Elder — An Herbal Treasure of Berries and Flowers
Try our simple recipes for elder tea and an elder facial, and learn how the many uses of elderberries and elder flowers have earned this versatile herb widespread acclaim.
Elder was chosen Herb of the Year for 2013 by the International Herb Association. It was a well-deserved distinction for an the herb has made major contributions to the herbal world since ancient times.
Elder belongs to the genus Sambucus. The woody weed found along farms in the central and eastern U.S. is S. canadensis, while S. nigra is the species native to much of Europe. (The native European plant is now naturalized in some parts of North America.)
Elder’s other common names include Judas tree (because it’s reportedly the tree on which the betrayer apostle hung himself); black elder, bore tree, sweet elder, eldrum, and pipe tree. (The hard stem can be transformed into a pipe or peashooter by pushing out the soft pith; the stem has also been used for making combs, musical instruments, needles for weaving nets, and shoemaker pegs.)
The deciduous elder thrives in grasslands, roadsides, woods, ditches, and railways. Its light grey/brown bark becomes darker and furrowed as the plant grows, and the stalked, divided leaves are opposite and compound, dark green with three to nine leaflets. The leaves smell unpleasant (“God’s stinking tree”) and have often been used to protect livestock from flies.
The flowers, on the other hand, are sweet smelling. Cream colored, they grow in large corymbs (flat-topped groupings) and are pollinated by flies and other insects. The entire flower head is harvested just as the flowers are opening, which prevents bruising of the delicate flowers and allows for better air circulation and drying.
The berries arrive in late summer, wrinkled, dark purple to black. Their fruity aroma and sweet/sour fruity flavor are thoroughly enjoyed by a variety of birds. The berries are harvested in late fall and are usually dried on the umbel, to prevent damage.
Elder flowers are used in salves, lotions, and cosmetics. They provide a refreshing, cleansing bath, too.
Elderberries yield a rich blue and purple dye, sometimes used for hair and cloth.
Elder berries and flowers have culinary uses, too, including jellies, syrups, jams, relishes and chutneys. They're most often enjoyed in beverages, though, including teas, cordials, syrups, brandy, gin, champagnes, and wines. The flowers are also used to make candies, lozenges, and desserts. And the fresh elder flower can be batter fried.
To top off the plant’s usefulness, elder is an herb steeped in lore and witchcraft, considered a power for both entering the underworld and for warding off evil influences!
Simple, Soothing Elder Tea
Elder flowers make a lovely tea. Try the herb alone as well as in combination with other herbs, such as yarrow, chamomile, and peppermint.
To make a simple elder flower tea, pour one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of elder flowers. Steep for five minutes, then strain.
To make an elderberry tea, bring one teaspoon of elderberries and one cup of water to a boil. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, then strain.
Elder Flower Facials
Elder flowers can be included in a facial steam. Simply pour boiling water over a handful of the dried elder flowers in a bowl. (You might include other good cleansing and freshening herbs, such as rosemary and mint.) Lean over the bowl, making a tent with a towel over your head. Steam for several minutes. Rinse with warm then cool water and pat your face dry.
To enjoy a refreshing facial compress, make an herbal infusion by steeping two teaspoons of elder flowers in one cup of water for about 10 minutes. Soak a piece of cotton cloth in the tea, then squeeze the liquid out. Apply the cloth to your face while you lie down and relax. Rinse with warm then cool water.
Ask the Experts
How is the International Herb Association’s Plant of the Year chosen?
The group established the Herb of the Year Program in 1995, and they invite all IHA members to participate in the selection. The herbs chosen should be outstanding in at least two of the three major categories: culinary, medicinal, or ornamental. The IHA publishes a booklet on the herb; you can purchase Elder, Herb of the Year 2013, on their website (www.iherb.org). The Herb of the Year in 2012 was Rose, and the Herb of the Year in 2014 will be Artemisias, followed by Savory in 2015.
Is there an alcoholic drink that uses elder?
Yes, elder flowers are often used to make a lovely yellow cordial, wine, syrup (for adding to seltzer water or gin, for example), or even champagne. Such drinks typically require large amounts of elder flowers, which are often infused for at least several days. Other ingredients might include sugar, lemon juice and zest, and water. Citric acid is sometimes used to help preserve the drink. Elder flower drinks are generally refreshing and pretty when served with a slice of lemon.
What’s an infusion?
An infusion is a strong tea. In the case of elder flowers, for example, the flowers are steeped for five minutes to make a delicious herbal tea. To make the infusion for an elder flower compress, twice as many flowers are steeped twice as long. Infusions can also be made by steeping herbs in oil rather than water. By the way, if the herb is actually cooked in the water, the resulting substance is called a decoction.
Our elderberry and elder flowers come from our Well Earth partner in Bulgaria. We recently visited them, traveling the countryside, where we were amazed at the rich diversity of plants — including many herbs that were brought to the United States by early settlers from Europe. These familiar herbs thrive in their native land, growing in dense colonies of color, texture and shapes in fields and wild meadows, along roadsides, and at forest edges. All of our Bulgaria-sourced herbs are grown on small farms or are responsibly wildcrafted.