The elder tree has long been considered sacred throughout Europe and the ancient Druids believed the shrub to be a gift from Mother Nature. Considered both a magical plant as well as a healing panacea, the many legends of this ancient tree were penned by Shakespeare himself and in modern times by the well-known author, JK Rowling.
Elder is a name commonly used to describe multiple species of the genus Sambucus. The most widespread species in North America is S. canadensis, although this elder is oftentimes considered a subspecies of the European elder, S. nigra.
The name Sambucus is said to be derived from the Greek word ‘sambuce’, an ancient wind instrument. You can easily remove the pith of an elder stem, leaving a hollow tube perfect for crafting into a traditional flute.
One can use the berries and flowers of Elder in a wide variety of applications, but note that the leaves, stems, roots, seeds and unripe fruits can be toxic. Additionally, people typically cook the ripe berries to make jams, jellies and syrups, straining out seeds to ensure product safety.
Elder in the Kitchen
The most popular use for elder in the kitchen is crafting elderberry wine, a beverage made famous by many pop culture references including a song by Elton John and a skit by the British comedy group Monty Python.
You can also use the flower umbels of elder to make a delicious, savory fritter. Try this quick and easy recipe at home:
- 4-5 large heads of freshly picked elderflowers
- 1 large egg
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup ice-cold water
- Pinch of salt
- oil for frying
- Gently shake any dirt or insects off flower heads. Cut the stems leaving 1 inch of stem for handling.
- In a bowl, beat the egg. Add half of the water, pinch of salt and mix until well combined.
- Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Add remaining water.
- Heat 1/2 inch of oil in pan over medium heat. Holding the elderflowers by their stems, dip each elderflower into the batter, then drop them into the pan with the hot oil, flower side down.
- Fry until lightly golden. Remove from the oil and drain briefly on a paper towel.
In the Apothecary
Elder berries and flowers are both considered useful in preventing or treating cold and flu symptoms. The berries are often crafted into a syrup that can be taken straight or added to teas or other drinks for medicinal benefits.
Here is a classic elderberry syrup recipe:
- 2 cups dried elderberries
- 4 cups water
- 2-3 tsp. dried ginger root
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 cup honey
- Combine elderberries, water, ginger and cinnamon in a pot and bring to a boil.
- Lower heat and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let steep for one hour.
- Strain out berries and herbs using a stainless-steel strainer or cheesecloth. Be sure to squeeze out any remaining liquid!
- Add honey and stir until well blended.
- Pour into bottles using a funnel.
Species of elder grow wild across much of eastern North America, and the shrub can easily be grown in any area offering full to moderate sun. Elder tend to prefer moist areas but will still grow well in drier soils.
Elder are very easy to propagate from cuttings. Simply clip off a stem of fresh green growth, preferably in the early spring. Trim off two thirds of the leaves and place the freshly cut stem into a jar of water. Leave the jar outside, away from direct sun for four to six weeks making sure to change the water on a regular basis. By the sixth week, roots will have developed all along the submerged part of the stem. At this stage, they are ready to transplant out into your garden to be enjoyed for years to come!