According to Mrs Grieve, summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower and that it ends when the berries are ripe. Many of us have favourite recipes for Elderflower cordial and wine- but how many of us know about the medicinal properties of this wonderful tree?
Of all medicinal plants, Elder probably has the most magical and superstitious of connections. In most Northern European traditions, the Elder is connected to magic by the nature of it being inhabited by a Dryad, the Elder-tree Mother, Hylde Moer or Earth Mother. If the tree was cut down without permission to the Elder mother, she would haunt the culprits. “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest”.
Denmark, there is an old belief that whoever stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, and it has a long tradition of association with Faeries.
Depending on the tradition, Elder wood could bring luck or curses. In
Serbia, it is used in wedding ceremonies as a source of good luck, but in Denmark, making a cradle out of Elder wood was as good as giving the child away to the Faeries.Its hollow stems, used as pea-shooters in the past, were
used to blow life into a fire. The story goes that Prometheus used Elder to
bring fire from the gods to man. The Anglo-Saxon name for fire is aeld.
Medicinally, we use both the flowers and the berries. The flowers are profuse, creamy white and fragrant and are collected in June, just as the May flower is fading. Elder flower has to be dried carefully to prevent browning or blackening, and can be made into infusions, syrups and tinctures. Elderflower water was used in the 17th and 18th century to reputedly fade freckles and reduce sunburn.
A simple infusion of fresh or dried Elder is wonderful for helping with feverish symptoms of colds and flu, combined with Yarrow and Peppermint at the first flu symptoms. Elderflower is antihistamine, anticatarrhal and decongesting, so is excellent for hayfever, allergic rhinitis, catarrh and sinusitis.
Although many people use the flowers, the berries are often ignored. They are sweet and delicious and can be made into wine, syrups, jams (especially with apple) and chutneys. There are small scale research studies that demonstrate that Elderberries are effective against the influenza virus. They are very rich in vitamin C and flavanoids. Similar to the flowers, a hot toddy of Elderberry wine will help promote sweating and clear sore throats and catarrh.
My favourite recipe using Elderberries is to make a ‘Rob’ ( a vegetable juice thickened by heat, a recipe which dates back to the 17th century). To make the Rob (recipe from Mrs Grieve)-take 5lbs of fresh, ripe crushed berries. Simmer with 1lb of sugar. Reduce until the thickness of runny honey. You can add cinnamon, ginger and cloves to taste. Strain through a jelly bag or muslin and bottle, preferably with a cork stopper, as it can ferment!
Some people add a little brandy (purely medicinal of course!) to help preserve it. For a non-sugar version, (recipe from Non Shaw), add 1tsp allspice and 1/2 tsp ginger per 2 pints of liquid. Reduce over a low heat until the juice is the consistency of molasses.
Sources: Mrs Grieve – A Modern herbal; Barker, J. The medicinal flora of
Britain and North Western Europe; Bruton –Seal, J and Seal, M.
Hedgerow medicine. Non Shaw- Herbalism-an illustrated guide.