The Excellent Elder Tree Provides Medicine and Food.

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman

The countryside of Lancashire in common with many regions of the U.K. are awash with the creamy frothy blooms of the common Elder,Sambucus nigra. Although it is often named as the elder tree it is more allied to a tall shrub than a tree. It is one of the a very few species of tree that almost every part is useful in one way or another to man. It has been used in medicine and for domestic purposes . The leaves the bark, flowers and fruits have all been utilised in one way or another for centuries. {see medicinal and culinary purposes below}.

The tree is steeped in folklore. It was planted over the graves of murderers in the belief that the roots would draw the corruption from the ground. It was thought that the spirit of the elder could be seen screaming in the flames if elder was burned. Another belief was that if you cut the elder down the spirit of the tree would follow the person home and bad luck would befall on the perpetrator. These beliefs were deep rooted in the countryside and neatly trimmed hedges were often interrupted by a tall straggling elder tree left untouched. It is still possible to encounter such hedgerows today in various parts of the country.

Another saying that alludes to the elder is that the English summer only begins when the elder is fully in flower and ends when the berries are ripe. The Anglo Saxons referred to the tree as Eldrun, Aeld meaning fire. The hollowed out stems were used to blow the bottom of fires to get them started in the manner of which bellows were later employed.

Because the foliage is said to repel flies and other insects it was often planted by outside toilets and abattoirs. In medieval times a lotion made from the leaves was applied on the body as a fly repellent. It was said to have kept the flies away, the problem being it also kept your friends away as well!.

It is another tree said to ward off evil spirits. Crosses made from elder were placed over doorways house , stables and cow sheds to keep occupants safe from evil entities. There are records from days gone by that claim farmers utilised elder leaves to drive mice away from granaries and moles from their usual haunts.

The foliage and flower buds of elder . Photograph by D.A.L.
The foliage and flower buds of elder . Photograph by D.A.L.

Basic Biology of the Elder Tree.

It is commonly described as being somewhere between a shrub and a tree in habit and height. It can achieve the height of 10metres but is usually much less as a rule. The outline of the tree in leaf is broadly columnar which often includes untidy growth  and arching branches.

The shrubby habit of the tree often sees stems sprouting from the base. The wood of elder is often covered in moss and a fungus, known commonly as the Jews ear fungus, is often found growing on the wood of elder.

The Leaves.---The foliage of elder is one of the first to break bud in early spring. Locally they may break as early as March.They are borne opposite to each other, stalked and composed of 5-7 oval or elliptical leaflets which have toothed margins.The foliage has a unique smell that many people dislike. The whole leaf is from 5-30cm long.

Elder is one of the first leaves to break bud . Often as early as March. Photograph by D.A.L.
Elder is one of the first leaves to break bud . Often as early as March. Photograph by D.A.L.
The jews ear fungus is associated with the older wood of elder. Photograph courtesy of Apus.
The jews ear fungus is associated with the older wood of elder. Photograph courtesy of Apus.
Elder foliage with the flowers of red campion peeping through them.Photograph by D.A.L.
Elder foliage with the flowers of red campion peeping through them.Photograph by D.A.L.

FLOWERS--The flowers are a creamy white colour, fragrant and grow in a some what flat headed clusters composed of numerous individual flowers, 6-10mm broad. There are 5 stamens with yellow anthers which greatly contribute to the creamy colour of the head.

The flowers give way to fruits {botanists refer to them as drupes}. They are green at first but by the autumn they become the familiar dark purplish black familiar to all country folk. They hang in dense clusters.

The twigs and branches of elder have in their center a white pithe which may easily be removed. The hollowed out branches were often made into pipes which were played in the same manner as the modern day recorder.

The flat topped clusters of elder flowers. Photograph by D.A.L.
The flat topped clusters of elder flowers. Photograph by D.A.L.

Medicinal and Culinary Uses.

It is difficult to know where to start with the virtues of this fine tree. However, the parts used in medicine and for culinary uses are familiar to us all so I will begin with the leaves.

LEAVES- The leaves were employed as a lotion and applied to sprains and bruises. They were formerly used in the preparation of an ointment known as Green Elder Ointment, as a domestic remedy for bruises, sprains and chilblains and for applying to wounds. Green leaves were warmed between flat stones and applied as hot as possible to relieve nervous headaches.

FLOWERS--These creamy white flowers may be eaten straight from the tree as I have done many many times over the course of many years. The flowers, fresh and packed into a container such as an airtight jam jar and filled with water makes an excellent lotion for skin complexions.

They may also be dried and then infused with boiling water which is regarded as being excellent for healing, being soothing, and cooling. It also can be utilised to cure headaches by being applied to the temples. Elder vinegar also made from the flowers is an age old recipe for sore throats. The fresh flowers gathered in their clusters with as much stalk as possible can be deep fried after being coated with a home made batter composed of flour and water. The frying process takes but a minute until they are golden brown and crisp. They taste delicious.

The flowers make excellent cordials and wine much favoured by country folk.

THE BERRIES-The berries have long been employed to make a strong cordial known as elder berry "Rob" This was taken at hot at bedtime and is an excellent beverage to ease tight chesty coughs, colds and flu symptoms. Like the flowers they also make an excellent country wine. Both the elder flower wines and cordials and the elder berry wines and cordials can be purchased from many outlets ready prepared to drink. I can recommend all beverages made from the fruit and flowers.

It should be noted however, that eating the raw berries is not recommended because the tiny stalks can irritate the kidneys. They also have a somewhat bitter taste. The Romans used the juice from the berries to dye their hair.

The berries were used to make a kind of ketchup and elder berry chutney. Elder berry and apple jam. Elder berry syrup which was also given for people with colds. I have mentioned but a few of the culinary preparations that can be made from the fruits and flowers But the diversity of products is there to see.

The elder, Sambucus nigra is like an old friend to country people and I seldom pass the tree without tasting the flowers and later collecting the fruit for home use. In our region it is difficult to take a walk in the countryside without happening upon this most useful of our trees.

This fine old elder tree is now clad with ivy but still produces a plethora of blooms despite its old age. Photograph by D.A.L.
This fine old elder tree is now clad with ivy but still produces a plethora of blooms despite its old age. Photograph by D.A.L.

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Comments 12 comments

les skelhorn 3 years ago

cut some leaves from newest shoots,slightly cut up,put in jar, cover with olive oil,add a sprigg of mint,this is poison, do not take, use it as rubbing lotion for any pain,,i have a new life after months of pain, it also slows epilepsy, NB., it can be strong, so start with a little bit, brill


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Hi , lucieanne eldery berry wine is delicious especially if you have taken the time to make it your self. Thank you for the visit and your kind comments.


lucieanne profile image

lucieanne 6 years ago from Boston United Kingdom

I absolutely love the Elder tree. I love the heady scent of the blossom, a sign of summer, and I once took my sons collecting berries to make wine, which I did, and it turned out really well. I never knew about the Romans using the juice for hair dye.

This is a lovely hub and I really enjoyed reading it

Regards

Lucie


hypnodude profile image

hypnodude 6 years ago from Italy

I love it, this tree has so many uses that's amazing. And it's also beautiful. Given that it wards off evil it's certainly needed in every home. :)

Rated up and awesome, shared with followers, stumbled and bookmarked.:) Should I also say that the pictures are great as always?


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

MMMoney , nice to meet you thank you for your visit and for taking the time to comment.Appreciated.


MMMoney profile image

MMMoney 6 years ago from Where U Can Make More Money

very nice and useful info


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

tantrum, Elder flower water is delicious thank you for visiting and for taking the time to comment.

lelanew55, your welcome. thank you too, for taking the time to comment


lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago

Very nice hub on this very useful plant. I learned a lot about its culinary uses. Thanks for sharing.


tantrum profile image

tantrum 6 years ago from Tropic of Capricorn

I used to drink in London an Elder's flowers water. I think it was from Booots or M&S. Great hub ! Cheers ! :)


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

PeggyW, glad you found it interesting. Thank you.

Hi Darski Thank you too for visiting I thought you would be amused by the fungus. God bless.

Kaie, I try to please. Glad that you have found it educational and thank you for your kind comment.


Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 6 years ago

You have the best information in your Hubs; I love that you educate about things I know absolutely nothing about. Trees are NOT my forte......... but don't tell my Grandfather.......... his family owned a nursery, and he seriously tried to instill his love of trees in us; I love them, but don't know much about them! Thanks for this- Kaie


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

What an amazing tree! I enjoyed hearing all about the folklore associated with it as well as the culinary and medicinal uses. Rating this USEFUL! Thanks!

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