Witchcraft, myth and magic since the earliest times are associated with the herb Elderberry. It is believed that Judas hanged himself on an Elder tree. Anyone who knows an Elder tree would think this was indeed a miracle! From this it became a symbol of sorrow and was often planted in graveyards.
So What is Elderberry? Elder - Sambucus niger - is a deciduous tree or large shrub native to Europe and Western Asia. There are many different forms of the native tree - notably those with golden or purple/bronze foliage. The fine golden leaves of Sambucus racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea' make it a most desirable shrub for the border - or if planted in a container.
Elderberries grows up to 33ft tall with leaves that are dark green and have a feathery appearance that are divided into five elliptic leaves. Umbrella - shaped clusters of cream scented flowers appear in mid summer, followed by clusters of black fruits on red stalks that swing freely about come autumn time.
Elderflowers as sometimes called, can be grown from seed, plant the seeds in rows about 1inch deep.
Elder will tolerate most soils, make sure it is a well-drained soil and plant in semi shade. Elder will take over your garden if you let it. Cut back hard in early spring. That is why it is seen on so many waste ground areas. It probably prefers a soil that is slightly alkaline - hence its 'residence' so often seen on builder's rubble heaps.
It is normally seen as a troublesome weed in the normal garden environment, but can be controlled to make an interesting colour and interest shrub in the late summer months. It is not unattractive when in flower during May/June either.
Speaking from experience and memories long past, I can vouch that the hollow stems of the Elder make a superb peashooter - though the initial taste is a little dry! The stems though hollow, have a soft pith core. This is removed also to make drainage tubes for removing the sap fro sugar Maple trees.
Elderflower and Elderberries have anti-catarrhal and anti-inflammatory properties. The leaves can be used as an insect repellent. An ointment can be made to use on chilblains, sprains and bruises. Infusions of the flower are used for colds, sinusitis and feverish conditions; it is also used for hay fever. Fresh and dried flowers are used in skin toners, hand creams, and also used in many other cosmetics.
Both the flowers and berries can be used to make many recipes from savoury to sweet. The sweet flower can be used to make syrups, flavour jellies and ice-creams. Use the berries for pickles and chutneys, combine the berries and cook in fruit pies.
The soft drinks manufacturer Fanta, uses the Syrup of Elder flowers in one of its branded soft drinks - Shokata!
Elder is famous for its wines and cordial. Try them hot they are wonderfully soothing. Elderflower wine often being described as Elderflower Champagne! The red wines made from the berries of the Elderberries are normally very rich - and a little 'heady' if too much is imbibed. I will always have the childhood memory of the visiting vicar's wife toddling along the path on her way out - after being feted by my mother - insisting that the wine can do nothing but good!
Elder should never be eaten raw, as the flowers or berries contain a mildly poisonous alkaloid. This is destroyed by cooking.
Elderberry and Elderflower have many uses worldwide, for both flower and fruit applications. The common Elder is common for many beneficial reasons. It is not only an invasive weed!