In late May and June the rural lanes and meadows of East Sussex are brimming with elder trees, their pliant branches weighed down with the lacy, fragrant white umbeliferous flower heads.
Elderflower has been referred to as the ‘medicine chest of the people,’ because of its many therapeutic benefits. The flowers contain a wealth of complex flavonoids and are replete with vitamins A and C. Herbalists value elderflowers and use them to relieve colds, flu and fever, for sinusitis, bronchitis and constipation as well as a diuretic and a diaphoretic (to increase sweating). Elderflowers can be made into a mouthwash for coughs and colds, and are sometimes used on the skin for joint pain and swelling.
Steeped in myth and tradition, the dark gnarled trunks of this archetypal tree can be furred with lichen, which contributes to their association with witchcraft. Elder is revered by Gypsies, associated with the Jewish Cabala and was widely referred to as The Witches Tree. Traditionally the cutting of elder required permission from, and an apology to the Elder Mother, while hanging a cradle from its boughs would invite her wrath. Clearly a plant with a reputation for ambivalent powers, with healing flowers and poisonous leaves, it used to be considered bad luck not to have one near your house and yet superstition told that burning elder would curse your family for eternity!
Elder gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld for fire, because the hollow centre of its branches means it burns easily. While its Latin name Sambucas derives from the Greek, Sambuke – a musical pipe: for which the hollowed out shoots of elder bushes were traditionally used.
At A.S.APOTHECARY we use elderflower, dried and ground to a fine powder, in our Mineral Powder, and Amanda creates a variety of delectable drinks from the fresh flowers. Elderflower cordial is a classic drink and a favourite in Britain but its roots are European and some versions of elderflower cordial can be traced back to Roman times.
Make your own elderflower products by wild foraging in May and June. The low level bushes mean the flowers are easy to reach and gather. Go out on bright sunny mornings, before the bees have taken the nectar from the flowers. Pick fully open flowers and do not wash them, but shake them free of insects and dry them whole for use in decoctions, flower waters, syrups and tinctures. Or use fresh in juice, cordials, teas and other gastro recipes such as sorbet or Champagne. Be sure not to strip trees of reachable blossoms in summer or you’ll have no elderberries come autumn. Elderberries are the very best Winter tonic. Red Rob has been made for centuries and forms an essential in any herbalists first aid kit. It also makes excellent wine, chutneys and jams, and very special vinegar.