Lesson: Elder Flowers

| August/September 1994

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.

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