The Elder: Elderflowers, Elderberries and the Legend
Updated: May 20
The Elder Tree, scientifically known as Sambucus, is a genus of flowering plants in the family Adoxaceae. There are several species of elder trees, but the most common and well-known is Sambucus nigra, also called the European elder or black elder. It is native to Europe, parts of Asia, and North Africa.
The popular term elderberry, or elder, comes from the Angelo-Saxon word 'aeld', which means "to kindle" or "fire." It got its name because hollowed-out elderberry stems were used to blow on kindling from a safe distance.
Fire starting is where we begin with this tree. What a fantastic and generous plant! Not just its uses but also the stories involved within it. I don’t really know where to start with this so I guess I will have to start at the beginning – the legends.
Elder Tree Folklore and Legends
Elder or elderberry trees have a fascinating folklore associated with them, steeped in ancient beliefs and cultural traditions. Throughout history, elder trees have been revered and considered sacred in many European cultures, giving rise to various legends and tales.
In folklore, the elder tree was believed to be inhabited by spirits or supernatural beings. It was often referred to as the "Queen of the Woods" or the "Elder Mother." According to some legends, these mystical spirits, often called Elder Mother or Elder Spirits, would reside within the elder tree, and could bring both blessings and curses to those who encountered them.
The elder tree was thought to possess protective qualities, acting as a guardian against evil spirits and witches. Planting an elder tree near one's home was believed to offer protection and bring good fortune to the residents. It was also believed that cutting down or disrespecting an elder tree could anger the spirits and invite misfortune.
Elder trees were associated with rebirth and transformation. In some folklore, it was believed that if an elder tree was cut down, a new one would grow in its place, symbolizing the cycle of life and regeneration. If you have ever tried to remove one from your garden, you'll know that they regrow easily from cut trunks very quickly. This idea of renewal contributed to the elder tree's significance in rituals and celebrations related to seasonal cycles, particularly the onset of spring.
The elder tree's flowers and berries played a significant role in folklore as well. Elderflower blossoms were considered auspicious and were often used in wedding ceremonies or to decorate homes during festive occasions. The sweet fragrance of the elderflowers was believed to ward off evil spirits and bring blessings to the household.
Elderberries, with their deep purple or black colour, were associated with both healing properties and caution. It was believed that elderberries had the power to protect against illness and evil influences. However, consuming unripe or uncooked elderberries was seen as potentially dangerous, as they were thought to be associated with negative energies.
These folklore traditions surrounding elder trees demonstrate the deep reverence and respect people held for these magnificent trees throughout history. The elder tree's connection to spirits, protection, transformation, and healing made it an integral part of cultural beliefs and practices, enriching the tapestry of folklore across different societies.
Elder Tree Distribution in the UK
The elder tree, is a native species to the UK, it can be found throughout the country, making it a familiar sight in both rural landscapes and urban areas. These trees have adapted well to the UK's climate and are known to thrive in various habitats.
In the wild, elder trees can be spotted in woodlands, hedgerows, scrublands, and along the banks of rivers. Their ability to tolerate different soil conditions allows them to grow in diverse environments. You can come across elder trees in lowland areas, upland regions, and even along the UK's coastline.
Elder trees are abundant across the UK, earning their reputation as one of the most common shrubs or small trees in the country (alongside the Hawthorn). They often grow in clusters or as part of mixed woodlands, adding to the biodiversity of these areas. Due to their hardy nature and their ability to regenerate easily, elder trees can be found in neglected or disturbed spaces as well.
The presence of elder trees extends beyond natural landscapes. They have successfully made their way into urban environments too, gracing parks, gardens, and green spaces across the country. Many people choose to plant elder trees in urban areas for their attractive foliage, beautiful flowers, and bountiful berries. This adaptability to urban settings has contributed to the widespread presence of elder trees in cities and towns throughout the UK.
From lowland valleys to highland slopes, from bustling cities to serene countryside, elder trees have established a firm presence across the United Kingdom. Their ability to thrive in diverse conditions and their popularity in both rural and urban landscapes make them a beloved and recognisable feature of British flora.
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Elder Tree Identification
The elder tree is a deciduous shrub or small tree that can reach heights of 3 to 9 metres (10 to 30 feet). The Elder can grow very quickly and is prone to springing up almost anywhere and for this reason is very common.
It has a distinctive appearance with its greyish-brown bark which has deep wrinkles and is sometimes coated in a powdery green moss. It has compound leaves consisting of 5 to 9 leaflets. Its twigs and branches are delicate and contain soft pith.
In late spring or early summer, the elder tree produces flat-topped clusters of small, creamy-white flowers with a pleasant fragrance. These flowers attract pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Following pollination, the elder tree produces clusters of small, dark purple to black berries, which are botanically classified as drupes. These berries are often used in culinary preparations, such as jams, jellies, pies, and wine.
However, it's important to note that while the ripe berries are edible and have a tart, fruity flavour, other parts of the elder tree, including the leaves, stems, and unripe berries, contain toxic compounds and should not be consumed.
Size and Shape:
Elder trees can reach heights of 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9 metres) and have a shrub-like appearance.
The bark of elder trees is usually greyish-brown and develops shallow fissures and bumps with age.
The leaves are pinnately compound, meaning they are divided into several smaller leaflets arranged opposite each other along a central stem. Each leaf typically has 5 to 9 leaflets.
The leaflets are serrated or toothed and have an elongated oval shape with a pointed tip. They have a matte, dark green colour.
The branches of elder trees are smooth, round, and slightly hollow. They may also have a purplish tinge.
Flowers and Berries:
Elder trees produce distinctive flowers and berries, which can aid in identification.
Elderflowers grow in large, flat clusters called umbels. They are creamy-white in colour and have a strong, sweet fragrance.
Shape and Structure:
Each individual elderflower consists of five tiny, distinct, and star-shaped petals with protruding stamens. The flowers have a flat-topped appearance.
Elderberries grow in clusters that resemble bunches of small, dark purple to black berries.
Shape and Size:
Elderberries are small, round, or oval-shaped berries, typically measuring 3 to 6mm in diameter.
The berries are initially green, but they gradually turn red and then darken to a deep purple or black colour when ripe.
Elderberries have a slightly waxy texture and are juicy when ripe.
It's important to note that there are different species of elder trees, and their characteristics can vary slightly. Additionally, some elder trees may have red berries instead of the more common purple or black ones.
Foraging Elderflowers and Elderberries
In order to make elderberries there must be elderflowers. Elderflowers are white and have a delicious sweet perfume that has been likened to that of the Muscat grape, this characteristic is probably why it is commonly made into wine or Elderflower Champagne.
Elderflowers appear in late spring and are very small – about 5mm across. The tree produces them in huge clusters that conveniently can easily removed minus the stalk.
Foraging elderflowers and elderberries can be a rewarding experience, as they offer delicious culinary opportunities. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when foraging elderflowers and berries:
Elderberries and Elderflower Foraging Guide
8 simple steps or guiding principles for harvesting elderberries and elderflowers that all should follow.
Proper Identification: Ensure that you can accurately identify elder trees (Sambucus spp.) before foraging. Pay attention to the leaf structure, bark, and overall appearance described earlier.
Timing: Elderflowers typically bloom in late spring to early summer, while elderberries ripen in late summer to early autumn. It's important to harvest elderflowers when they are fully open and fragrant, and elderberries when they are dark purple or black and ripe.
Sustainable Harvesting: Practice sustainable foraging by not overharvesting or damaging the plants. Take only what you need and leave enough flowers and berries for the plant to continue its natural growth and reproduction. This ensures the sustainability of the elder tree population.
Selecting Flowers: When foraging elderflowers, choose clusters that have fully opened flowers. Avoid flowers that have started to wilt or turn brown. Gently snip the flower clusters using clean, sharp scissors or secateurs.
Harvesting Berries: When foraging elderberries, select clusters that are fully ripe, with dark purple or black berries. Avoid clusters with unripe, green berries. Use your fingers or a small pair of scissors to carefully snip the entire cluster from the tree.
Safety Precautions: Remember that elderberries should not be consumed raw or uncooked as they may cause digestive discomfort. To enjoy elderberries, they should be cooked or processed. Cooking breaks down the potentially toxic compounds in the berries, making them safe for consumption.
Cleaning and Processing: Once harvested, remove any insects, leaves, or debris from the elderflowers or elderberries. Rinse them gently under cool water, and then let them air dry. You can use the elderflowers immediately or dry them for later use. Elderberries can be used fresh, frozen, or dried depending on your preferences. Use a fork to remove the elderberries from their stalks.
Culinary Uses: Elderflowers can be used to make beverages like elderflower cordial, tea, or infused syrups. They can also be added to desserts, baked goods, or savoury dishes for a unique floral flavour. Elderberries are often used in jams, jellies, pies, wines, or syrups. Cooking elderberries brings out their rich, tart flavour (lots more below).
Elderflower and Berry Culinary Uses
Elderflowers and elderberries offer a world of culinary possibilities, bringing their unique flavours to a wide range of dishes. Let's explore some delicious ways to use them in your kitchen!
When it comes to elderflowers, one of the most popular culinary creations is elderflower cordial. This sweet syrup is made by infusing elderflowers with sugar and water, resulting in a delightful concoction that can be enjoyed in various ways. You can dilute the cordial with water to create a refreshing beverage or mix it into cocktails, mocktails, or sparkling water for a burst of floral goodness.
Elderflowers also lend themselves well to infused syrups. By steeping the flowers in syrup, you can create a versatile ingredient that can be drizzled over pancakes, waffles, or desserts like ice cream or panna cotta. The aromatic essence of elderflowers infuses the syrup, adding a delightful floral note to your culinary creations.
Click the link to try our simple but delicious Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool Recipe.
If you have a sweet tooth, consider incorporating elderflowers into your desserts. Add them to cake batters, cupcake mixes, muffin recipes, or cookie doughs to infuse your baked goods with their delicate and fragrant flavour. You can even use elderflowers in buttercream or glazes to give your treats an extra touch of floral magic.
Now let's turn our attention to elderberries. These dark purple or black jewels offer a rich and tart taste that can be transformed into a range of delectable delights. One popular use for elderberries is in making jams and jellies. The berries' natural pectin content makes them perfect for creating spreads that can be enjoyed on toast or used as a filling in pastries.
Elderberries are also fantastic for pies and tarts. When cooked, their tartness mellows out, resulting in a sweet and tangy filling that pairs beautifully with a buttery crust. You can also use elderberries in cobblers, crumbles, or even as a topping for pancakes or French toast.
Elderberries are not just for sweet dishes either, they make fantastic sauces and pair really well with game and fowl. One of my favourite ways to cook grouse is with roasted chicory and elderberry sauce. It is so good.
If you're feeling adventurous, try making elderberry wine or syrup. The deep, rich flavour of elderberries lends itself well to these homemade delights, perfect for sipping or drizzling over desserts.
Both the flowers and the berries make an exceptional vinegar that is simply a delight.
Whether you're using elderflowers or elderberries, these culinary treasures will add a touch of enchantment and unique flavour to your dishes. So go ahead and explore the culinary world of elderflowers and berries, and let your creativity flourish in the kitchen!
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Elderflower and Elderberry Recipes
20-25 elderflower heads
1.5 kg granulated sugar
1.5 litres boiling water
50 grams citric acid (optional)
Shake the elderflower heads to remove any insects or debris.
Place the elderflower heads in a large bowl.
Slice the lemons and add them to the bowl.
Pour the boiling water over the elderflowers and lemons.
Cover the bowl and let it steep overnight (around 24 hours).
Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth or fine sieve into a large saucepan.
Add the sugar and citric acid (if using) to the liquid, and heat gently until the sugar dissolves completely.
Pour the cordial into sterilized bottles, seal, and refrigerate.
Dilute the cordial with water or sparkling water to taste and enjoy!
Elderflower heads (4-5)
100 grams all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornflour
A pinch of salt
150 ml sparkling water
Vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar for dusting
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cornflour, salt, and sparkling water to form a smooth batter.
Dip the elderflower heads into the batter, making sure they are well coated.
Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan or deep fryer.
Fry the elderflower heads in the hot oil until golden and crispy.
Remove the fritters from the oil and drain on a paper towel.
Dust with powdered sugar and serve them warm as a delightful dessert or snack.
1 kg elderberries
750 grams granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Rinse the elderberries and remove them from the stems.
Place the elderberries in a large saucepan with the lemon juice and zest.
Cook the berries over medium heat until they release their juices.
Add the sugar and cinnamon (if using), stirring until the sugar dissolves completely.
Increase the heat and bring the mixture to a rolling boil.
Boil for about 10-15 minutes, or until the jam reaches the desired thickness.
Skim off any foam that forms on the surface.
Remove the pan from heat and let the jam cool slightly.
Transfer the jam into sterilized jars, seal, and let them cool completely before storing.
These recipes provide a starting point for exploring the culinary possibilities of elderflowers and elderberries.
Feel free to adapt them and experiment with your own variations to suit your taste preferences. Enjoy the delightful flavours of elderflowers and elderberries in these delicious treats!
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Elderflower and Elderberry health benefits
Elderflowers and berries are not only delicious but also offer several potential health benefits. Here are some of the health benefits associated with elderflowers and berries:
Immune Support: Elderberries are known for their immune-boosting properties. They are rich in antioxidants, including anthocyanins, which help to strengthen the immune system and protect against oxidative stress. Elderberries may help reduce the severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms.
Cold and Flu Relief: Both elderflowers and berries have been traditionally used to alleviate symptoms of the common cold and flu. Elderflower tea or syrup may help soothe sore throats, relieve congestion, and promote sweating, which can aid in reducing fever.
Anti-inflammatory Effects: Elderberries contain compounds with anti-inflammatory properties, such as anthocyanins and flavonoids. These compounds may help reduce inflammation in the body and alleviate symptoms associated with inflammatory conditions like arthritis.
Antiviral and Antibacterial Properties: Elderberries possess antiviral properties that may help inhibit the replication of certain viruses, including the flu virus. They may also have antibacterial properties, aiding in the prevention and treatment of bacterial infections.
Rich in Nutrients: Both elderflowers and berries are packed with essential nutrients, including vitamins A, C, and B6, as well as minerals like potassium and iron. These nutrients contribute to overall health and well-being.
Digestive Health: Elderflowers have traditionally been used to support digestive health. They may help alleviate symptoms of indigestion, bloating, and constipation. Elderberries contain dietary fibre, which promotes healthy digestion and can aid in preventing constipation.
Skin Health: Elderflowers and berries have been used topically to promote skin health. Elderflower extracts or infused oils may help soothe and tone the skin, reduce inflammation, and provide relief for certain skin conditions like acne, rashes, or sunburn.
It's important to note that while elderflowers and berries have a long history of traditional use and potential health benefits, more research is needed to fully understand their effects.
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In conclusion, the elder tree is a versatile plant with culinary, medicinal, and cultural significance. Its distinctive flowers and berries, along with its rich history, make it a notable and interesting tree in various aspects of human life.
Throughout time, it has been treasured for its medicinal properties, offering remedies for various ailments. In folklore, this tree has been long revered. The elder tree's allure lies not only in its beauty but also in the deep-rooted stories and practical uses that have woven themselves into its long-standing legacy.
I love this tree... And the delicious recipes and meals that you can make from it.
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