Elder ( Sambucus nigra)

One of the first things I made as part of my first year as a herbal apprentice was an elder bark salve. Now I had known that you could use the flowers, leaves and fruits of a plant, but never really considered using the bark.

Elder is a tree seen throughout the countryside and towns. The bark is light grey when it is a young plant but changes to dark grey as it ages. It flowers late spring to mid summer. The flowers are white and very delicate, almost like lace and very tiny, but as they grow in clusters, they look bigger. Their scent is very floral. Commercially bought elderflower drinks are sweet and have a hint of the floral taste, but when you make your own cordial, it is very heady with the scent of the flowers. I made some cordial following the recipe on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s website, but I think the water I put on the flowers was too hot. It burnt the flowers, turning the liquid a dirty brown colour instead if the clear or slightly green tinge I was expecting. It tasted ok, but I think this year I will try a different recipe.

I also discovered that you can make elderflower fritters! I haven’t made these yet, again this is something I may try this year. I have seen many recipes showing that you dip the flower heads in batter and cook them flower side down. What these recipes also show is that the stalks are still attached to the flower heads. It is important to note that the green parts of the plant are poisonous. Eating a few green stalks is ok, but if you eat too many, they will make you sick. This is the purgative effect of the plant!

I discovered a recipe on honest-food.net which shows how to make these fritters using as much of the flower head and as little of the stalk as possible. They look yummy and this will be the recipe I try I think. I’ll let you know how it goes!

The flowers of the elder stimulate sweating and therefore can be used to help move on a common cold or influenza and fever. If making a tea from the flowers, leave the tea to cool and the liquid can be used to ease the discomfort of conjunctivitis, by applying cotton wool pads soaked in the liquid.  If you have tired and puffy eyes, the cotton wool pads soaked in the tea could help to reduce the puffiness. The flowers have anti-inflammatory qualities. The flowers are soothing and therefore a tea made of the flowers can also assist in relaxing you, reducing stress. ” Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine” ( also known as my personal bible!) describes a lot of uses for elder for both the flowers and the berries. For the flowers he says that cold tea has a laxative and sedative effect whereas hot tea excites and stimulates! I will have to try both and see what happens, and if I catch it in between these temperatures, will I experience all four effects at once?

The fruits of the elder appear in autumn. I gathered many, many of these fruits this time round and made myself a few things from them, I also froze some fruits to use later on.

I made a version of an elderberry rob, by putting 2lbs of fruit in a pan and covering it with water. I added 6 cloves, half a grated nutmeg and a cinnamon stick and brought it to the boil. I let it simmer for approx 30 minutes then I strained it. I squeezed out all of the juice from the berries, then I added sugar to taste. Some people may like their rob quite sweet, some may prefer a slightly bitter taste, so I think add sugar accordingly. Or as an alternative, after straining the liquid, add honey to it. I then added a small amount of vodka to help preserve it and bottled it up. I have to say, it didn’t last long as I liked the taste so much, it was gone within a week! Sorry if quantities sound a little vague, but I got so excited about being able to make things, I didn’t write anything down ( I can hear Sarah now saying “write it down and take photos”). I would have to say though, between drinking my elderberry rob and my rosehip syrup I made, I haven’t had a cold all over the winter! Usually I would get one. I have had the occasional sneeze and slightly runny nose, but no cold!

Obviously, with the huge glut of elderberries I had, I attempted to make elderberry wine. I’ve never made wine before, not even with the wine kits you can get, so this was an experience. I wanted to follow recipes, Mr Earth on the other hand took the male approach of ” bung it all in and see what happens”! So we tried a few approaches. I have to say, one batch of the wine tastes ok, like a cabernet sauvignon, the other is quite sharp, like a shiraz. I have been told that if I leave it in the bottles for a few months, it will become more palatable. I will have to see. At the moment, I may use the bottle I have opened to make a tonic wine. With elderberries having a high vitamin C content, a tonic wine made with this should be very beneficial, provided I can actually drink it!

Anyway, to the bark. My friend Lorraine gave me some of her elder in order for me to make this salve. I made this by stripping the bark off the twigs and branches. I used young looking twigs and branches as we discovered that the older looking ones were dry and broke easily. Having stripped the bark off, I placed half of this in a bowl and covered them with sunflower oil. I covered the bowl and placed this in a pan of water. I brought the water to the boil and left it to simmer for approximately 2 hours, checking regularly to make sure the water hadn’t dried up. After this time, I strained the oil through some muslin and discarded the used bark, retaining the oil. I then put the rest of the bark back into the bowl I had used and covered it with the oil I had just strained. I put the lid on and again put it in a pan of simmering water for another 2 hours. I strained it all off again, retaining the oil. The oil was a lovely green colour. This process is creates a double infused oil. This is a process taught to me by Sarah Head and she describes this in more detail on her blog, “Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife”.

I placed the oil in the bowl again and placed this over a pan of simmering water. I then added some beeswax, enough to make it thicken slightly then removed it from the heat and poured it into the jar, leaving it to set. This was the result.

This bark salve can be used for bruises, however at the time, I did’t have any bruises to try it out on! So I still have this to try out.

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