When we first moved out to the country eleven years ago, a friend asked me if there were any elder shrubs growing on the property. At the time, I didn’t know what elder was, but she was long familiar with the plant and its uses.
After consulting herb books so that I would know what to look for, I found American elder (Sambucus canadensis) in a neighbor’s abandoned pasture. I painstakingly transplanted a young plant, which eventually grew into a vigorous shrub, and since then elder has established itself elsewhere on my property as well. Each year I eagerly await its harvest of sweet-smelling blossoms and edible purple berries.
As time passed and I learned more about herbs, I became aware of the importance herbalists of old gave to my plant’s European counterpart, S. nigra. I ran across many references to the wonders of elder-flower water, and I wanted to try making some myself.
In A Modern Herbal (1931), for example, Maud Grieve states that elder-flower water “in our great-grandmothers’ days was a household word for clearing the complexion of freckles and sunburn. . . . Every lady’s toilet table possessed a bottle of the liquid.”
Mrs. Grieve gives specific instructions for home preparation.
Fill a large jar with Elder blossoms, pressing them down, the stalks of course having been removed previously. Pour on them 2 quarts of boiling water and when slightly cooled, add 1 1/2 oz. of rectified spirits. Cover with a folded cloth, and stand the jar in a warm place for some hours. Then allow it to get quite cold and strain through muslin. Put into bottles and cork securely.
That sounded simple enough, so one June I gathered a sackful of blooming flower heads. I removed the larger stems and spread them out on the screens in my drying shed. I was glad those flowers were drying away from the house because, as days passed, they took on a distinctive odor. I hesitated to go near the shed. As the fragrance intensified, the flowers darkened. I poured the overpowering brown mass into a plastic container, put the lid on tightly, and forgot all about them. When I finally dumped them out, they were certainly beyond any usefulness.
The next year, as the frothy blossoms began to reappear, I decided to try again. Returning to A Modern Herbal, I read, “The flowers are not easily dried of good color.” If Mrs. Grieve’s elder flowers took on a “dingy brownish-yellow” color as they dried, maybe I was on the right track after all. This time I took care to remove as much stem as possible, which took me two hours of concentrated effort.
Heeding Mrs. Grieve’s advice that they can be dried in a cool oven with the door open, I spread the flowers on cookie sheets and set my electric oven on its lowest setting. When mealtime came around, I checked the flowers, which were the right color even though they weren’t completely dry.
I dumped them into a large bowl to cool until after supper. With the water on to boil, I checked the dictionary for clarification of “rectified spirits”. One of Webster’s definitions of “rectified” is “made pure”. My husband cleared up the confusion. “You need something like white lightning,'' he said. That’s not normally found on my pantry shelf, but a quick trip to the liquor store produced a bottle of Everclear, 190 proof alcohol.
Interpreting “a large jar” to mean a gallon container, I observed that my three cups of dried flowers lacked considerably filling it. Nevertheless, I boiled six cups of water, poured it over the blossoms, let it cool, added the Everclear, and placed a piece of plastic wrap between the jar and lid. Labeled and dated, the jar went into a dark closet to distill. Checking its contents a few days later, I discovered a gray fuzz growing. Oops! Out the back door it went.
As the elder flowers were still in bloom, I decided to give it one more try. I consulted Odena Brannam, a woman from the Dallas area whom I had known for a decade and who, in fact, first introduced me to herbs. Of course, she knew how to make elder-flower water, she said, passing on these casual instructions:
Fill a bowl with elder flowers and cover with boiling water. Steep until cool. Strain and add a tablespoon of pure alcohol. You may omit the alcohol, but then the lotion will have to be kept in the refrigerator and will not keep for more than a week.
Shortly thereafter, I was the proud producer of two small bottles of authentic elder-flower water. I haven’t actually used it often; the adventure of making it was enough to satisfy me. And the bottles here on my shelf represent a tenuous thread linking me back to milady’s castle stillroom of long ago.
Gay Ingram is an herb gardener and occasional teacher in Big Sandy, Texas. She produces a bimonthly newsletter called Comfrey Chatter.