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8 forms of capital active hope agroecology agroforestry alder buckthorn Amazon anxiety apples arthritis back yard beans Bec Hellouin beech tree bees beneficial berries biochar biodigester biodiversity blackberries blackthorn book review brain brassica cage budget build building campesino capital card deck Celtic festivals change changes chemical-free chickens christmas circular clay pot cleansers cleansing milks climate change climate emergency climate grief climate solutions climbers climbing cob comfrey community compost compost teas connection consciousness conservation container cooking coppice coppicing cordial cosmology courgettes crafts crisis crop protection Cross Quarter Festival cultural emergence culture cut flowers cycles degraded design diary diversity DIY do it yourself dryland earth care Earth's energy ecoculture economics ecopoetry ecosystem ecosystem restoration camps ecosystems edges edible edible flowers education efficiency elder elderflowers elements elixir energy equinox ethics face mask fair shares Fairtrade farming feedback feminine ferns figs film firewood floristry flower essence flower garden flowers food food forest food garden footbath forage foraging forest garden forest gardening forests fruit fruit leather fruit trees fungi future future care gardening garlic gift economy gin Give Nature a voice Glennie Kindred global poverty glut grapes greenhouse grief groundcover grow grow food grow your own growing guilds habitat habits handcream harvest harvests hawthorn hazel hazelnut healing shrubs healing trees health healthy soil heart health hedgerow hedging herbal herbal remedies herbal teas herbalist herbs holistic holistic planned grazing home homeless homemade wine homestead hope Hugelkultur humanure hummus hungry gap IBC tanks Imbolc incense increase yields Indigenous inexpensive influence inspiration International Womens Day jam keyline kitchen garden lacto-fermentation Lammas land landscape landscapes life lifestyle limeflowers livelihood livestock living labs logs Looby Macnamara lotion low cost low-impact Lush Spring Prize macerations Mangwende Orphan Care Trust market garden market gardening marmalade marshmallow mass heater meadowsweet medicinal microbes microfarm Midwest Permaculture mimic mindset mitigation money Morag Gamble moringa Mother Earth mulch multifunctional mushrooms native plants natural natural building natural fertiliser natural skincare natural swimming pool nature nature connection nitrogen no dig no waste no-dig November nutrition nuts observe oca October off-grid oil cleansing orchard orchards organic organic flowers organic gardening outdoor shower oven oxymel oyster pallets pasture-fed patterns people people care peoplecare perennials permaculture permaculture design permaculture magazine award permaculutre permayouth pesto pests philippines pine tree pips pizza oven plant profile plants pollinators pollution polyculture polycultures preserving principles propagating protection pruning prunings psycho-spiritual awareness psychospiritual transformation rainforest rainwater raspberries recipe recipes reduce reed beds regeneration regenerative regenerative agriculture relative location relative matter remedy renewable renewable energy resources restoration reuse revolution rhythms rootstock rootstocks roundhouse roundwood runner beans sage salad salve Samhain schools Scotland scotts pine seasonal seasons seeds selfcare Sepp Holzer september septic tanks sewage treatment shade sheet mulching shrubs skincare sloes slugs small solutions small-scale smallholding social justice soil health solar solutions sowing spiritual spring squash stacking functions stock-free straw straw bale summer sustainable Sweet Bay syntropic systems temperate terraces thistles thrutopia timber timber framing tincture tonic toolkit tools transformation trees upcycle urban veg garden vegan veganic vermicomposting vinegar walnuts waste water water cleansing watering weeds wellbeing wetland wild edges wild food wild garlic wildflower wildlife wine recipes wings winter winter greens winter salads wood stove woodburner woodland woodland management woodlands worms yarrow year-round food yield young people youth zai pits zone 00 zoning

Topics

8 forms of capital active hope agroecology agroforestry alder buckthorn Amazon anxiety apples arthritis back yard beans Bec Hellouin beech tree bees beneficial berries biochar biodigester biodiversity blackberries blackthorn book review brain brassica cage budget build building campesino capital card deck Celtic festivals change changes chemical-free chickens christmas circular clay pot cleansers cleansing milks climate change climate emergency climate grief climate solutions climbers climbing cob comfrey community compost compost teas connection consciousness conservation container cooking coppice coppicing cordial cosmology courgettes crafts crisis crop protection Cross Quarter Festival cultural emergence culture cut flowers cycles degraded design diary diversity DIY do it yourself dryland earth care Earth's energy ecoculture economics ecopoetry ecosystem ecosystem restoration camps ecosystems edges edible edible flowers education efficiency elder elderflowers elements elixir energy equinox ethics face mask fair shares Fairtrade farming feedback feminine ferns figs film firewood floristry flower essence flower garden flowers food food forest food garden footbath forage foraging forest garden forest gardening forests fruit fruit leather fruit trees fungi future future care gardening garlic gift economy gin Give Nature a voice Glennie Kindred global poverty glut grapes greenhouse grief groundcover grow grow food grow your own growing guilds habitat habits handcream harvest harvests hawthorn hazel hazelnut healing shrubs healing trees health healthy soil heart health hedgerow hedging herbal herbal remedies herbal teas herbalist herbs holistic holistic planned grazing home homeless homemade wine homestead hope Hugelkultur humanure hummus hungry gap IBC tanks Imbolc incense increase yields Indigenous inexpensive influence inspiration International Womens Day jam keyline kitchen garden lacto-fermentation Lammas land landscape landscapes life lifestyle limeflowers livelihood livestock living labs logs Looby Macnamara lotion low cost low-impact Lush Spring Prize macerations Mangwende Orphan Care Trust market garden market gardening marmalade marshmallow mass heater meadowsweet medicinal microbes microfarm Midwest Permaculture mimic mindset mitigation money Morag Gamble moringa Mother Earth mulch multifunctional mushrooms native plants natural natural building natural fertiliser natural skincare natural swimming pool nature nature connection nitrogen no dig no waste no-dig November nutrition nuts observe oca October off-grid oil cleansing orchard orchards organic organic flowers organic gardening outdoor shower oven oxymel oyster pallets pasture-fed patterns people people care peoplecare perennials permaculture permaculture design permaculture magazine award permaculutre permayouth pesto pests philippines pine tree pips pizza oven plant profile plants pollinators pollution polyculture polycultures preserving principles propagating protection pruning prunings psycho-spiritual awareness psychospiritual transformation rainforest rainwater raspberries recipe recipes reduce reed beds regeneration regenerative regenerative agriculture relative location relative matter remedy renewable renewable energy resources restoration reuse revolution rhythms rootstock rootstocks roundhouse roundwood runner beans sage salad salve Samhain schools Scotland scotts pine seasonal seasons seeds selfcare Sepp Holzer september septic tanks sewage treatment shade sheet mulching shrubs skincare sloes slugs small solutions small-scale smallholding social justice soil health solar solutions sowing spiritual spring squash stacking functions stock-free straw straw bale summer sustainable Sweet Bay syntropic systems temperate terraces thistles thrutopia timber timber framing tincture tonic toolkit tools transformation trees upcycle urban veg garden vegan veganic vermicomposting vinegar walnuts waste water water cleansing watering weeds wellbeing wetland wild edges wild food wild garlic wildflower wildlife wine recipes wings winter winter greens winter salads wood stove woodburner woodland woodland management woodlands worms yarrow year-round food yield young people youth zai pits zone 00 zoning

Medicinal Benefits of Elder

Chris Hope explains the many uses of elder. From delicious elderflower champagne and elderberry wine, to the berries anti-viral qualities and the edible fungus that grow on the elder base.

The elder – Sambucus nigra (Caprifoliaceae family) – is an evocative tree, steeped in history, tradition, and folklore. This is one of our great food and medicinal plants, easily found in most areas of the British Isles where people have settled.

It’s botanical name, Sambucus nigra, stems from the Greek word sambuke; a ‘musical pipe’, due to its hollow form supplying our ancestors a perfect wood for making pipes. The Latin ‘nigra’, means black, in allusion to the dark colour of ripe elder berry fruit.

Elder is a deciduous woodland and hedgerow plant, native to Northern Europe and North America, and can be seen happily growing on most types of soil up to altitudes of approximately 470m.

Superstition says to not cut elder down or burn them. This may be purely because of the toxic fumes which rise from burning elder wood, or it may be that the faeries will be really upset because you are destroying such a useful plant!

Other legends have grown around this plant, such as that of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who allegedly betrayed Jesus to the Romans, then said to have hanged himself from its branches. This story gave rise to the name of the edible fungus found all year round on the elder – the Jelly Ear.

Jelly Ear fungus

Elder can sometimes be found growing as a shrubby form, and sometimes like a tree on a single trunk, similar to other woodland-edge plants like hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn. A mature elder typically displays a domed crown, and will be spotted from a distance once you know it.

Elders can reach 8m or more, although more commonly 5-6m or so, because of other limiting environmental factors. Ideally the plant likes a rich and damp soil in a sunny position. Elder does not like exposed sites or windy hillsides.

The branches display numerous lenticels (air holes) and produce their stems with opposite pairs of buds. The buds are naked, without bud scales. The light brown, corky bark pattern on elder can appear quite similar to the invasive exotic, the ‘butterfly bush’ – Buddleja davidii.

The similarity between Sambucus and Buddleja ends there. Elder’s leaves are completely different in form. They are compound, comprising of seven oval, serrated leaflets, each being about 7-10cm long. The leaflets typically come in two or three opposite pairs with one terminal leaflet. They are a much lighter green colour than the Himalayan native ‘butterfly bush’ which has a simple, lanceolate / elliptical leaf.

You will find this year’s flowers and fruits on last year’s growth. The umbel-like elderflowers, (technically corymbs), are borne on terminal stems. Five creamy-white petals surround the yellow anthers. When ripe, and picked on a sunny day, are bursting with pollen and scent, and should be a bright lemon-yellow. They turn brown when past their best. Only pick ripe flowers!

The flowers have a small amount of natural yeast on them which assists fermentation when making drinks. This will be testified by anyone who makes the superb thirst quenching elderflower champagne! The rank smell of elder leaves or the gone-over flowers is known to repel many who come across it, often being described as a cat urine smell! 

After a short but sweet period in full bloom, the flowers give rise to upstanding clusters of small berries, which are typically no bigger than 10mm in diameter. Initially green, the berries gradually begin to nod earthwards as they ripen. At the end of the summer they are dark purple.

Elder crown

Parts used

Flowers, berries, leaves, bark, fungi.

Harvest time

The flowers are picked when in full bloom. The berries are picked when ripe in the autumn.

Key active medicinal constituents

Tannins, potassium, mucilage, phenols, triterpenes, sterols, lectins, flavonoids (including rutin). The dark coloured berries are rich in anthocyanins, folic acid and vitamins A and C. They also contain flavonoids, and cyanidin glucosides, which are poisonous in large doses. 

Medicinal actions

Diaphoretic, febrifuge, anti-catarrhal, anti viral, immuno-supportive.

Uses

– Elderflowers and berries are expectorant and diaphoretic, thus they help to manage and reduce fevers and to rid the body of toxins.

– Elderflowers are also anti-viral and are useful in combating herpes simplex type 1 virus (responsible for cold sores).

– The flowers can be made into champagne, cordials, wine, sorbet, jam and fritters.

Elder flowers

– Elderberry extract has been proven to inhibit various strains of flu, especially if taken early enough. Many people can testify that elder can significantly reduce recovery times from influenza.

– Some books have stated the ripe berries are poisonous, but this is slightly misleading. They will cause gastric upset if you eat a large quantity raw, (as will too many apples while scrumping) but in small amounts they should present no problem. Cooked into jams, syrups etc., larger quantities of elderberries are absolutely fine.

– Pioneering contemporary forager-chefs have rediscovered that even the green berries can be used, as ‘capers’, if prepared correctly. This involves fermenting the berries in a salt brine solution for a few days, similar to preparing green walnuts for pickling, and then covering in a flavoured vinegar.

– Even when the tree is dormant in the winter, it is still possible to harvest food! The ‘Jelly ear’ fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) is often found on elder, dead or alive. Known as a delicacy in China, it is best cooked sliced into thin strips, in a spicy, oriental-style soup.

Further Resources

Watch

Living With The Land: Part 9 – 21st Century Foraging

Books

The Forager's Garden
by Anna Locke

Articles

How to Make Cordials, Naturally

About the Author

Chris Hope, aka Chris Phyto, was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic plant lover, forager and teacher, who sadly died in 2021.