The Elder; the Flowers, the Berries the Legend
Updated: May 2, 2019
The Elder tree, what a fantastic and generous tree! 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 – how to identify it.
The Elder is a small shrub or tree that can grow up to 5m in height. The Elder can grow very quickly and is prone to springing up almost anywhere and for this reason is very common. Its leaves are pinnate and grow in two or three pairs and can be rounded to narrow oval. On mature trees the bark is brown and has deep wrinkles and is sometimes coated in a powdery green moss. Its twigs and branches are delicate and contain soft pith.
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There are many stories and legends involved with this mischievous little tree including being used as a deterrent for Witches – if you hung Elder leaves from your window on the last day of April you would prevent witches entering your home. Or another tale said that the tree could also be used as a lens to the King of Elves, you could utilise this higher vision by standing under an Elder tree on Midsummer's Eve.
Legends aside the trees generosity is with its fruit and flowers and this is where I get excited.
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. The flowers can also be made into teas, syrups and cordials or dipped in sweet batter to make delicious fritters. I also love to pair them with Tomatoes in salads as they add an unusual twist and very favourable accompaniment.
In August and September the tree heaves with dark Elderberries that are a particular favourite of birds. The berries are very visible perched in huge numbers at the end of red stalks and contain high amounts of Vitamin C and can be used to make conserves and Jams or my favourite in a delicious fruity accompaniment for Venison.
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.. So you think that’s it, it's not! The tree also provides a great food when it dies. The dead branches of Elder provide a home for a delicious little fungus called the Jelly Ear or Jews Ear a particular favourite of the Chinese!
In summary this fantastic tree has many uses and provides tasty treats for most of the year and even when the tree is bare and without leaf its stories are still there to satisfy us! The amount of recipes derived from this tree are endless and I will try to write about as many of them as possible but for now identify it and start experimenting as the Elders flavours should be enjoyed by all!