There is nothing new under the sun and when it comes to the elder, never a truer word was spoken. Hippocrates mentioned its purgative qualities over 2000 years ago and through the centuries the flowers, leaves, bark and berries of the elder have all been used by herbalists and cooks for their varying properties.
The showy fragrant flowers of the elder are currently back in fashion, popping up as a flavouring in more artisan products than you can shake a stick at. These days you can wash down your elder flower ice-cream with an elder flower cider while sniffing wafts from your elder flower scented soy wax candle. But they are most commonly used at home for making cordials and homemade champagne; bursting forth in spring, bringing the otherwise nondescript elder trees out of hiding across the countryside.
This is when that other recently trendy pastime known as “foraging” takes place and roadside elder trees get denuded of any flower heads within arms reach. If you are lucky enough to find a tree laden to the ground with elder flowers you will probably find a very large ditch between you and it – explaining why it still has flowers. Roadside foraging is all well and good, but I’ve never been a fan because of all the exhaust fumes the poor old plant has endured and also because of the prodigious ability for local councils to drench roadside foliage with herbicide each spring. Finding a friendly farmer was always another option as elder trees can often be found around old cow bales and in hawthorn hedges.
But old cow bales and hawthorn hedges are also on the endangered list and growing your own elder tree is a more straightforward option to ensure your supply of flowers and berries. The elder is a medium-sized deciduous tree that grows prodigiously. It can be pruned heavily to keep it in check if size is an issue. I probably shouldn’t tell you they’re easy to propagate from cuttings, seeing as we sell elder trees, but they are. Take cuttings from elder trees in winter and put them closely together in a pot of damp sand. Come spring they will sprout away and you can prick them out into pots to grow on before planting out the following spring.
Pick elder flowers by snipping the whole flower head from the tree. A gentle shake before putting them in your basket helps dislodge insects. I don’t wash them as I don’t want to lose the precious pollen – another reason to make sure you harvest them from a clean, spray-free tree. The flowers infuse jams with their floral fragrance. Gooseberries are ripe at the same time and make a wonderful jam combination. Nicola Galloway from Home Grown Kitchen steeped elder flowers in a jar of honey last year, which I thought a lovely idea.
I’ve also dried elder flowers by snipping the blossoms onto trays in the dehydrator and have found the dried flowers keep very well in a glass jar. They are great for flavouring fermented sodas and wine vinegar, for use in dressings. A handful of dried flowers steeped in a simple sugar syrup also makes a lovely elder flower concentrate. A bottle of this in the fridge keeps forever and makes an instant cordial with a squeeze of lemon or lime and a summery addition to a glass of bubbles.
There are several varieties of elder you can plant. Elderberry Adam is known for its fruiting qualities, producing large bracts of showy blossoms which ripen into heavy heads of berries late summer. Elderberry Purple Guincho has deep purple foliage and blossoms with a sweet purple tinge. The Golden Elderberry has a showy yellow foliage and creamy white blossoms. These two colourful varieties are not as vigorous as the green leafed elderberry so they make a good choice for a small space. I also have a delicate lacy leafed elderberry which I haven’t formed an opinion on yet.
Although the flowers often steal the show, I am more of a fan of the berries – if I can beat the birds to them. A good bit of advice is not to plant an elder near your clothes line. Let’s just say the purgative properties work as well on the birds as they do on humans and on the stain-o-meter, elder berries are off the chart. When I was a student I used to make a mean elderberry wine with berries “foraged” from Otago beaches and the carpet in one student flat bears testament to the permanence of pigment from an over-zealous fermenting bucket of elderberries.
The berries of the elder ripen in mid summer but they look ripe a lot sooner than they are, due to their intense dark colour. You know elderberries are ripe and ready to pick when the large bracts of berries droop their heads and the stalks start to lose their vigour. Even when they are ripe, elderberries still need to be cooked. Raw elderberries, stalks and leaves contain a toxin that is neutralised by cooking. The good news is that they taste terrible raw, so you are going to want to cook them anyway.
The cooked berries have a lovely rich smokey flavour that lends itself to all sorts of culinary marriages. The sweetness of apple works beautifully with elderberry in jams and jellies and these creations are wonderful with pork or chicken dishes to flavor gravy or serve with cold meats.
Spices like cinnamon and star anise also partner really well with elderberry in a syrup that makes an excellent tonic for what ails you. In particular the treatment of colds, inflammation and those infamous purgatory qualities are all delivered by a good shot of elderberry syrup.
Preparing the berries is best done by running a sink of cold water and giving them a good wash to remove dust and bird poo, then hold the stem of each bunch and run a kitchen fork through it to strip off the berries then discard the stalks. I don’t like using the stalks as they give the cooked berries a stalky bitter flavour.
I adapted my fruit cordial recipe to make the elderberry syrup, adding whole cinnamon and cloves for spice – it has proven a bit medicinal for some palates, so adjust the sweetness to suit. A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down after all.