We return to our regular slot on native trees and finding out a bit more about these plants that we often take for granted. This time it’s the turn of the elder – so go out and introduce yourself – very politely….
Sambucus nigra was once thought to grow to significant girth (2 metres); modern elders are shrubby, forming a curving, drooping habit. Significant for its flowers and berries, the former heralds the start of summer, the latter the end. Elder is the most common tree to support the edible fungus ‘Jelly Ear’.
‘Elder mother’ was thought to dwell within the tree and there are associations with fear of cutting elder without asking permission 3 times over. In some parts of Europe, people still acknowledge elder trees as they pass by.
Legends speak of witches turning themselves into elder trees; any damage done to the tree would manifest in physical wounds on the person and make them recognisable as witches. The wood of elder was thought to also ward off witches, although it is said that witches used elder for the wood of their brooms.
Superstitions around elder include not using the wood for furniture or childrens’ toys, nor for burning, and it was advisable not to sleep under the tree or inhale the flowers’ scent for fear of being lost irretrievably into the faery realm. Elder was supposedly the tree Judas hung himself from.
It’s ability to regenerate from its cut base and cuttings from any part brought associations with regeneration and rebirth.
The flowers are thought to bring good fortune when used at weddings and for both mother and baby during pregnancy.
Elder is a veritable treasure trove of cures for ailments from food poisoning to phlegm clearing, toothache to warts, fevers to epilepsy, inflammation to healing wound, coughs to gout, gastric troubles to syphilis.
Elder was also valued for its protection for livestock; a cross of elder bound with red thread hung over animals’ stalls was a common protective charm.
Elder flowers have long been associated with cosmetic benefits, particularly for the face.
Traditional and Modern Uses
Fishing rods, shoemakers’ pegs, combs, mini-‘bellows’ for fire making (blowing through the hollow centre of twigs), dye (from berries, bark, roots & leaves), repelling rodents and insects (leaves), mosquito repellent (infusion from leaves), mildew (spray from leaves), and, of course, jams, jellies, wine, puddings, chutneys, cordial and much more from the flowers and berries.
Elder flowers are at their peak right now so here’s some recipes for using them.
Elderflower fritters from Ruby of Native Hands. A trio of recipes from the archives. Craig’s elderflower pancakes and finally, Jenni’s top secret elderflower ‘champagne’ recipe (adapted from River Cottage’s Booze book)
This is the perfect summer drink – full of the flavour of elderflowers and fizzy and refreshing. Makes approx 6 x 75cl bottles.
*A word of warning! Make sure your bottles have robust lids, such as the ‘flip top’ style and the bottle is made of sturdy enough plastic or glass; this brew gets fizzy!*
- 800g sugar
- 8-12 elderflower heads (pick them early in the day if possible)
- Pared zest and juice of 4 lemons
- 1/2 tsp yeast nutrient (optional)
- 5g sachet yeast (use a Champagne or Cider yeast; you can rely on natural yeasts on the flowers, but using cultured yeast gives guaranteed fermentation)
- Disolve the sugar in 2 litres of hot water in a bucket and top up with 3 litres of cold water. Leave to cool.
- Stir in elderflower heads (trimmed and shaken to remove insects), lemon zest and juice, yeast nutrient and yeast. Cover and leave to ferment for 6 days, stirring daily.
- After 6 days strain off liquid through muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket and allow to settle for a couple of hours, then siphon into bottles. If you are super careful, you can siphon directly into the bottles, missing the second bucket step.
- Leave for a week and test your brew – put a bottle in the fridge before opening CAREFULLY.