There's something truly special about the elder, or Sambucus, plant and I've always felt a special connection to it. Not only does it proclaim to the world that summer is approaching and provide culinary and medicinal benefits, but it also somehow manages to be both utterly wild and elegantly refined at the same time. The plant is likely called "elder" because it is so old that you can find varieties of it around the world. It's no surprise then that so many cultures have different symbolisms and uses attached to Sambucus including (but definitely not limited to) the below.
- Shakespeare: Grief (the "stinking elder"), yet also beloved
- Pagan: Superstitions around cutting it back or burning it (will cause bad luck)
- Danish: The elder Mother or "vegetation goddess" lives in the tree (HyldeMoer) - you need to ask her permission before cutting it.
- Sicilians: Kill serpents and drive away robbers
- Serbians: Good luck if used during the wedding ceremony
- England: Hold in pocket to ward off lightning, cross above animals to ward off evil
Supposed Medicinal Uses (Note: I have not looked into the scientific evidence supporting any of the below, but rather wanted to show the breadth of supposed medicinal uses)
- Bark: Purgative, emetic, diuretic, asthma (not consumed anymore due to toxins)
- Leaves: Bruises/sprains, wound healing, expectorant, diuretic (not consumed anymore due to toxins)
- Flowers: Tea for swollen sinuses, colds, flu, diabetes, constipation, rheumatism, influenza, relaxant, complexion, blood purification
- Berries: Hot wine for influenza, asthma, juice for antiviral/antibacterial
The elder tree can grow up to 25 feet tall and has reddish bark and pinnate leaves opposite of each other. The tiny star-shaped flowers, which bloom in May/June, are a yellowish white/cream color and grow in clusters. The elder plant that you will find in Northern California (and most of the Western United States) is Sambucus cerulea, also known as blue elder for it's dark blue berries. The berries can be found later in the summer, are a bluish/black often with a whitish powder sheen and also grow in large clusters.
ELDERFLOWER AND ELDERBERRIES MUST BE PROCESSED BEFORE CONSUMING. Don't just go around grabbing handfuls and consuming them raw like you would blackberries! However, the berries may be fine in small amounts and both berries and flowers are definitely safe after cooking or drying. When using the flowers, such as in this elderflower chive fritter recipe, it's best to remove as much of the stem as possible, but some stem is fine if cooked.
My first experience with elderflower (other than St.Germain) was during my stint as a visiting researcher at the Nordic Food Lab in Denmark. We spent a morning riding all over Copenhagen to forage huge clusters of elderflowers and stuffing them into sacks before plucking the flowers to be used in a fermented cordial. I still fondly remember being covered in pollen afterward while enjoying a well-deserved chocolate rye roll. Denmark is really a magical place and elderflowers unsurprisingly about there. The elderflowers you find in Denmark are most likely to be Sambucus nigra rather than the Sambucus cerulea that is found in California and are a bit larger and whiter, but both have the same beautiful fragrance and uses. As I left Denmark before the berries came out and just recently found a spot for elder in California, I have yet to experiment with the berries, but am greatly looking forward to doing so this summer!
Classic Elderflower Cordial
What is essentially diluted simple syrup, cordial is the most common way to preserve this special summer forage. Enjoy in beverages from lemonade to champagne or drizzle over desserts such as huckleberry pound cake and panna cotta. Makes 1 liter.
20 medium elderflower heads (about 2-3'' across)
Grated zest of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 lemons
4 cups water
3.5 cups sugar
1 teaspoon citric acid (optional, will help the cordial keep for longer)
Inspect the elderflower heads carefully and remove any insects. Remove flowers from most of stems (especially the large ones), wash by quickly submerging in cold water, and drain. Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with the lemon zest.
Bring water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
Strain the liquid through cheesecloth and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar and the lemon juice. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilized bottles and seal with a sterilized cap or cork. Bottles can be sterilized by washing with soapy water then plunging into boiling water for 5 minutes and allowing to air dry.
Allow to cool then store in the refrigerator or freezer. Without citric acid, cordial will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks and in the freezer for 1 year. Try freezing the cordial in smaller batches and use as needed.