Monday 21 January 2013

Elder, An ancient cornucopia

The Elder Tree

Elder, sambucus niger, is one of the first two trees my apprentices are asked to identify. Some recognise the slender or hollow branches easily whilst others wander around for months before they finally recognise their first one.

A mature elder has a very different shape from other trees.  Although the sapling branches grow straight upwards, the mature branches travel horizontally before beginning their vertical ascent. I find the secret of identifying elder is to look for the purple leaf buds; no other tree has such vivid colour on show in the depths of winter.

I grew up with elder trees in the fields and hedgerows around me but never gave them any thought. A broken off branch with lots of disgustingly smelly leaves were good to twirl around your head in summer when moving around cattle or sheep to ward off the flies but I never noticed the berries and couldn’t have told you anything about the tree if you’d asked me then.

Judith Bergner told me the first story about elder in her book, Herbal Rituals. She expressed her grief when the elder tree on her local New York green was cut down by park officials, then spoke of the wonder as a new sapling appeared and flowered the following year. I began to notice the elder saplings springing up all around my sanctuary. I made my first bruise salve from elder leaves and then discovered the cornucopia of remedies to be made from both flowers and fruit. I fell in love with elder.

Elder is a very ancient tree. It has always been treated with respect. Initially the spirit of the tree was known as Hyde-Moer (or Hilde-vinde), the Elder Mother. She was sacred to the elder and would manifest herself as the elder tree. Chris Howkins says, “She is of course a ‘good’ spirit since she is a ‘Mother’ and like any other mother she loves those who respect her bit is likely to turn on anyone who treats her badly and teach them the error of their ways.”

Both the Anglo-Saxon Herbalist, Bald and Culpepper preferred the dwarf elder (sambucus ebulus) for medicinal purposes, rather than the tree. It was called “Danewort” and was thought to flourish all over England where Danish blood had been spilled during the centuries of struggle against the Vikings. Bald used the leaves as a poultice for boils and the roots as a purgative drink. The Old English Herbarium had three uses for elder, against dropsy, boils and rashes and a scorpion’s sting. (Not sure how many scorpions could be found in England during this time, but presumably this was copied from classical texts.)

When England was Christianised, there was concern that Hyde-Moer, a loving mother figure, would take attention away from the Virgin Mary, so the elder was demonised with witches and evil faeries until Hyde-Moer was completely forgotten.  Yet, despite all the negative attributions, in the British Isles there is still a belief that the tree has protective properties. Trees were planted outside dairies, bakeries, on property boundaries and around earth closets. It was also believed to deflect lighting.

There are scientific reasons why these practices are a good idea. Elder leaves contain insecticides, so keep flies away. If butter muslin and other cloths associated with milking are hung outside to dry on elder branches, they absorb the antibacterial, insecticidal properties from the leaves and help to form a barrier against “unwanted visitors” which might turn the milk sour.

Planting elder trees around privies is also a sensible form of action. As well as keeping away flies, the elder loves damp rich soil and purifies as it grows.

Cutting elder wood has always been taboo. In some areas of Britain it was permissible to take dead wood but never the living. Having said this elder is the only wood with a naturally hollow stem and is hard enough to take a good polish. This makes the wood very desirable for making musical wind instruments as well as necklaces and bracelets.

To prevent unnecessary bad fortune, elaborate rituals were devised when wood needed to be taken. First you must explain your reason for needing the wood (or any part of the tree) out loud. Then you must ask the Elder Mother politely to grant your request.

The correct degree of politeness came from approaching the tree quietly, but not stealthily, removing one’s hat and keeping your arms crossed over your chest to make sure your knife or any bladed tool would not be used before permission was granted. Keeping your knees bent also ensured humility.

The Elder Mother’s permission was achieved by her silence. It could also be seen as giving the tree spirit time and opportunity to move away from any blade before it fell.

Many districts had their own version of the formal request. Chris Howkins gives one which includes the promise to give back some of the petitioner’s own wood once it was grown.

“Mother Elder, give me some of thy wood

And I will give thee some of mine

When it’s grown enough in the woods.”

According to Peter Pracownik and Andy Baggot, “Elder marks the darkest time of year, so is associated with death and the Crone aspect of the triple Goddess.” They note that funerary flints have been found in megalithic long barrows in the shape of elder leaves and in others an elder leaf shaped portal has been carved out between two slabs of stone, thereby showing its association with death goes back beyond the Celts into pre-history.

Chris Howkins mentions pieces of elder being thrown into coffins and suggests that the taboo on burning elder comes from the practice of using the sacred wood only for funeral pyres and other ritual usage.

Howkins was also told that if elder was thrown onto a fire, the witch within the wood would be heard to scream. He experimented and found it to be true. The scientific explanation was that elder is unusual for having twisted air vessels which spiral round the hollow stem. This is thought to set up  tensions in the heat of the fire which “scream” as they tear apart. This release of tension can propel globules of boiling sap which Howkins puts forward to explain the belief that if you throw elder on a fire, the Devil will spit at you.

We have often burned elder on bonfires after tidying up the Sanctuary and I can attest to the noise made and the amount of spitting!

Bark, root and leaves

Historically, elder bark has been collected in winter, dried and ground into powder to use as an emetic.  Culpepper devotes a whole page to the wonders of elder. He says, “The middle or inward bark boiled in water and given in drink works much more violently [to mightily carry forth phlegm and choler]” He used the juice of the root to cure adder bite and hydrophobia from bites of mad dogs.

I ask my apprentices to make a bruise salve from elder bark, since the leaves can be used for the same purpose, but you don’t have access to leaves in the dead of winter when the apprenticeship begins. Last year there was a great deal of discussion around why the bark should act on bruises and the conclusion was that it could well be both an anti-inflammatory and a discutient. Discutient herbs cause dispersal or disappearance of a pathological accumulation. Elder bark would cause the accumulated blood from a bruise to disperse to be reabsorbed in the body.

My apprentices believe in practical applications. At least two of them used the salve for nasty bruises sustained by their spouse or themselves and Leslie Postin documents how well the salve worked on her blog with some graphic pictures! 

Culpepper used the juice of green elder leaves for hot eye inflammation. We haven’t tried this yet but maybe when spring comes we shall have to experiment.


The flowers of elder are one of the most bountiful gifts of late spring, early summer. They flower as hawthorn blossom begins to fade, bringing their cooling properties to the heat of summer. The huge white plates of shining flowers appear to glow against their green leaves.

Elderflowers are amazing in that they act differently depending on the heat of the liquid in which they are infused. Drink a hot cup of elderflower tea and it will act as a diaphoretic, making you sweat and helping to break a fever. The fresh or dried flowers have long been an integral part of “Cold tea” along with equal measures of yarrow and peppermint. Drink a cup of cold tea or elderflower cordial or champagne and it will immediately cool you down, making it useful for the hot sweats of menopause. Elderflower tastes good and is a really helpful herb for children.

Pick the flowers when it is sunny and dry. A large basketful should enable you to make elderflower cordial, elderflower tea, Muscat jam and elderflower vinegar. If you want to dry elderflower for teas later on in the year or make a double infused oil or a tincture or a cooling “water” for your skin, you will need a second basket full or more!

The importance of collecting dry elderflowers if you are going to preserve them cannot be understated. They should be placed “face down” on a clean sheet of paper so that each bunch of flowers is separate and covered with a second sheet to keep out the light. If you bundle them up in a paper bag or don’t keep an eye on them while they are drying, you can lose the entire harvest which is very upsetting.

Culpepper distilled elderflowers to produce a floral water in which to bathe leg ulcers and other sores. He said, “The eyes washed therewith, it takes away the redness and bloodshot; and the hands washed morning and evening therewith, helps the palsy and shaking of them.”

Elderflower recipes

Elderflower Tea

Pick 2-4 elderflowers and place in a teapot or cafatiere.
Pour over just boiled water, replace the lid and let steep for 10 minutes, strain and enjoy.
The tea is naturally sweet and refreshing. You can try mixing elderflower with other herbs such as lemon balm or mint, but I prefer it on its own.

Classic Cold Tea

Use 1tsp each of dried peppermint, yarrow and elderflower (1tblsp if fresh)

Pour 1/2-1pt boiling water into a teapot of cafatiere and steep for ten minutes. Strain and drink every half hour. Sweeten to taste. If you don’t like the taste of peppermint you can use other herbs such as New England Aster, or bergamot. If you only have a herb in tincture form, add the tincture either 1 tsp or in drop dosage to the hot infusion.

Elderflower Cordial

20 elderflower heads or half a basketful

4 lemons
2 oranges
1.8 kg granulated sugar
1.2l water
Place the sugar in the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. While the water is heating, place the elderflowers in a large bowl and cut the zest off the oranges and lemons and add to elderflowers. Cut the ends off the citrus fruit and discard, then slice and add to contents of bowl. Pour the boiling sugar syrup over the elderflowers and citrus fruits. Cover the bowl and place in a cool place for 24 hours. I put a plate on the top of the bowl to keep the citrus fruit submerged in the syrup. After 24 hours strain (eat the orange slices – they are amazing!). Strain twice more using either muslin or kitchen paper. Makes 4 pints of cordial. Pour into sterilized glass jars or plastic jars and freeze. Keep in the fridge and dilute to taste. It tastes good with fizzy water. Serve in glass jugs with slices of lemon and a sprig of mint.

Gooseberry Fool with Elderflowers

6-8 elderflowers
½ pint gooseberry puree
½ pint thick custard (made up as per instructions below)
½ pint double cream
1 sachet of gelatine (dissolved in juice of half a lemon and 1/4pint hot water)
Method: Shake elderflowers to remove unwanted guests. Make gooseberry puree by pouring enough gooseberries to fill a pint jug into a saucepan with the elderflowers, cover with small amount of water and sugar to taste (amount of sugar can be reduced by cooking with Sweet Cicely leaves). Simmer until fruit is very soft. Remove elderflowers. Rub gooseberries and juice through a plastic sieve. This should give you half a pint of puree. Cool Pour half a pint of milk into a saucepan leaving a drop in the bottom of the jug in which you have measured the milk to mix with custard powder. Add a heaped soup spoonful of custard powder and 4 tsp of sugar into the leftover milk and stir until if becomes a thin paste. Bring milk in the saucepan to the boil and when it is coming up to the top of the sides of the pan, pour it over the custard powder mix and stir vigorously. This should give you perfect thick custard. Cover the top of the jug with clingfilm and leave to cool. When gooseberry puree and custard are both cool, pour into a suitable bowl and add half a pint of cream. Mix together. Add dissolved gelatine and mix thoroughly. Leave in the fridge to set or pour into individual serving glasses before setting.

Elderflower Vinegar

Fill a glass jar with a screwtop lid with dry elderflowers. Pour over cider vinegar. Remove air bubbles with a chopstick and re-fill jar with more cider vinegar ensuring that the elderflowers are completely covered. Close the jar firmly with screw top lid. Label and date. Place the jar in a warm, dark place for three weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain and bottle. Label and date.

Use for salad dressings or in washing water or make a cooling drink with 2 tsp vinegar and 2tsp honey in a mugful of boiling water. You can also use the vinegar as a final rinse for dry hair.

When summer brings a profusion of elderflower it is easy to use them to make treats to eat and drink for other people.  Elder also gives us the opportunity to think of ourselves whilst making soothing products to pamper our skin.

If you are looking for a toner or cleanser, why not try some elderflower water? Gail Faith Edwards has a wonderfully simple recipe for making elderflower water, which can be used as a cleanser or to cool an inflamed skin burnt by the sun or from inside by eczema.

Elderflower Water

Place elderflowers in a stainless steel or enamel saucepan and cover with fresh spring or distilled water if you have it. (I’ve always made mine with tap water since ours is soft, Welsh water with minimal additives.) Cover and slowly heat to just below a simmer. Turn the heat as low as it will go and continue heating for about ten minutes tightly covered. Turn off the heat and allow all to sit, covered, overnight. The next morning, strain the infusion off. You will need to strain at least twice through muslin or kitchen towel to remove all the floating debris. Add a quarter of the volume in alcohol as a preservative. Bottle and keep in a cool dark place.

Elderflower Toner

You could also infuse elderflowers in distilled witchhazel and use the strained liquid to tone your facial skin. Fill a glass jar with elderflowers and cover with distilled witchhazel (available from the chemist). Use a chopstick to stir the mixture to remove any air bubbles, then refill the jar so all the elderflowers are covered. Seal the glass jar with a screwtop lid, label and date. Leave the jar to infuse in a cool, dark place for a couple of weeks.  Strain and pour back into the original dark glass witchhazel bottles. You may want to strain the liquid at least twice as fresh elderflowers has lots of bits which are left behind. Apply to your face with soaked cotton wool pads.

In using elderflower on our skin, we are following generations of women back into pre-history. Mary Beith, in her book about herbal use in the Highlands and Islands , “Healing Threads”, records elderflowers being used for a facial cream hundreds of years ago. The recipe she cites involved elderflowers being infused in a mixture of almond oil and lard, which her informant recalled smelled horrible. Very few people use fresh pork dripping to make infused oil these days, although it is supposed to be one of the best mediums for conveying herbs through the skin!

Elderflower Salve

In this recipe I used a mixture of avocado and olive oil. You could use almond, sunflower, coconut, jojoba or a mixture of sunflower and cocoa butter (this will thicken automatically on cooling so don't add extra beeswax).
4 oz fresh elderflowers
1 small bottle of avocado oil plus enough olive oil to make up to around 8 fl ozs.

Place half the elderflowers in the inner pan of a double boiler and cover with the oil. Replace the lid firmly and place inside the other saucepan which is about half filled with water. Heat the external saucepan so that the water gently boils. Do not let the pan boil dry! Boil for about 2 hours, then remove the inner pan and strain off the oil, squeezing the elderflowers to remove as much oil as possible. Place the remainder of the elderflowers inside the inner pan and pour over the oil from the first infusion. Replace the lid firmly and heat for a further two hours. The infused oil will smell strongly of elderflowers. Strain the oil into a heated glass bottle or jar and cap with a screw top lid. If using fresh herb, let the infused oil sit for about three days to make sure any water content separates out. Decant oil. If water drops are left in the infused oil it will go off more quickly. Label the oil with the name and date that you made it.

To turn the oil into a salve, grate 1oz beeswax into 8 fl. ozs. of the infused oil and heat gently until it melts. The easiest way to test the constituency of the salve is to drop a small amount of oil plus melted wax into a cup of cold water. It will cool and thicken immediately. Rub it between your fingers. If it's not thick enough, add more grated wax. Pour into small jars and seal. The salve should thicken on cooling and the colour often becomes lighter. Label and date.

To make a salve for bruises, you could use the same method of making a double infused oil and salve but substitute elder leaves or bark for the elder flowers and use either olive or sunflower oil as the infusion medium. You could also use the flower oil for cooling inflamed joints.


As summer turns to autumn, the once sparkling white flowers have been transformed into tiny green berries which eventually turn purple. Do be careful when picking elderberries to discard any which are still green or they will cause severe diarrhoea. The anti-viral properties of elderberries have now been officially recognised. It has an affinity for the ‘flu virus and, in my opinion, should be a staple medicine available in every household to be taken at the first sign of any infection. The dosage is not massive – half a teaspoonful every two hours for the first two days which may not suffice those who enjoy the flavour.

Historically, elderberries have been cooked in wine or made into cordial as a wonderfully palatable medicine. Kiva Rose Hardin, who first introduced me to elderberry elixir, believes the fresh berries are more potent. These can be easily preserved either as an infused honey or as an elixir. I usually add warming herbs such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg to the elixir and extra vitamin C in the form of fresh or dried rosehips. A bitter in the form of orange or other citrus peel can also be added to balance the formula and aid digestion.

Culpepper used the berries boiled in wine as a sitz bath to “mollify the hardness of the mother, open [women’s] veins and bring down their courses.” It was also used as a black hair dye. The juice of the berry boiled with honey was dropped into ears to “help with the pain of them”.

Elderberries will stain anything from pink to dark purple if not wiped away immediately. One of my very first students had a bottle of elderberry cordial explode in her larder staining the wooden shelf a pleasing shade of pink, so she carefully stained the remainder of the shelf with more elderberries so no-one would notice!

Fresh elderberries tend to harbour natural yeasts, so it is best to keep an infused honey in the fridge or other cool place. I put my first batch of honey on the kitchen window sill and wondered why it perpetually flowed over the top and ran down to meet me!

Elderberry recipes

Elderberry Rob 1(from ‘The Countryside Cook Book’ by Gail Duff.)

1.8kg (4lbs) elderberries, weighed on stem

two 5cm (2inch) pieces cinnamon stick

1 piece ginger root bruised

2 chips nutmeg5ml (1 teaspoon)

allspice berries

5ml (1teaspoon) cloves

275ml (1 ½ pint water)350g

(12 oz) honey to each 375-ml (1 pint) liquid

150ml (1/4 pint) brandy

Take the elderberries from the stalks. Put them into a saucepan with the spices and water. Bring them gently to the boil and simmer them until the pan is full of juice, about 20 minutes. Put a piece of muslin or an old linen tea towel over a large bowl. Pour the elderberries through it. Gather the sides together and squeeze out as much juice as you can. Measure it and return to the cleaned saucepan. Bring the juice to the boil and add the honey. Stir for it to dissolve and then boil the syrup for 10 minutes. Take the pan from the heat and wait until the syrup stops bubbling. Pour in the brandy. Pour the hot cordial into hot sterilised bottles and cork it tightly. Fills about 1 ½ wine bottles.
Elderberry Rob 2 (from Non Shaw's "Herbalism: An Illustrated Guide")

Take a quantity of elderberries and strip them off their stalks with a fork. Press out the juice using a wine press or jelly bag. (I usually put them into a large piece of clean used cotton sheet and twist one end around until you can't squeeze out any more. This is a very tactile experience and you shouldn't use or wear anything you don't mind getting stained purple from the juice!)Add 1tsp allspice and 1/2 tsp ginger (optional) per 2 pints of liquid in a heavy bottomed pan (preferably stainless steel or glass)Reduce over a low heat until the juice is the consistency of molasses. Bottle and store in a cool place. Dose: Take 1tsp in a cup of hot water daily.

This recipe doesn't use any sugar or honey and therefore is suitable for people with diabetes either type 1 or 2.

Elderberry Syrup  (from Roger Phillips’ Wild Food)

Simmer the berries for 30 minutes and then add 1lb sugar and 10 cloves to each pint of juice. Boil for 10 minutes and allow to cool. Freeze in small quantities or pack in small, screw-top sterilized bottles.

Elderberry Cordial (from Barbara Grigson’ “The Greenwitch: A Modern Woman's Herbal" )

Wash and destalk the berries. Put 2lbs of them in a pan with a cupful of water and simmer until they have given up most of their juice. Crush and strain the berries through a sieve. Put the juice back in a saucepan with five cloves, an inch or so of fresh root ginger, grated and 1/2 lb of sugar. Simmer for another hour and then store in tightly sealed jars.

I strain my cordial before bottling.

Elderberry Cordial

Take an amount of fresh or frozen elderberries. Grate a whole nutmeg and break up a large stick of cinnamon or cassia bark. Add 5-6 cloves plus 1 inch of grated ginger root. Add a large handful of fresh or dried rosehips. You can also add the juice and chopped rind of a tangerine or small orange. Cover with water and heat. (If using dried elderberries or rosehips, be generous with the water.) Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Mash everything to ensure all the juice has been extracted. Strain. Wash the saucepan. Measure the liquid and add 1lb of sugar for every pint (20 fluid oz) of liquid. Heat slowly until all the sugar is dissolved. Pour into sterilised bottles. Seal, label and date. Keep in a cool place. Unopened, this should keep at least a year if not longer. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

Elderberry Elixir

2 Pint Jar
1/2 ounce of dried Elderberries or2oz fresh approx to fill half the jar

1 cinnamon stick,

1oz root ginger peeled, sliced and chopped

Large handful or fresh or dried rosehips

Chopped peel of half a large orange
appr. 1 pint Brandy
½-1lb Honey
Place the herbs in the jar, cover with honey and mix well. Add brandy until the jar is full and mix well again. Leave to macerate for 4-6 weeks.

Dosage: Take ¼  - ½  dropperful of Elixir every two to three hours at the first sign of illness. Kiva Rose stresses that you must take the Elixir frequently rather than having a bigger dose further apart. Use the same dosage if you are actively ill. For a general preventative dose, 1/3 dropperful every four hours or so is suggested.

The elderberry may not prevent you from developing a viral infection, but it will reduce the duration and will probably prevent you from developing secondary complications as long as you haven’t take large amounts of NSAIDs such as ibuprofen.

Elder is such a munificent tree. It provides us with a myriad of remedies both internally and externally. We do well to be both grateful and humble in the face of such a generous and loving spirit.

Beith, M Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands 1995 Polygon ISBN 0 7486 6199 9

Berger, J Herbal Rituals  1998 St Martin's Press ISBN 0 312 192 81 9

Culpeper, N Complete Herbal 1653 Wordsworth Reference 1995 ISBN 1 85326 345 1

Edwards, G F Opening Our Wild hearts to the Healing Herbs 2000 Ash Tree Publishing ISBN 1-888123 01 X

Howkins, C, Elder, The Mother tree of Folklore 1996 Self-published ISBN 0 9519348 9 9

Pollington, S Leechcraft 2000 Anglo-Saxon Books ISBN 1 989281 238



Comfrey Cottages said...

Now I am a fool for gooseberries, pun intended, so I can't wait to try your gooseberry and elderflower fool. Lovely post, Sarah. I was just thinking it is time to get make more bruise salve.. I have used it all year long, and even sent some to another state when a friend had a nasty fall with extensive bruising. She had excellent results also. Thank you for sharing all this. Love, Leslie xx

Kev said...

Wow! This post on elder trees was so in depth; it is unbelievable. Thank you SO much for bestowing your knowledge and wisdom on us! I am seriously shocked as to how much I learned from your one article. Keep up the great work!

Unknown said...

I love this post,So much wonderful information, I am close to the Elder Tree, and I respect it.