Elder, Herb of the Year 2013

comments (3) January 24th, 2013

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cookinwithherbs susan belsinger, contributor
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Celebrate Elder, Herb of the Year 2013. The creamy white corymbs of elderflowers are showy and fragrant. Click on other pix to enlarge and read captions.
Elder tree in bloom on woods edge in authors backyard. Generally blooms in late May in my Maryland garden.
I use the flowers to make syrups, cordials, fritters, and dry them for tea.
Close-up of the many tiny flowers that make up an elder bloom.
The berries come late summer, here is a basket of just-harvested elderberries ready to process after stems are removed.
Close-up of the dark purple elderberries; they must be fully ripe in order to eat them; green berries are poisonous.
Elderberry shrub is my favorite thing to make with my ripe elderberries.
Making jelly and jam is a great way to use elderberries.
Both lemon and ginger are flavors that work well with elderberries.
My elderberry cordial is a lovely tipple.
Homemade--the best ingredients--and the best medicine! Heres to Elder, Herb of the Year 2013!
Order a copy of the just-published Elder, Herb of the Year 2013 published by the International Herb Association at www.iherb.org. My recipes for Elderflower Fritters and Elderberry Shrub are in it, along with other recipes, lore, great growing info, medicinal recipes and more!
Celebrate Elder, Herb of the Year 2013. The creamy white corymbs of elderflowers are showy and fragrant. Click on other pix to enlarge and read captions.Click To Enlarge

Celebrate Elder, Herb of the Year 2013. The creamy white corymbs of elderflowers are showy and fragrant. Click on other pix to enlarge and read captions.

Photo: Susan Belsinger

This year the International Herb Association has chosen Elder (Sambucus spp.) as Herb of the Year for 2013. It is an ancient plant, which has been revered for centuries and there are many myths, lore and legend associated with elder. Probably the one heard most often is in regard to Hylde-Moer, (also called Lady Elder, Lady Tree, Old Lady, Lady Ellhorn, Hulda, Holda, Hyldor and Frau Holle) often called the Elder Mother, who possesses magical powers from making and breaking spells to providing protection and healing. Her appearance is that of an elderly woman from the forest, be it crone or granny woman, who wears a green dress. If one wanted to cut elder for wood or trim the hedgerow, one had to speak with respect and ask permission from the Elder Mother. If one did not recognize her presence or did not ask permission to harvest the tree, then bad luck would surely befall them.

The Celts held elder as a sacred tree and their word aeld is related to Eld, or land of the fairies. Pieces of elder wood were worn in amulets around one's neck, branches and crosses were hung in homes and barns to ward of evil spirits, snakes and lightning. Branches were also employed when herding animals or a twig or two were worn in one's hat while working in the field to repel insects. Our native American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, syn. S. nigra L. ssp. canadensis) also called American black elderberry, common elderberry, sambucus and sweet elder, is a close relative of the European elder and there it was often referred to as "the medicine chest of the people".

Depending on the source, elder is described as a large shrub or a small tree. They range in size from about 6- to 12-feet, although some might reach 20 feet or more, depending upon where they are grown and which species they are. They are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 10. Wild plants are found growing along woods edge, roadsides and ditches and hedgerows, where the conditions are slightly moist. I have seen huge colonies of elder along railroad tracks. I did not plant my elder tree, it is a native volunteer by the edge of the woods, which attracts all sorts of pollinators from butterflies to bees and birds. Last season, growing towards the light and away from the woods, it reached a good 10-feet tall and it was pruned back severely (other than cutting flower heads and berries) for the first time.

Leaves are compound, opposite and medium green. Tiny flowers are borne in flat-topped, umbrella-shaped corymbs, in masses-they are cream-colored and sweetly fragrant-some can be as wide across as a dinner plate. Elder flowers appear in my zone 7 area in May and last about a week to 10 days. This is a small window which I have to harvest the blooms for making elderflower cordial, shrub and of course, elderflower fritters. I also dry some blooms, however, I do not want to harvest too many flowers, since I want at least as many berries. Only the flowers and ripe berries are safe to eat-although other parts of the plant have been used for external purposes throughout history-unripe berries, leaves, stems, twigs, bark and roots have cyanogenic glycosides which can cause cyanide poisoning in these forms and are not to be ingested.

In "The Little Elder-Tree Mother" by Hans Christian Andersen, the son catches a cold and the mother doses him with elderflower tea and then he has elder dreams. I dry the flowers for tea and I love them in a homemade elderflower liqueur. The flowers are mild and astringent and have been used in folk remedies to soften the skin, for inflammation of the eyes, for congestion, headache and indigestion. Elderflowers have been used for tea for centuries and are safe and effective when taken to reduce fevers relating to colds, flu, chicken pox and measles. Note: Michael Moore reports that children with a history of high fevers or convulsions, should avoid the tea since it occasionally can spike high fevers.

Berries appear in August in my zone 7 garden and I pay attention once they are green and fully filled out. Green, unripe berries are poisonous. Once they turn purple-black, it is time to gather them before the birds get them. I want to be sure that they are fully ripened for making, shrub, elder syrup, cordial, jelly and more. Berries should be cooked before eating. I also dry some of the berries, so I have them to use in recipes in winter months when we really need their protective virtues for fighting flu and colds. Besides being anti-viral, other healing properties are anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, cathartic, diuretic, laxative, stimulant and sudorific. Elderberries are nutritious, high in vitamins A and C and antioxidants, they also contain vitamin B, calcium, iron, niacin and thiamine, and even some protein.

American elder can be planted from seed or easily taken from root cuttings. If you don't have an elder tree in your yard, now is the time to get one! I am taking my homemade elderberry syrup to prevent getting the flu that is virulent right now. And of course, a lovely little tipple of my Elderflower & Elderberry Cordial is not only a delightful aperitif, it is also warding off cold and flu germs at the same time. Here's to honoring elder and celebrating herb of the year™ 2013!

Since the use of American elder has not been established during pregnancy, do not use while pregnant or nursing; since the use of elder is contraindicated with a number of drugs, check with your healthcare provided before using elder.

IHA's latest herb of the year publication Elder, Herb of the Year 2013™ is hot off the presses and available at www.iherb.org.


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Comments (3)

Ember927 writes: I love the new Elderberry Sambucas that has the purple foliage does that strain also produce edible berries? One source made it sound like it would but now I can't find where I read that and I'm hoping it's not wishful thinking. I like the other's as well but I would love to get both a purple plant and edible berries I'm crazy about all things purple. Thanks for the great article also. I'd like to have purple Elders on either side of the driveway to welcome us home with open arms.
Posted: 10:09 am on May 19th
suzieshome writes: My favourite pie is elderberry. I remember my father driving along the country road we lived on to gather them from wild. My mother froze them for pies later during the winter.
Delicious!!!!




Posted: 10:37 am on February 14th
Chefin1950 writes: Thank you Susan for a very informative article. I collect Elderflowers and berries in the woods near my house each year. For design purposes I am considering planting a "Black Lace" Elder in my garden. Do you know if one can also use the flowers and berries of this lovely decorative cultivar for extracts, jellies, etc?
Posted: 4:43 am on February 14th
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