Elder trees

Elder flowers
Photo: Penny Woodward

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a deciduous small tree with leaves that are matt green and flowers that are creamy white and sweetly-scented. The flowers grow in clusters up to 20 cm across and are followed by purplish-black berries. There are now numerous cultivars with varying leaf shapes and colours (gold, variegated, green, purple), as well as dwarf and pink-flowered forms.

Elders have been associated with magic and witchcraft for a long time. In Norse culture, elder trees were believed to be under the protection of a spirit woman known as Hylde-Moer or elder mother. If you wanted to cut wood from the tree it was necessary to say 'Old woman give me of thy wood and I will give thee of mine when I grow into a tree'. This was supposed to appease the spirit and stop her from haunting you. An elder planted hear a house was said to repel witches but the most unusual tradition was that if you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer Eve you would see the Fairy King and all his retinue pass by. This, however, may have more to do with the amount of elderberry wine drunk beforehand!

Elders grow in most soils in most positions and in Australia in colder regions can be problem weeds. Trees need cold to set fruit, birds feed on the fruit and deposit seed through bushland where the seeds sprout and grow into new trees. So if you live in a cold region with nearby bush, make sure you harvest the berries before the birds can get to them, or cut the flowers off before the berries form. Prune elders back hard every year, either in late autumn or before the new growth appears in spring. The pruned pieces can be used as cuttings to propagate new plants. They also grow easily from seed planted in autumn.

Flowers and berries are both used in cooking and medicine. Drink tea made from the flowers for hay fever, chronic ear infection, catarrh, sinus infections and to promote sleep. Drinking regularly before the hayfever season can help to reduce the intensity of hay fever attacks. Use the tea as a wash for sunburn, to fade freckles, smooth wrinkles and soften and cleanse the skin. Flowers are also made into cordial and champgne.

Berries are stewed to make jellies, jams and cordials, usually in combination with other fruit especially apples, other wise they will not set. Drink syrup made from the berries right through winter to ward off colds and chills. Leaves, bark and roots should not be taken internally but make useful pest repellent and fungicidal mixtures. Leaves also repel flies and can be tied in bunches near doorways and outside eating areas.

Elderberry and Blackberry Jam
1kg of elderberris
1kg of blackberries

1.5kg sugar

Strip the ripe elderberries from their stalks, and place with the blackberries into a pan. Simmer for 20 mins, crushing the berries with a potato masher. Stir in the sugar until dissolved, then boil hard to setting point, about 15mins. Pour into hot jars.

By: Penny Woodward

First published: January 2022

Related topics

Plants & Vegetables, All Gardens, elderberry, elder tree, Sambucus nigra, What to harvest now
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