|Article by Debs Cook|
Elder is surrounded by a profusion of folk lore and stories relating to the use of the wood, berries and flowers, it has more lore associated with it than almost any other herbs, the flowers are said to be more potent if picked on Midsummer’s Eve, and washes for the face have been made by young maidens to help whiten the complexion and stave off freckles. The name Elder comes from the Saxon words 'eller' or ‘kindler’ due to the fact that the hollow stems of elder wood were used as mini bellows to help fires that were dying out to burn. The inner pith of the stems hollow stems have been used to make musical instruments. Other names for Elderflower include: - Black Elder, Common Elder, European Elder, Pipe Tree, Bourtre, Suin, Acte, Judas Tree, Lady Ellhorn, Whistle Tree, Old Lady, Hylder, Hylantree, Eldrum, Ellhorn, Hollunder, Sambuke and Sureau.
In 1644 Martin Blochwich a highly respected German physician of his day, compiled a manuscript in Latin which he called ‘Anatomia Sambuci’, translated ‘The Anatomy of the Elder’, the manuscript was translated into English by C. De Iryngio in 1651 and reprinted in 1677, then promptly faded into obscurity, until someone at the European nutraceutical company called BerryPharma, rediscovered the book whilst doing some research into the use of elderberries as a traditional remedy and decided to get it revised and reprinted in 2010.
The original author intended his manuscript to be a reference guide for his fellow medical practitioners who lived in the villages and countryside’s of Europe. It drew upon the existing traditional remedy works of his time, dating back to Galen and Pythagoras and he added his own experiences with the elder. Blochwich likely chose the elder tree to write about for two reasons, firstly, because it’s various components (berries, flowers, stems, bark, roots and seeds) provide so many different recipes for treating so many illnesses, and secondly, the Elder Tree was and still is one of the most common trees found in Europe. The ‘Anatomia Sambuci’ was one of the earliest medical textbooks to be printed for educational purposes, during a period in European history when witchcraft was still an offence and knowledge was still the protected right of the theologians, the rich and the powerful. However, the newly formed British Royal Society showed their progressiveness by recommending the book to their members in 1677.
Although the ‘Anatomia Sambuci’ disappeared from historical herbal references, Mrs Grieve included references to it in her book ‘A Modern Herbal’ published in 1931, after references to what John Evelyn wrote about the elder in 1664 (see below), she wrote of ‘Anatomia Sambuci’ thus: -
“Some twenty years before Evelyn's eulogy [of the elder] there had appeared in 1644 a book entirely devoted to its praise: The Anatomie of the Elder, translated from the Latin of Dr. Martin Blockwich by C. de Iryngio (who seems to have been an army doctor), a treatise of some 230 pages that in Latin and English went through several editions. It deals very learnedly with the medicinal virtues of the tree - its flowers, berries, leaves, 'middle bark,' pith, roots and 'Jew's ears,' a large fungus often to be found on the Elder (Hirneola auricula Judae).
Evelyn refers to this work (or rather to the original by 'Blockwitzius,' as he calls him!) for the comprehensive statement in praise of the Elder quoted above. It sets forth that as every part of the tree was medicinal, so virtually every ailment of the body was curable by it, from toothache to the plague. It was used externally and internally, and in amulets (these were especially good for epilepsy, and in popular belief also for rheumatism), and in every kind of form - in rob and syrup, tincture, mixture, oil, spirit, water, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, oxymel, sugar, decoction, bath, cataplasm and powder.
Some of these were prepared from one part of the plant only, others from several or from all. Their properties are summed up as 'desiccating, conglutinating, and digesting,' but are extended to include everything necessary to a universal remedy. The book prescribes in more or less detail for some seventy or more distinct diseases or classes of diseases, and the writer is never at a loss for an authority - from Dioscorides to the Pharmacopoeias of his own day-while the examples of cures he adduces are drawn from all classes of people, from Emylia, Countess of Isinburg, to the tradesmen of Heyna and their dependants."
The book makes for a rather interesting read, and if you can obtain a copy it will help you understand why the elder is such a useful tree, if you don’t appreciate it already.
John Gerard in his ‘Generall Historie of Plantes’ first published in 1597 considered the fresh flowers to be useful as a mild laxative to help move things along, but when dried he considered them to ‘lose as well their purging qualitie as their moisture, and retaine the digesting and attenuating qualitie...’ He considered that the vinegar made from dried elderflowers was ‘wholsome for the stomacke: being used with meat it stirreth up an appetite, it cutteth and attenuateth or maketh thin grosse and raw humors.’
Given the whole manuscript that Dr Blochwich wrote in 1651, its surprising that Nicholas Culpeper in his 1653 ‘Complete Herbal’ had very little to say about the common elder tree, Culpeper wrote ‘I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder’, instead he wrote about the Dwarf Elder aka Danewort (Sambucus ebulus) instead, adding references to the young shoots of common elder being eaten boiled like asparagus, and the flowers being used for ‘cleansing the skin of sun-burning and freckles, morphews etc’. Culpeper, echoed almost what William Turner had to say of the elder, back in 1551, Turner also wrote briefly of the elder tree and included references to the dwarf elder that he referred to as Daynwurt. Turner wrote, there are ‘two kinds of Acte - the Greek name for Elder – saith Dioscorides: the one is called Acte, and it riseth up into the fashion of a tree, and this is named English Elder’, on the virtues he declared that both common elder and danewort had similar properties being dry and having the ability to ‘drive water’, interestingly Turner focused more on the leaves, bark, root and berries of elder and made no reference to the use of the flowers. ‘The leaves ‘ he wrote, when ‘sodden and eaten as an eatable herb drive out choler and thin phlegm, and the young stalks sodden in a pot do the same. The root sodden in wine and given in before meat helpeth the dropsy. If it be drunken after the same manner, it good for them that are bitten of the viper. The fruit drunken with wine doth the same: the same laid to maketh the hair black’.
In his book ‘Sylva’ published in 1729, John Evelyn sang the praises of the Elder tree writing that: -
'If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds.' Of the flowers in particular her wrote ‘buds boiled in water gruel have effected wonders in a fever, the spring buds are excellently wholesome in pattages; and small ale in which Elder flowers have been infused is esteemed by many so salubrious that this is to be had in most of the eating houses about our town.' Concluding that of the flowers ‘there be nothing more excellent to ease pains of the haemorrhoids than a fomentation made of the flowers of elder and Verbusie, or honeysuckle in water or milk, for in short it easeth the greatest pain.’
Sir John Hill in his 18th century ‘Family Herbal’ recommended that the flowers be turned into an ointment by boiling them in lard until they are almost crisp, the liquid was then strained off in to jars and used as a cooling ointment for the skin.
Harold Ward, a mid-20th century English medical herbalist included the elder flower in his 1936 book the ‘Herbal Manual’. He recommended that infusions of the flowers be made at a mix of 1oz of flowers to 1 pint of water and the ensuing infusion be taken in wineglass doses. Adding that ‘It [elderflower] is used, often in conjunction with Peppermint and Yarrow, chiefly for the reduction of feverish colds, but inflamed conditions of the eyes are also found to yield to bathing with warm elderflower infusion’, still today elderflower's are as the old herbalists would put it ‘a sovereign remedy’ for colds and flu, being 1 of the 3 ingredients in classic cold and flu tea alongside the peppermint and yarrow that Mr Ward mentions.
|Image by RitaE|
Making Use of Elderflower
The flowers of the elder are anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal, astringent, circulatory stimulant, diaphoretic, diuretic and expectorant, they contain flavonoids including rutin which is an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory properties, phenolic acids, tannins, triterpenoids including amyrin, plant sterols, volatile oils and mucilage.
The ancient Egyptians are said to have discovered the beautifying effect that elderflower's have on the skin and for centuries elderflower's have been employed for use by the cosmetic industry to make cooling and soothing ointments for the eyes, and added to shampoos, conditioners, face creams and eye gels.
The flowers fresh or dried can be used to make sweet syrups or to flavour jellies and ice-creams. They can also be turned into vinegar, cordial and wine. Cooked with gooseberries or rhubarb they add a Muscat wine flavour to the finished dish. The flowers can be used to flavour jellies and ice-creams. They make a refreshing summer cordial and a light wine. Cooked with gooseberries or rhubarb they give a Muscat-like flavour. The flowers can be used to make elderflower water, which can help to lighten the skin, and help freckles be less visible; the water can also help to soften the skin. Elderflower water can also be used as an eye wash.
The flowers when dried can be used to make a pleasant caffeine free tea substitute which has a heady, floral and somewhat fruity flavour and a delightful aroma. To make a mug of elderflower tea add 1-2g of the tea to a teapot or infuser - depending on how strong you like your tea – and pour over enough fresh boiling water as required. Strain into a mug, sweeten with preferred sweetener e.g. honey and serve. Serve without milk, elderflower tea can also be served chilled like ice tea.
The tea can also be used to flavour syrup, cordials, jelly and alcoholic beverages. Cooled unsweetened elderflower tea can be used as a hair rinse to bring shine to light coloured hair. Soaking elderflower tea in distilled water or rose water will give you a fragrant toning lotion for the skin that will clear the complexion, reduce freckles and soothe sunburnt skin. For a treat for tired eyes, soak cotton wool balls in cold unsweetened elderflower tea and then place on the eyes whilst relaxing for 15 - 20 minutes, after this time you may see a reduction in puffiness around the eyes and they will feel less tired.
Powdered elderflower's can be mixed with other herb powders such as dandelion leaf to act as a compost activator. The powdered flowers can also be used to make infusions and decoctions that can added to lotions and creams for the skin. The dried flowers can be used to make sweet syrups or to flavour jellies and ice-creams. The powder can also be used to make a hair rinse to help lighten blonde hair.
Elder & Lemon Thyme Throat Lozenges
These little homemade lozenges are perfect for sore throats and for when you’re feeling a little hoarse, they are my version of a recipe that featured in James Wong’s ‘Grow Your Own Drugs’ series for the BBC back in 2009.
15g Dried Elderflower's
15g Dried Lemon Thyme
30g Golden Linseeds
30g Dried Elderberry Powder
140g Gum Arabic
280g Icing Sugar
900ml (in 675ml and 225ml batches) Hot Water
1. To begin put the elderflower's and lemon thyme into a lidded jug or container and pour on 675ml of freshly boiled water and leave to steep, so that you are left with an herbal infusion. Whilst still warm add 30g of golden linseeds and leave for an hour, the mixture is ready when the liquid starts to have a similar consistency to egg white, this consistency is achieved due to the mucilaginous nature of the linseeds.
2. Whilst the herbs are infusing, grind the gum arabic into the smallest pieces you can, using an electric grinder or a pestle and mortar, the finer the Arabic pieces the quicker it will dissolve in your liquid.
3. Take the 225ml of boiling water and add your crushed/powdered gum arabic to it, and stir using a wooden spoon until the granules of gum have turned into a thick, syrupy consistency.
4. Next strain the elderflower/lemon thyme infusion, and add 335ml of it to gum Arabic, stir in the icing sugar and elderberry powder slowly, to make sure you don’t get lumpy bits. The sugar acts as a preservative and gives the lozenges a little sweetness.
5. Put the rest of the herbal infusion, and the gum arabic/sugar/partial infusion mixture in a pan on a low heat and stir continuously for about half an hour until the mixture becomes a really thick, syrup-like consistency and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can also test by pouring it with the spoon and touching it; if it doesn't stick to your finger it's ready, but do be careful as it could be hot.
6. Finally pour onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and leave to set. When it's hard it's just a case of bashing it until you get the right size pieces. Alternatively fill a deep baking tin/tray with icing sugar and push your middle finger in to it to form ‘moulds’, then using a teaspoon fill each hole. When the lozenges are set, remove them from the icing sugar and store in a dark glass jar somewhere cool.
Debs Cook is the IT Media Manager for the DHM, she is a self confessed herbaholic who loves to write about the way herbs were once used and about the herbalists that used them. You can find out more about Debs over on her Herbal haven blog.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to source the most up to date and accurate information, we cannot guarantee that remedies in our articles are effective, when in doubt, consult your GP or a qualified Medicinal Herbalist. Remember also that herbal remedies can be dangerous under certain circumstances therefore you should always seek medical advice before self-treating with a homemade remedy, especially if you are pregnant, breast feeding or suffer from any known illness which could be adversely affected by self-treatment.