Look carefully as you drive along rural meadows next to wooded stream beds and you might spot the first of the elder blossoms. Deb Soule insists that this plant is magical, and I have to agree withher. In fact, after a little digging I found plenty of lore surrounding the mystical qualities of this shrub. Planted near wells and the doors of just-married, much superstition surrounded this plant in European history. Witches that spring out if you cut it down, were also warded off by the shrub itself. In Germanic societies elder became the symbol of life and death, as well as luck and protection.
I had my own magical experience with elder many years ago. The perfectly ripe flowers at my grandfather's farm were ready for harvest, but I was so exhausted I had trouble motivating myself to get them. Since flowers don't last long, I forced myself and soon was immersed in the tall spindly branches loaded with ivory flower clusters. Quite suddenly I felt the sensation of gentle hands on my back and shoulders and a great happiness filled me. By the time I had finished my task, my energy and spirit were restored. Perhaps just the act of getting outdoors and doing something I love helped me feel better, but I feel convinced there was a bit of magic in the air about those bushes.
Traditionally the flowers of this plant have been used for nasal and sinus congestion. Steeping the fresh or dried blossoms makes a refreshing tea that helps alleviate inflamed mucus membranes. This is my go-to tea for head colds and sinus infections. However the flowers have many wonderful culinary uses, originating in northern Europe. From batter-fried umbels (that’s what the flower clusters are called) to cake imbued with a cordial of the blossoms, the taste is unique and possibly acquired. These days I have less time to make medicine, or even forage for wild foods, but I never fail to pick the elder blossom and make my favorite Scandinavian specialty: Elderflower Salt. This traditional recipe can be adapted to suit modern tastes. I simply toss the separated flower clusters with celtic sea salt, garlic scapes, lemon rind and a bit of red pepper flakes. After curing in the sun, I store this salt in pretty jars, perfect for spontaneous gifts to herbal friends. It makes a marvelous rub for grilled meat, fish or veggies.
The berries of Sambucus nigra have also been used by herbalists for centuries to ward off flu. All kinds of delicious concoctions can be created from the berries, but always they are cooked before ingesting, as the raw berries are somewhat toxic. Two of my favorite elderberry tonics are Elderberry Elixir by Avena Botanicals and Elderberry Syrup by Tooth of the Lion Apothecary. While the first is sweet and delightful to the palate of a child, the second is an artful combination of yarrow, goldenrod, elderberry and ginger. It makes a delightful before-bed-aperitif.
I am gathering a collection of recipes using elder flowers and berries and would love to feature yours. Feel free to email me, or make a comment here, and toot your horn a little if you have a product to sell. I will be posting all recipes on my online forum, GingerJuice.