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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
heads or half a basketful
1.8 kg granulated sugar
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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
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
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
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 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)
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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