[ The Hedgerow Herb: European Elder - Elderberry and Elder flower ] ~ from Monterey Bay Herb Company

Most of us have either heard of, or sampled elderberry wine at some point. Monty Python fans might recall the hilarious but nonsensical insult slung to King Arthur by the French soldier, who sorely lacked command of the English language: “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” What he actually intended to convey is anyone’s guess, but the odd idiom is evidence that the juicy fruit was well known to the non-tea-totaling set in Europe, at least in England and France.

Ah...but there is so much more to the European elder than fruit and farce. The berries also yield a rich dye for textiles and are cooked into pies, jams, cordials and syrups. The delicate flowers of the tree are added to pancake batter, dipped in milk and eggs and fried like fritters, and made into herbal teas and natural skin care products. The tree itself is said to possess supernatural powers and its wood provided the earliest toys and musical instruments.

[ The Hedgerow Herb: European Elder - Elder of Old ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

the elder of old

European elder (Sambucus nigra), not to be confused with the toxic American elder, is a small, shrubby, deciduous tree that bears deep purple drupes and cream-colored flowers. Also known as black elder, bore tree, and often written simply as elder berry or elderberry, this member of the moschatel family favors moist woodland areas in its native habitats of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, although it is also grown as an ornamental hardy to Zone 3 in the United States.

Elder has a long and varied significance in herbal history that dates to the 5th century BCE. The plant was well known to Pliny the Elder, Culpeper, Dioscorides and Hippocrates. The first written scientific description of the plant’s pharmacological qualities, however, is credited to the 14th century German scholar, Conrad von Megenberg, who recommended drinking elderberry juice to ward off illness.

[ sambucus nigra ] ~ from Monterey Bay Herb Company

[ The Hedgerow Herb: European Elder - Respect Your Elders ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

respect your elders

There is a great deal of folklore associated with European elder. In Scotland, for example, the tree was thought to protect against evil spirits, and crosses made of its wood were hung in homes and in stables to shield their occupants from harm. The Cross of Calvary was thought to be made of elder, as the ancient rhyme suggests:

'Bour tree-Bour tree: crooked rong
Never straight and never strong;
Ever bush and never tree
Since our Lord was nailed on thee."

In the Isle of Man, elder was believed to be the home of elves, while, in Ireland, any witch worth her salt could rise to meet the moon on a broom made of elder. In Denmark, the tree spirit of Hylde-Moer, or the Elder Mother, was said to live among the branches. Failing to ask permission of Hylde-Moer before cutting into the tree would result in the spirit haunting the person who raised the axe as well as whatever object the wood was used to make.

[ axe and berries ] ~ from Monterey Bay Herb Company

elder of old

[ The Hedgerow Herb: European Elder - Pop Goes the Elder ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

pop goes the elder

European elder may provide fruit and flower, but its branches are also of use. When the inner white pith that lines the bark is removed, a hollow tube remains. At one time, these “tubes” were used as tinder and to fashion bellows with which to blow air onto fires to create higher flames. In fact, many etymologists suspect that the English term “elder” is derived from the Anglo Saxon words aeld and eller, which mean “fire” and “kindler of fire,” respectively.

The hollowed-out branches also provided material for the earliest of children’s toys and musical instruments that are still enjoyed today – pop guns, whistles and flutes. Culpeper expressed the familiarity of elder in writing with, “It is needless to write any description of this [Elder], since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder."

[ The Hedgerow Herb: European Elder - Flower to Leaf ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

flower to leaf

Like other shrubs that produce white flowers, such as rowan and hawthorn, elder was strongly associated with Goddess-centric traditions in Ireland and its flowers, in particular, were believed to be favored by fairies. Leaving food out at night under a blooming elder tree was a habit born of desire to make friends with the mischievous wee folk. Women who washed their face with morning dew collected from elder flowers was certain to retain her youthful beauty. Elder flowers are still used to make aromatic waters, colognes and skin cleansers, such as the infamous Eau de Sareau.

The leaves of elder were also important. While the berries provided purple dyes and the bark grey and black, yellow and green dyes were produced from elder leaves, all of which were used to make Harris Tweed, the traditional wool cloth handwoven for centuries in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The strong fragrance of the leaves was said to repel flies and other insects, so they were hung in bunches in the home and were affixed to the harness of one’s horse. It was common for elder trees to be planted around bake houses and dairies, too. Bake houses enjoyed protection from evil released from burning fires, while dairies hung cheese cloth to dry among the tree’s branches, hopeful that the practice would keep flies at bay and prevent the milk from turning sour.

buying dried elderberry and elder flower

Sample Tea Type Pairings

Sample Recipes for The Hedgerow Herb: European Elder

Elderberry and Rosehip Winter Tonic Recipe
Elderberry & Rosehips Winter Tonic
Give your immune system a boost with this rich-tasting, nutrient-packed tonic. Both elderberries and rosehips pack a load of vitamin C and antioxidant flavonoids, as well as minerals and dietary fiber. This simple infusion can be made in minutes and enjoyed as-is from the refrigerator or mixed into juice or tea, either in the morning or before retiring to bed at night.

Pontack Sauce Recipe
English Pontack Sauce
This traditional condiment, known by most Americans as elderberry ketchup, get its name from The Pontack Head, the 17th century English eatery from which the concoction is thought to originate. It is typically served alongside cold cuts and game meats, although it can also be used to add fruity-spicy interest to sauces, soups and stews.

Winter Blend Tea Recipe
Winter Tea Blend
This herbal tea is considered adaptogenic, meaning that it helps the body to maintain balance during times of physical or emotional stress. Delicious and soothing, whether served hot or cold. Makes one quart.

Elder Flower Liquor Recipe
Elder Flower Liquor
Also known as St. Germain, this sweet liquor is popular in Europe to use for mixing cocktails. You can purchase it in many liquor stores, but it’s easy (and more fun!) to make it yourself with just a few ingredients. Note, however, that this is a two-step process that takes time to complete.

Elderberry Shortbread Recipe
Elder Flower Shortbread
This treat is made even sweeter with a glaze of powdered sugar and elder flower liquor. The method of rolling the dough into a log makes it easy to slice-and-bake. If you want to get fancy, press each disc of dough with a cookie stamp before baking.

Elderberry Shrub Recipe
Elderberry Shrub
A shrub is a fruit-infused, vinegar-based syrup that is typically mixed with soda water to create a refreshing beverage. It’s an old-fashioned favorite that’s making a comeback as a cocktail mixer. You can also use a shrub to enhance the flavor of salad dressings or to glaze roasted meats. The terms comes from sharbah, the Arabic word that means “drink” that has also given us “sherbet” and “syrup.”