Last Friday we continued our annual tradition of foraging for elderflowers to make some delicious elderflower cordial, it’s something my son and I do together each year, we both enjoy foraging for the large frothy flowers of which are so abundant this time of year. I di d however also notice an abundance of black aphids this year, so we were careful to avoid the bugs as much as possible.
I love learning about the ancient folklore surrounding plants and the Elder tree is heavily steeped in magic and superstition, with conflicting tales of warning and protection. According to folklore you must honour the tree by thanking the spirit or goddess of the powerful Elder Mother who resides in the tree for any parts you cut away, as she has the power to protect or do harm. Before cutting an Elder tree in any way, this rhyme was chanted.
“Lady Ellhorn, Give me of thy Wood,
And I will give thee of mine,
When I become a Tree.”
The Elder Mother acts as a protective figure within a woodland, she carries the wisdom of the crone and is said to take revenge on all who harm trees. She has the power to protect and ward off evil, it is said that witches can turn into an elder trees, congregating underneath them, especially when it is full of fruit. Its wood is used for the making of magic wands…the most powerful wand in the Harry Potter novels is a wand made of sambucus known as the “Elder Wand”. In Ireland the witches broomstick is made of Elder. To burn elder wood brought death and disaster and ‘raised the devil’, it was never used as firewood or burned by hedgers after it had been cut. In folklore the leaves could protect a home or a person from evil spirits when dried and hung in a doorway or around the neck. It is a particularly good omen if an elder grew near a dwelling, as the tree would protect the household.
It was said that anyone who falls asleep under the branches of the Elder Tree would have vivid dreams of fairy realms, but be warned to never fall asleep on Midsummer’s Eve, as the fairies will carry you off to fairyland, never to return.
Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes 1908
The Elder is one of my favourite trees, I distinctly remember as a small child sitting under its bowed branches in my garden plucking the shiny black elderberries one by one and eating them, I can’t have eaten too many as I don’t recall any adverse reaction. Please note, this is absolutely NOT recommended as eating the seeds raw can make you quite ill, the seeds can cause cyanide poisoning! And I’ve always adored the narcotic wafts of elderflowers early summer and the sweet taste of elderflower cordial, here is my simple recipe which I make each year:
Elderflower cordial - you will need:
Around 20 heads of elderflowers (choose them carefully avoiding any with insects, and selecting ones which look healthy and in full flower). Remember to thanks the Elder Mother as you cut the flower heads! 1kg of white granulated sugarA heaped tablespoon citric acid (optional, but helps to preserve it for longer)
5 lemons cut into slices.
Spread the elderflower heads out on a table to allow any hiding insects to escape. Do not wash them, as you will wash away the essence in the flowers.
Bring to the boil 2 litres of water in a very large saucepan with a lid. Once boiled dissolve the whole bag of sugar and the citric acid, stirring with a spoon.
Squeeze and add each slice to lemon into the hot water, you may also zest the lemons for extra citrus tartness.
Add the elder flower heads and push under the water to cover. Cover and leave to steep overnight to infuse.
To sterilise your glass bottles leave them in the oven at 180 for several minutes and allow to cool before filling.
Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth and a funnel into your sterilised glass bottles. Keep in a cool place. Serve with ice and dilute with water.
Antibacterial and antiviral, the Elder has often been described as a medicine chest because all parts, the bark, leaves, flowers and berries have been used medicinally since the days of Hippocrates. The berries are rich in vitamin C and are perhaps most famously used for effectively treating colds and flu and can be heated to make a syrup or dried to make a tea. Elderflower tea or cordial is helpful for treating coughs, sore throats and to alleviate hayfever and other allergies by boosting the immune system.
A rainy foraging walk at The Secret Warriors retreat a few week ago, where the elderflower was in full bloom and I couldn’t wait to speak about its magical folklore.