Elders (Sambucus nigra) are small deciduous trees with leaves that are matt green and flowers that are creamy white and sweetly-scented.The flowers grow in clusters up to 20 cm across and are followed by purplish-black berries. There are now numerous cultivars with varying leaf shapes and colours (gold, variegated, green, purple), as well as dwarf and pink-flowered forms.
Elders will grow in most soils in most positions and in colder regions can be problem weeds. The trees need cold to set fruit, birds feed on the fruit and deposit seed through bush land where the seeds sprout and grow into new trees. So if you live in a cold region with nearby bush, make sure you harvest the berries before the birds can get to them. Prune elder back hard every year, either in late autumn or before the new growth appears in spring. The pruned pieces can be used as cuttings to propagate new plants. It will also grows easily from seed planted in autumn.
Elders have been associated with magic and witchcraft for a long time. In Norse culture, elder trees were believed to be under the protection of a spirit woman known as Hylde-Moer or elder mother. If you wanted to cut wood from the tree it was necessary to say ‘Old woman give me of thy wood and I will give thee of mine when I grow into a tree’. This was supposed to appease the spirit and stop her from haunting you. An elder planted hear a house was said to repel witches but the most unusual tradition was that if you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer Eve you would see the Fairy King and all his retinue pass by. This, however, may have more to do with the amount of elderberry wine you drank beforehand!
Flowers and berries are both used in cooking and medicine. Drink tea made from the flowers for hay fever, chronic ear infection, catarrh, sinus infections and to promote sleep. Use the tea as a wash for sunburn, to fade freckles, smooth wrinkles and soften and cleanse the skin. The berries can be stewed to make jellies, jams and cordials, usually in combination with other fruit especially apples, other wise they will not set. Drink syrup made from the berries right through winter to ward off colds and chills. Leaves, bark and roots should not be taken internally but make useful pest repellent and fungicidal mixtures. The leaves also repel flies and can be tied in bunches near doorways and outside eating areas. — PW
Elder flower champagne — from my book Herbs for Australian Gardens
3 large heads of elder flowers
750 g sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4½ litres water
Trim the flowers, which should be picked when in full bloom, from their stems and place them in the bottom of a large clean jar. Add the juice and thinly-peeled rind of the lemon (not the pith), the sugar and the vinegar. Pour over the water and steep for 48 hours. Strain into strong screw-top bottles and leave for a fortnight, by which time it should be very fizzy. Do not keep for too long after this, unless it is stored in strong champagne-type bottles.
Elderberry jelly — from Windfalls by Sue Ruchel
900 g elderberries
900 g cooking apples
Chop the apples roughly. Place them in a pan and cover with water. Simmer until the fruit is pulpy. Do the same with the elderberries in another pan. Strain the fruits together through the one jelly bag. Add 1 cup of sugar to each cup of syrup and return to the pan. Bring rapidly to the boil stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Boil until setting point is reached. Bottle and seal.
Sunburn remedy — from my book Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies
5 handfuls of elder flowers
600 mL of water
50 mL of vodka
Pack the elder flowers into a bowl. Bring the water to the boil and pour over the elder flowers, add the alcohol, cover and leave to stand for a couple of hours. Strain, bottle, seal and label. Rub into the skin to counteract mild sunburn and the drying effects of wind and salty water.