This native herbal shrub bears tasty blossoms and berries that can fight colds and flu.
Certain flavors, like scents, can simply transport you. Shortly after I moved to Bavaria, I settled in at a window table in a restaurant in southern Germany with a glass of golden Sekt sparkling wine. A splash of elderflower syrup had been added, and each sip sparked memories of my childhood: gathering elder blossoms with my grandmother on an early summer day in the hills of central Missouri … sitting next to my grandfather at the table, digging into a plate of warm elderflower pancakes … cutting clusters of shiny, black-purple elderberries in early autumn to make delicious syrup for winter.
Throughout the Werdenfelser region of Bavaria, elder bushes herald the arrival of summer with saucer-sized clusters of lacy white flowers. It’s impossible to miss the plants—they can be found in the centers of towns, as well as in surrounding meadows and pastures. The umbels of tiny, five-petaled flowers produce a subtle but unmistakable scent. When the berries begin to form several weeks later, the delicate white blossoms drift softly to the ground like snowflakes. By early autumn, the shrubs are covered with heavy clusters of nutritious, black-purple berries.
The elder is by no means unique to Germany. It is indigenous to broad stretches of the Northern Hemisphere—from North America, Europe and Asia, and into North Africa along the Mediterranean coast. In North America, the native species is Sambucus canadensis, commonly called American elder; its European relative is S. nigra, know as European elder or black elder. Although both have served as a medicine chest for millennia, you’ll find elder’s flavor reason enough to hunt down a shrub for making delicious treats with its berries and blossoms. Don’t want to walk a country mile for your elder? This shrub is easy to grow and lovely in the landscape.
The entire elder plant—flowers, bark, berries and leaves—has sustained generations as a source of food and medicine. Archaeologists found elder seeds in a Neolithic dwelling in Switzerland, and European villagers have planted the shrubs close to their homes for many centuries. Throughout North America, the plant was highly prized by native tribes, who ate the dried berries as a winter staple and used the twigs and fruit in basketry and the branches to make arrows and musical instruments. Native Americans also used elderflowers and berries to treat colds, joint pain, fever, skin problems and more.
The words that denote elder in various languages give clues to its long history and reputation. The genus name Sambucus is derived from the Latin word sambuca, the name of a musical instrument—although just what kind of instrument is open to debate. The English elder comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, aeld or eldrun, which means fire. This association probably developed because the pith of elder stems was used as tinder to start fires. The stems, with the pith removed, were good substitutes for straws, and were used to blow on the fire and encourage it to burn.
The German word for the elder, holunder (and holler, used in Southern German dialects), originates in pre-Christian legends. In the ancient Germanic pantheon, the goddess of life and death, Frau Holle, lived in the elder tree. Of course, any tree with such an illustrious resident would generate many traditions and stories. In one tale, men raised their hats when passing by an elder bush to honor Frau Holle. According to another story, a gardener or farmer had to request Frau Holle’s permission to cut back an elder bush—or else bad luck would certainly result.
Although elders grow wild throughout much of the United States and Canada, you won’t have to hunt for them if you grow them yourself. Fall or early spring are ideal planting times. The shrub can survive as far north as Zone 3, and by its second year, will provide you with scented white blossoms in late May to late June, followed by huge clusters of berries in late August to early October, depending on your location.
Elder is easy to grow in either full sun or partial shade. Choose at least two bushes of the same variety to ensure bigger yields of blooms and berries and plant 6 to 10 feet apart in well-drained, fertile soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Work compost into the soil before planting to add nutrients and help retain moisture—in nature, elder thrives in moist woodland soil and along stream banks. The shrub’s root system is shallow, so tamp the soil firmly in place after planting, and avoid using a cultivator around the shrub; instead, pull weeds by hand. Elder thrives on about an inch of water weekly. If your area does not receive that much rainfall, you’ll need to help out.
You won’t need to prune at all the first two years. In late winter or early spring of the third year, remove any broken or dead canes. To encourage new growth in subsequent years, cut back the oldest canes, which produce less fruit. Any cane more than three years old should be pruned, but try to keep equal numbers of one-, two- and three-year-old canes.
Elder bushes are rarely troubled by plant diseases and pests, but birds love the ripe berries. To increase your own harvest, cover your elder with bird netting just as the berries begin to turn color.
Because elder grows so abundantly near my present home in Germany, I still collect the blossoms and berries from the wild (after asking Frau Holle’s permission, of course). Last June, I headed out in search of the blossoms, toting a cotton bag perfect for foraging expeditions. I came across two huge, fragrant bushes where the gathering was easy. I quickly collected enough blossoms to make syrup, and plucked a few petals from some nearby wild roses to add to the elderflowers. As soon as I got home, I stuffed the blossoms and petals into a glass container, poured in sugar-water syrup, then put the container on the kitchen windowsill. After several days, I strained out the spent blossoms and bottled the rest—enough to last a year’s worth of Sekt.
A few days later, I was back on the hunt. This time, with a different recipe in mind: I wanted to create holundercello—a local version of limoncello, the sweet digestif of Italy’s Amalfi coast. I collected another bag of blossoms, then put them in the glass jar along with a bundle of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and the peels of some organic lemons from a local market, then covered it all with vodka. After a month, the vodka turned deep amber and took on a wonderful blend of flavors and scents. I removed the herbs and added sugar syrup to the flavored vodka. After steeping for two more weeks, the holundercello was ready to serve chilled in small crystal glasses.
In late summer, I returned once more—this time to gather clusters of purple-black berries for jam, sauce and soup. Now, during the cold days of winter, I sip my own elder blossom Sekt and elderberry soup, warmed by the memories of gathering the flowers and fruit on sunny summer and early autumn days.
All parts of the elder plant (S. nigra and S. canadensis)—roots, flowers, leaves and bark—have been used medicinally for millenia. Modern research now supports the use of elder syrup as a treatment for coughs and colds. According to the USDA, elderberries are exceptionally rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, which enhance the immune system. The flowers contain flavonoids and rutin, which also are known to improve immune function, especially in combination with vitamin C. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that elderberries also have significant anti-inflammatory and antiviral abilities. In clinical trials, patients taking elderberry extract recovered from the flu earlier, and had less severe symptoms, than patients in a control group.
When using elderberries for food or health, use only ripe black fruit; the red berries of a related species are poisonous.
Cultivated varieties of the elder plant have been developed to produce larger harvests of berries. Order two plants for best yields. Mail-order suppliers include:
• Nature Hills Nursery
• Nourse Farms
Fight colds and flu with elderberry syrup for coughs, and elderberry extract to hasten the end of symptoms; try as a tincture or delicious alcohol-free glycerite.
• Elderberry syrup by Gaia Herbs, $19.99.
• Elderberry extract by Mountain Rose Herbs, $8.50.
• Elderberry glycerite by Herb Pharm, $11.70.
Margie Gibson writes about food, culture, history and natural history. Previously, she worked at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where she wrote about wildlife.
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