Elderflower & Elderberry Are A Gift In The Garden, Allotment Or Food Forest. One Productive Tree & Two Wonderful Food Products.
The elder is a tree or shrub Growing up to 10 metres in a height. Many species of elder exist globally but the one we find in the wild in the UK is Sambucus nigra, aka elder, dog tree, boortree, boontree or borewood. It flowers in May – June with frothy shows of creamy white flowers with a scent you’ll probably never forget.
Elder And Modern Culture
The smell is something that was mentioned by John Cleese in Monty Python and the holy Grail when as the French taunter he tells the knights of Camelot, “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.”
And JKK Rowling featured elder. The Elder Wand was made from the branch of an elder tree and is vital to the Harry Potter and the Deadly Hollows story.
And in song Elton John recorded Elderberry Wine as a track in Don’t Shoot Me Im Only The Piano Player
Elder In Ancient Culture
Traditionally elder was though to ward off evil spirits and witches. So was often grown near the house! Other stories claim that witches gathered under elder trees when the tress were in full fruit.
You decide on whether they attract or repel witches because I’ve no experience of witches and can’t advise on this!
Is Elder Safe To Eat?
The safe answer to this is NO. It’s not. BUT ………
In 1983 a group of 25 people, in California, became ill after drinking elderberry juice from fresh UNCOOKED Sambucus mexicana. Its not the species that grows wild here be be very careful you collect fruit from the local species and not some imported species found in, or escaped from, a garden. Some species contain vey high levels of cyanogenic glycosides.
With that warning in place its good to know that the flowers and fruit of out local species can be used to make delicious food and drink.
To be safe I always follow recipes where the fruit and flowers are cooked as this apparently reduces toxicity.
Having said that In Japan, elderberry juice is listed as an approved “natural colour additive” under the Food and Sanitation Law. I don’t know which species they grow there so take care in thinking this means all species are safe. They aren’t.
How To Cultivate Elder
Elder is a fast growing plant that can be grown as a fast growing “instant hedge” hedgerow plant so can be used where space is limited. In fact in the UK it is most usually found as a hedgerow plant although some are found in woodland. It also tends to colonise wast sites such as a round old farm buildings or farmyards.
It thrives on most soil types and over a wide pH range. But it does need a reasonable level of sunlight and hence is never found in dense woodland.
So in essence there is little to do to cultivate the plant except plant it! And if it gets too big just cut it back to size. In fact it does even better after being cut back very hard. I’ve often taken them back to a foot for so above ground level and seen them make a growth spurt and be flowering profusely again the next season.
There are essentially two methods. Softwood cutting in early spring or hardwood cutting over winter. Start them in soil or in water. The soil propagated tend to make better roots in the early stages but both methods can work.
Other Uses of Elder
Sambucus is derived from the Greek, sambuce, which was an ancient woodwind musical instrument. I remember as a child making whistles and flutes from elder twigs that had had the pith removed. I don’t have a musical ear and just managed to make a noise!
Elderflower & Elderberry Based Drinks
Elderflower wine and elderflower cordial are drinks stored deep in my memory since childhood. My father made both as well as elderflower wine which has an intensely deep purple colour. And my grandmother made elderflower syrup.
And on a recent trip to France I came across St-Germain. It’s a French liqueur made from fresh elderflowers each spring. They claim there are 1000 flowers used to make each bottle.
Then of course there is elderflower champagne. Light and effervescent it is, in my view better than champagne itself.
Elderberry wine is man absolute delight.
Take care to follow recipes carefully, especially where cooking is involved to kill off the toxic constituents of the elder.
I’ve mentioned flower and berry wines, cordials and syrups. you can also make beers as can be seen in one of the videos below.
I’m also keen on elderflower fritters and crispy elderflower tempura. It’s subtle but unusual and something guests talk about for months .. especially if you let them cook their own at the table.
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