Foraging – Lilacs

Lilac flowers are edible! There are still some fresh blooms on shady streets, so there’s time to take advantage of this new discovery and infuse some vodka or syrup. Hop to it my little bunnies!

foraged lilacs

Freshly picked and de-stemmed lilacs

Lilac Liqueur

I’m learning that infusing blossoms in vodka requires a more delicate touch than most other liqueurs or tinctures. When making tinctures and liqueurs you usually let the herbs saturate for weeks or months depending on the plant matter. But with blossoms it can be a matter of hours. A recipe for lilac vapor liqueur I found on the wonderful Fleurs Gourmandes site, instructs you to keep the lilacs in vodka for only 6 hours and then to repeat twice with fresh blossoms. This seems short, but there is a good reason for this – the longer you let it sit the more “green” vegetable-like flavours come out when you just want the floral flavour. Also, lilacs are astringent and you want to keep the bitter flavours manageable.

I have made two batches of lilac infused vodka and they are amazing. Each time I filled a 500ml jar with flowers, covered with 40% alcohol vodka and sealed with a tight lid. Give it a shake to ensure all the flowers have alcohol on them. Infuse for 12 hours, shaking the jar now and then. Strain the vodka through a sieve into a bowl. It’s not really necessary to use cheese cloth because the flowers are so big. The final step is to make a simple syrup and add it to the infused vodka. I have not done this yet, but it definitely needs the added sweetness. After adding the syrup, liqueurs should be allowed to sit for at least four weeks because the flavours will blend together and smooth out to produce a really professional tasting product.

If you start tasting lilacs around town you’ll find that they vary, so try to find a bush that has flavours you think are interesting. Some of them are crazy bitter and don’t have much floral taste. I haven’t found a white one that I thought tasted good. The dark purple ones are usually good which is nice since they’ll provide more colour to your liqueur, but some pale purple ones have been tasty as well.

Check out my Homemade Liqueurs post for other boozy ideas and recipes.

Lilac Cordial Recipe

Makes 1.25 litres

  • 5 cups of Lilac blossoms (about 9 panicles/flower bunches)
  • 1 litre of water
  • 1.25 pounds of sugar (568g). I used plain white granulated sugar to avoid adding any combating flavours from the sugar.
  • 1.5 tsp citric acid (totally optional, but I find it ‘finishes’ the flavour of most cordials and aids preservation). You can buy it at Famous Foods.

If you feel the need, you can gently rinse off the flower clusters. I didn’t because they’re delicate and were foraged from a quiet residential street, but I did give them a good shake to remove any insects or debris.

Discard as much of the stem as you can, but don’t pull off individual flowers – the flower nectar is right at the bottom where the flower connects to the stem, so you would lose most of the desired floral flavour! Lilac stems are not toxic, we just don’t want their flavour.

Put the flowers in a non-reactive (glass or ceramic) bowl.

In a medium size pot, bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar has completely dissolved, remove from the heat. Add the optional citric acid at this point and stir.

Pour the hot syrup over the lilac flowers and stir gently but well.

Cover the bowl with a lid and leave the mixture at room temperature for 24 hours, stirring several times to keep the floating flowers from oxidizing. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for another 2 days. During this time the flavour of the lilacs will infuse the syrup.

lilac syrup

Lilac Syrup Day 2

Strain the syrup through a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth. Use enough cheesecloth to allow you to pull up the sides and wrap the flowers into a ball, twisting the top so you can squeeze out as much of the remaining syrup as possible. Transfer the syrup to clean sterile glass jars or bottles.

You can now candy the strained flowers! Spread the flowers on a parchment paper covered baking sheet and put in the oven on the lowest temperature (100 C) for 2-3 hours (or until they are dried). They will have a chewy texture and taste like a deluxe version of the old fashioned floral gums. They are delicious and still have lots of colour and flavour. Use them as a garnish on desserts or drinks. Store in an airtight container in the fridge and use within 8 weeks.

Lilac syrup will keep in the refrigerator for about 2 months. Sterilize your storage jars and lids to increase its fresh lifespan. For longer storage you can process the jars as you would jam with snap lids and the boiling water method (1/2-inch of head space, process for 8 minutes). Once sealed, the syrup will keep indefinitely. Store in the refrigerator once opened. Note: when I processed mine (for 10 mins), the colour almost entirely disappeared, so…it’s best to use it fresh. The sugar content is high, so it will keep quite well in the fridge for 3-4 weeks. Freezing some is a great idea too!

A cordial is a concentrate – they call it ‘squash’ in England, so you need to dilute to taste. Just pour a bit (1/4 cup is a generous dose for a large glass) over ice, and add water, bubbly water of choice, or half of each.  I think lilac syrup would make a killer cocktail just with some vodka and spritzer and, surprisingly, it goes really well with gin.

Check out my Linden Flower post for another exciting cordial recipe.

lilac cordial drink

Lilac Cordial Sipper ~ 1 part lilac cordial, 2 ice cubes, 2 parts mineral water, 2 sprigs of bruised lemon balm, garnished with candied lilac & lemon balm

Medicinal Uses of Lilac

Herbalist Jeanne Rose talks about the process for creating a lilac perfume (which is actually similar to making the lilac vapour liqueur) as well as what little is known of lilac’s medicinal properties on her website.

The leaves and the fruit is used and the properties are as an anti-periodic, febrifuge and tonic. Hilda Leyel in Compassionate Herbs says . . . “The Lilac tree appears in an inventory made by Cromwell at Norwich and was probably introduced in Henry VIII’s reign. It has been grown as a flowering shrub for many centuries. In medicine it has been used successfully in the treatment of malaria and in American is given as a vermifuge.”

Note: anti-periodic = prevents recurring disease like malaria; febrifuge = reduces fever (usually by dialing blood vessels), this action can also be stress-reducing and sleep-inducing; tonic = promotes general well-being; vermifuge = expels parasites.

I adore Jeanne Rose’s Herbal Body Book which was the first herbal book I ever read when I was a kid.

Keeping Cut Lilacs Fresh

If you want to enjoy some cut lilacs in your home, there is a trick to making them stay fresh. Because they are woody, you need to strip off the bark and bash the bottom. I cut them from the bush with a small set of pruners that I keep in my bike basket and then use them or a knife to peel off the bark from the bottom 1-2 inches. Then I smash the end with the butt of the knife or pruners. These steps are necessary to open up the woody structure enough for water to be taken up. It works every time for me and the lilacs will stay vibrant for weeks!