Also known as Sambucus nigra, Ellhorn, Eldrun, Hyldor, Witches’ tree, Pipe tree and many other names.
There is a wealth of folklore about this tree, which is one of the most noticeable flowering shrubs in early summer, especially in damp places such as alongside ditches and hedgerows. It can be found in woods, along field boundaries, and waste ground. It has been called ‘the medicine chest of the country people’. ‘Aeld’, the anglo-saxon word for fire, may have given elder its name: the hollow stems were used for blowing up a fire.
In summer, Elder bears flat topped bunches of fragrant clusters of creamy white flowers, which can vary from a few sprigs to the size of a large dinner plate. Some of the largest elderflowers I have ever seen were growing by the ditches in the fenlands of the Somerset Levels – this must be their ideal habitat. Around September, these develop into bunches of shiny black berries that are rich in vitamin C and a valuable remedy for colds. The flowers leave a fine, soft pollen on your fingers when handled, which is a useful clue to the beneficial qualities of this herb for your skin – indeed, elderflower ointments, waters and lotions were once well known remedies for wounds (burns, scalds, chilblains) and for cosmetic use (as a water for eyes and skin).
Elder was intimately connected with magic. Hylde-Moer, the elder-tree or earth mother, lived in the tree and watched over it. If an Elder chose to grow in your garden, it meant that the mother had chosen to protect you, and you must not cut it down (without permission) or burn it. It was also cultivated in gardens for the same reasons. It was powerful magic and powerful medicine.
Elder is a tree with contradictions: it ‘grows like a weed, it does not live to a great age…it stinks, yet produces sweet-smelling flowers...it makes effective medicine and poor timber, it is neither bush nor tree, neither bad entirely nor entirely good’ ( Grigson). It has been used for amulets, yet was prohibited for cradles, burning, and boatmaking, and said to bring bad luck to bring the flowers indoors (like hawthorn), yet green elder branches were buried in a grave to protect from evil spirits. Like many other materials with ritual power, it had to be carefully handled. The close grained white wood of old trees is (or was), however, valued for turned articles, skewers and pegs, combs, mathematical and musical instruments.
Mrs Grieve (in her excellent ‘ A Modern Herbal’, where she devotes 11 pages to the history and uses of elder, including many useful recipes) refers to an entire book written in 1644 in praise of Elder, where ‘every part of the tree was described as medicinal, so virtually every ailment of the body was curable by it….it was used internally and externally, in amulets and in every kind of form’. The bark, leaves, flowers and berries are all useful. I have made the green elder ointment she describes (which also includes plantain, wormwood and ground ivy) and found it very useful as a general healing balm.
I have often used elderflower as a tea to reduce fevers. Make a hot infusion and allow to cool, strain it and dilute with water or another herbal tea such as chamomile, to calm and lower a fever. It encourages sweating, and thus heat loss, helping the body cope naturally with the fever and return to health – it promotes elimination via the skin and urinary tract, and supports the circulation. Its cooling action also gives it a useful role in the menopause, for hot flushes. The cold infusion is also excellent for eye irritation, and all dry skin conditions – for example, in the bath. As a hot tea it is a great remedy for mucous membrane problems from colds and sore throats, to hayfever and chronic catarrh. An infused oil made from the flowers is a wonderful moisturising ointment or skin oil for dry eczema and psoriasis.
Elder is also used as an insect and mice repellent, as a natural dye, and for drinks, cordials and preserves.
A Recipe for Elderflower Cordial
Pick 30 heads of elderflower on a dry sunny day, choosing those that smell lemony and fresh – I usually go for those that still have some flowerbuds left to open, rather than fully out or going brown.
Boil 1 kg sugar in 2 litres of water for 5 minutes, and pour over the elderflowerheads. Add 50g citric acid, a chopped lemon, lime and orange. Stir well, cover and leave for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain through muslin, and either bottle and store in the fridge for a short time, or freeze in suitable containers ( I use old square juice cartons so you pack them into the freezer well). If freezing, you can reduce the amount of sugar used. Dilute to taste with water or sparkling water. It is also nice mixed with cold herbal infusions, or can be made up with hot water to encourage sweating in colds and fevers.
Written for The Hedge, Spring 2017.