Medicine, Music and Midsummer Fairies - the multipurpose Elder
Updated: Jul 21
Elder often goes unnoticed as it is usually quite a small spindly tree - more of a shrub really - but they are easy to see now with their big bunches of tiny creamy white flowers hanging in hedges and gardens. It's the perfect time to make elderflower cordial - the taste of summer! You can find a recipe for cordial here. Elder flowers can also be fried in batter and dipped in honey to make a sweet summer treat.
Elderflower cordial method;
There are lots of traditional herbal remedies that use elder flowers - they can be used fresh or dried, to treat coughs and sore throats, and colds - see here for a simple way to relieve sinusitis. The elder will be flowering for another week or two if the weather stays dry, so collect the flowers as soon as you can - ideally in the sunshine.
The flowers quickly turn to berries - you can see them starting off hard and green at the moment, and they'll swell to become clusters of dark purple berries through the summer. They'll be ripe by September. They are quite sour so you probably don't want to eat them straight off the tree (although eating a handful won't harm you), but they are used in medicine similarly to the flowers - to relieve coughs and sore throats - and some people say they make the best home-made red wine.
When you're sick of eating runner beans, you could try the elderberry and runner bean wine recommended in C J Berry's book 'First Steps in Winemaking'! If you'd rather not go foraging, then plenty of wildlife will thank you for leaving the elder trees alone - the flowers are great for bees and other pollinator insects, and the berries are an early autumn feast for birds, mice and voles.
The flowers and berries aren't the only useful parts of the elder tree - the bark and leaves have been used in traditional herbal medicine, and the branches can be easily hollowed out and used to make musical instruments like whistles and pipes. This website has more great 'forest school' ideas for using elder.
Perhaps because it is such a useful tree to humans, there is a lot of myth and legend about elder. It was thought that the tree protects a house against evil spirits or the devil. There is a legend that elder trees hold the spirit of the Elder Mother - a wise old woman who can give protection and advice - and just as it was thought to be good luck to have an elder growing near your house, it is bad luck to chop one down and upset the Elder Mother. Elder trees are said to be the most popular trees with all fairies - if you sit under your nearest elder tree this midsummer (20th June!) you might be lucky enough to see a fairy passing by... or you might just enjoy a moment of peace to enjoy the birds and insects who will themselves be making the most of the longest day!
Always forage responsibly:
Elderflower cordial recipe & method; https://docs.zoho.eu/file/45g1922aac357a49f405a9e02b880bc4cc764
Elderflower fritters & honey recipe; https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/elderflower-fritters-honey
M Corkhill's 'Natural Remedies' book, including how to relieve sinusitis;
Corkhill M (2001), Natural Remedies – Self Sufficiency, London, New Holland Publishers Ltd,
Forest School suggestions for using elder wood; https://richardirvine.co.uk/2017/01/elder1/
C J Berry's 'First Steps in Winemaking';
Berry, C, (2002) First Steps in Winemaking, 9th Ed, Poole, Special Interest Model Books Ltd,
More about the myths and folklore of elder trees on the Trees For Life website;