Today a post about one plant, my favourite, Elder (Sambucus nigra).
This wonderful ancient healing plant, which has been steeped in mysticism and folklore for millennia, is producing flowers that cheer up almost every hedgerow in town, right now.
Where you find one Elder shrub, you are likely to find others close by. It springs up in the most unexpected places and is a true survivor. It has bumpy, brittle, crooked branches, smelly leaves and phenomenal frothy flower heads, stacked all over the plant. They remind me of small terraces, tilting in almost the same direction, all over the shrub.
This photo shows one of many Elder shrubs, along the Hugo de Vrieslaan hedgerow which provides a boundary for Park Frankendael. Now the flowers are mature and plentiful.
I’ve talked about this plant quite a lot previously, Google Elderflower recipes and you may be amazed by how many people like to eat this flower. Remember to avoid eating the leaves amd twigs, they will likely make you ill. I was refreshing my knowledge of the plant this evening by reading Wild Man Steve Brill’s book, Edible and Medicinal Plants. He talks about an American cousin of our local Sambucus nigra, called Sambucus canadensis and I was surprised to learn that the stems and leaves can sometimes yield cyanide, when a bitter alkaloid and glycoside within them change. So definitely parts of Elder to avoid in your diet!
One piece of Elder history I want to mention today, is how ancient Christians were irritated or threatened by the Elder Mother cult in Europe. The Elder mother was/is said to live within the Elder bush. You should ask her permission to harvest from her tree, should never burn her, should never chop her down, without asking her to leave. Ancient Europeans revered the Elder, welcoming and encouraging it to grow near their homes. the Elder mother protected homes from fire and lightning, kept your cattle safe and of course provided simple medicine for your whole family. This folklore helped to make the shrub commonly available for all manner of uses. In an attempt to rid communities of their attachment to the Elder Mother, the plant became embedded in the most negative ways, within Christian stories. Judas was said to have hanged himself from an Elder and Christ was said to have been nailed to an Elder cross. But of course this couldn’t be true due to the brittle nature of the tree. The tree was also much associated with witchcraft and yet was also said to protect you from witches. It seems that everyone had something to say about this shrub which points to it having had many uses.
I’ll be harvesting some more Elderflowers tomorrow, probably to be broken up and sprinkled into a light batter, some to be added to general cooking (we had it on baked fish last week, very good and interesting), some to make a face wash and some to be dried for use as a fever remedy when needed. I also fancy making some Elder leaf infused oil this weekend, for external use in an ointment. It is often useful on bruises, sprains and chilblains.
Love Elder and she will love you back, but be gentle with her and ask (and listen) when you’d like to take some of her gifts. She has many, many gifts and is not to be overlooked or underestimated.