Elderberries – A Spoonful of Sugar Helps The Medicine Go Down

At this time of year, we see the magnificent deep purple drooping bunches of elderberry. These are fruit that resulted from the white flowers that were missed by the brewers of elderflower champagne, or if you are like me, the makers of elderflower cordial. I am sure you know the tree; it does not tend to grow very high and is often referred to as a shrub with a small number of long branches from a short bore and long twigs reaching towards the sunlight. Its bark is slightly spongy or corky in texture and wood ear fungus can sometimes be found growing on it. The pinnate leaf structure – not too dissimilar to ash – has 5 or 7 spear shaped serrated pairs of leaves with a terminal leaf. Culpepper in his Complete Herbal (1653) noted that the elder was planted in hedgerows to help strengthen fences and to hold the banks by ditches and watercourses.

Elder has a rich association with folklore being associated with faeries who liked to dance to music played from whistles made from the twigs with the spongy pith removed. But beware, the lore goes that the faerie maids would seek to lure young men to dance with them until they dropped dead with exhaustion. Another quite well-known folk story, goes that the old lady of the elder should be asked nicely if you wish to take the wood for burning. Although why anyone would wish to burn it is beyond me… we sometimes have people collect it on our courses, and if we are not vigilant, it finds its way onto the fire. The result is quite a lot of acrid smoke that stings the eyes and makes me cough. The old lady can keep her wood to herself thanks.

Photo credit: Matthew Robinson
Photo credit: Matthew Robinson

It also is associated with the devil – possibly as a way of removing the link with pagan beliefs. The burning of the wood was reputed to bring the devil to your door – given what I have experienced with burning elder, I can see why that was believed. However, planting an elder by your back door was said to keep the devil away.

As well as the rich folklore surrounding the tree, it has a long history of medicinal use. The leaves do not smell great and were once used as fly repellent. But it is the flowers and berries that are most well known for their health properties. The flowers, fresh or dried, were steeped in hot water to make a tea that would induce sweating to help break a fever, while the berries are well known for their use to ease coughs, colds and flu. Even these days we can find cough and cold sweets and drops using elderberry in well known pharmacies in the UK. And there does seem to be some clinical evidence for their effectiveness. Some clinical trials have shown that 93% of people with flu symptoms who took elderberries saw a significant improvement in 2 days, while those taking a placebo did not see an improvement for 6 days, This was not a one off study, a double-blind randomised control trial which included a placebo, found that on average, people taking the elderberry reported that their symptoms eased 4 days earlier than those taking the placebo.

On a recent series of autumn forages in our woods, we have visited the elder tree and discussed its properties and folklore. Indeed, we have picked the fruit and used it to flavour a jus for the main meal and included it in a crumble. One word of caution should be made here, the elder is considered toxic, the leaves and stems contain cyanogenic glycosides which can make you sick. The berries should be cooked and not eaten raw. On these forages I have sometimes included an elderberry vinaigrette which I have made at home and talked about my amazing elderberry cordial. I was introduced to the elderberry vinaigrette by one of the other instructors at Woodland Ways a few years ago, and since then have collected enough elderberries to make sure I have enough to make it throughout the year (I freeze the berries and make it fresh each time). I use it on salads, as a dressing to a hot meat dish, and to add to the pan after I have cooked meat to flavour as a gravy. The cordial is a standard method of making cordial, but I really enjoy it. All of it is medicine… such a fantastic way to stave off colds and flu!

Here are the recipes:

Elderberry Vinaigrette
350g Elderberries
500ml Distilled vinegar
175g Sugar for every 260ml of liquid
• Strip the elderberries from the stalks using a fork
• Add the berries to the vinegar in a jar with a lid and leave for 5-7 days agitating it every day
• Strain into a pan and add 175g of sugar for every 260ml of liquid.
• Boil for 10mins to dissolve the sugar and thicken the liquid.
• Allow to cool and bottle it.

Elderberry Cordial
500g Elderberries
500ml Water
350g Sugar
Lemon zest from half lemon + teaspoon lemon juice
• Strip the elderberries from the stalks using a fork
• Place in a pan along with the lemon zest. Cover with the water and simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes, until the berries have broken down. Skim away any scum that appears on the surface
• Strain the juice through a muslin cloth into a pan. Squeeze the berries to extract as much juice as possible
• Add the sugar and lemon juice. Gently heat on the hob and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
• Bottle in sterilised bottles.

Luckily, it is just the right time to pick more elderberries! Image: Mark Sharwood

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