the tell-tale white flowers on one last stretch of hedgerow…or so I thought.   My mantra was, “head to the hedgerow, find little white flowers that grow in bunches..”, which I repeated over and over.   As such, I powered through the exhaustion of my 4:30 am waking time to run out and fill my bucket with the blossoms, but as I was rushing I managed to grab a fair few leaves as well.

Highly Allergic NOT Elderflower

Highly Allergic NOT Elderflower

I didn’t feel my best and had a tricky tummy, but anyone who single-handedly tried to drink the south of France dry in four days, downing lots of teeny fried sardines en route and sleeping very little would feel the same.  It wasn’t until I sat down with my bucket on my lap to ready the blossoms for fermenting that my lips began to tingle, which I quickly dismissed due to probable sunburn.  I thought I would watch a few refresher video demonstrations so I could proceed with more confidence, and as my tongue started to swell and breath became shallow I started to get a bit nervous.

book cover

My very sensible husband quickly referred to his handy guide for edible plants in Britain, only to discover that if my little white flowers were not in fact Elderflowers, most of the likely substitutes all had alarming illustrations of skulls & crossbones next to their entries.

book insert

Here are the entries for the most likely plants that also produce little white flowers that grow along the hedgerows in Britain.  Let’s review shall we?

Cowbane (Deadly)

Cowbane (Deadly)

Cowbane, a member a parsley family that is so toxic it can kill a cow in 15 minutes. In humans it can burn skin badly and render the affected area photosensitive (as in can never be exposed to the sun ever again)  for life.

Fool's Parsley

Fool’s Parsley (Deadly)

Fool’s Parsley, which features heavily in deadly foraging accounts on the internet (even involving veteran foragers), with one man dying after pinching two leaves to taste.

Poison Hemlock (Deadly)

Poison Hemlock (Deadly)

And then we have the Grand Daddy of deadly roadside blossoms, the Poison Hemlock.  This is  the delight that sent Socrates to meet his maker and is most potent when prepared….as a drink.  It’s poison is not only a neurotoxin but also causes muscular and respiratory paralysis.  Needless to say, now I am properly worried.

Out of an abundance of caution, I thought I would check with NHS 24, the phone service you call for them to say, “let’s wait and see for a few hours” so you don’t have to travel to a doctor to tell you the same thing.  They tell me to get to a hospital immediately.  Crumbs.

Now, even though I was told to go the hospital that doesn’t mean that the staff there were particularly happy to see me on their doorstep.  No one wanted to hear my tale of mistaken champagne making and absolutely no one wanted to inspect my little baggy of offending flowers.  As I was there anyway, they felt obligated to do something with me and since one of my symptoms was some chest tightening, they decided to treat me as if I was having a heart attack.  When the electrodes taped all over me refused to register a heart irregularity, they felt they had done all they could for me.  At that point they sent me…in an ambulance…to a different hospital  A&E (emergency room),  that was enjoying the aftermath of a baseball bat brawl amongst a herd of very drunk, partially clothed youths.

Please picture six “stalls” of curtained areas with at least 4 police and 2-3 medical personnel IN EACH STALL attending to head traumas, smashed hands and collapsed lungs, and there is me in the middle stall, with my hounds-tooth wrap, a baggy of blossoms and an edible plant field guide to try to clarify if  my stingy lips meant I was going to peg it on Father’s Day.

After the bleeding screamers were hauled off to surgery, jail or ejected out the door, a doctor came in to basically say that since I wasn’t dead yet I was probably fine, and prescribed an antihistamine for a week. Relief quickly soured to embarrassment and I wearily called a taxi at 1:00 am.  My very nice driver politely inquired (after negotiating me through the residual fight participants laying on the pavement/sidewalk) why I was at the hospital at such an hour.  So I confessed all, stating the whole episode was going to sent to the vault immediately after that single airing.

Guess what?  HE HAD DONE THE EXACT SAME THING! Only he had come across another nasty white blossom known as Hogsweed and erupted in painful blisters on his face and hands that took a week to heal.  He told me I absolutely had to share what had happened as there were probably loads of other people that could make similar mistakes as we had, perhaps with even worse outcomes.

It's All About the Leaves

It’s All About the Leaves

So, SAFETY TIP: there are MANY little white flowers out there in Britain at this time of year, and ANY that ARE NOT Elderflowers  either contain highly allergic substances or can kill you.  So for Pete’s Sake be careful and share these tidbits that no previous celebrity, program, blog, video or brewing website happened to mention!

The key is in the leaves, not the flowers and you need to look out for large, single-shaped, shiny leaves that end in a point.  If you see little white flowers but the leaves have complex shapes or look like ferns….RUN!

Champagne Kit for Sale!

Champagne Kit for Sale!

For me, I fear that I am indeed going to give this seasons champagne a pass.  Unused kit for sale anyone?

Dangerously Smug Tossers

Potentially Dangerous Smugness


Now, the fact that I gathered the wrong plant is not a huge shock given my gardening status as a Black Thumb.  But  that  lots of people are happily sending us out there WITH NO WARNINGS AS TO THE SEVERITY if things do go wrong feel quite irresponsible.  So the next time you come across a show, blog or article such as the link above, remember to ALWAYS be careful before you gather or eat ANYTHING in the wild with knowing exactly what it is AND  if there are any potentially dangerous plants similar in appearance. And wear gloves, even on a hot day…you will thank me later.

Now, I am off to the wine store to retreat to the safety of  ready-made Prosecco for another year.

Have a Happy & Safe Monday!

Comments (7)

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  1. Peg says:

    OMG, I am so glad you didn’t hemlock yourself!

    So glad you survived and lived to tell this most hilarious and cautionary tale. Cheers to your Prosecco!

    • Ragil says:

      This is so awesome. I’ve had it on my list to rerteace a cocktail I had a few weeks ago at one of our favorite restaurants down here, it’s called the King Collins and it’s made with Hendrick’s Gin, elderflower syrup, the juice of one lemon, cucumber, and a splash of sparkling water. Try it! Seriously bomb.

  2. jess says:

    oh my god, Jean, i could not possibly love you more. THANK you for sharing your harrowing (though (sorry) riotously funny and extremely well-told) tale. save the kit, you’ll do it one of these days!!! xxoo, jess

    • Bob says:

      I’ve been making ellwefdoerr syrup for the past few years from the trees that grow in my yard in Ireland. My favorite way to use it is in some Prosecco to make an ellwefdoerr Bellini summer in a glass. I also made a syrup from the elderberries last autumn for the first time, which was lovely too. I love how versatile syrups are.

    • Aboli says:

      Elderflower syrup will forever remnid me of living in Ireland. At the right time of year, elderflowers blossoms are everywhere. Ancient Celtic legends link the elder tree with magic it’s known as the fairy tree.’ Which is only appropriate, since elderflower, in both looks and taste, is nothing if not enchanting just look at your pictures for proof of that!

  3. Val says:

    Hi Jean Marie,

    So glad you are still alive as I sent our thank you card today (first guilty class) and would have been mortified had you not been able to read it!

    We have a bottle here of Neil’s elderflower plonk from 1998 ….so it might be champagne by now…..We are keeping it for when you come down!xxx

    Lots of love to you all,

    Val and Lindsay xxx

  4. Gregory says:

    What’s up to every body, it’s my first visit of this blog; this webpage
    contains amazing and really excellent data for visitors.

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