Elder has an ancient reputation as a therapeutic, healing tree. It was once considered magical and branches were tied to doors to repel evil spirits. It was also known as ‘the poor man’s apothecary’ as every part of the tree was believed to have medicinal value.
These days elderflowers are the most recognised and used part of the tree. This is largely due to their popularity as an ingredient of summer cordials and homemade champagnes and wines. The flowers are also often used in herbal medicine for their ability to treat inflammations and chest conditions, especially when accompanied by a fever.
The berries are a frequently forgotten gem of the hedgerow harvest, containing vitamins A, B6 and C along with calcium, iron and magnesium so they are something of a free vitamin supplement. For the seasoned forager the benefits of elderberries are not a revelation, however those less practiced may not be aware of how many uses you can make of this wonderful wild fruit.
Firstly elderberries have a long history of being used to make liqueurs and wines, the juice of the fruit was even used at one time to give lighter imported wine a deeper claret colour. Another drink which I particularly love is elderberry cordial with my personal preference being to mix it with crab apple. This intensifies the elderberry flavour and the pectin in the crab apple mean the cordial keeps longer.
Elderberry and Crab Apple Cordial
At least 1 kilo of freshly picked and washed elderberries
250g of crab apples
2 ½ to 3 pints of water
Optional - The juice of 1 orange and you can add cloves, cinnamon sticks and nutmeg if you like
Fill the pan with the 2 – 3 pints of water and pick the elderberries off each stalk with a fork. Chop each tiny crap apple in half and try to remove all the pips, pop the apples, still with their peel on, into the pan. The peel contains pectin which will help the cordial keep longer. Add the spices and if you like the juice of the orange. Begin to heat the contents and allow to simmer for at least 30 minutes, use a potato masher to mush up the berry’s releasing their juice. Once you can see the berries and the apples have broken down, remove from the heat and strain through a sieve with a piece of muslin in it. Leave the contents of the sieve to drip through for a few hours – I usually leave it for about 12 hours. Then you can even squeeze the muslin to release the very last drops of the liquid, however bear in mind the juice can stain. Measure the liquid and pour into a pan, add 400g of sugar for each pint of liquid and begin to simmer. Once the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has thickened very slightly, remove from heat and decant into sterilised bottles. Once cooled label and store in a cool dark cupboard or the fridge.
The vitamin rich berries have traditionally been used to make a syrup to ward off colds and flu called Elder Rob. The vitamin content certainly acts as an immune booster and is a valuable source of vitamin C during the winter months. Elderberries are also reputed to be useful in the treatment of rheumatic conditions, improving circulation and thought to be soothing for the nerves. Obviously this makes Elder Rob a good all round tonic to have in the household medicine chest. As you would expect with such an ancient remedy, there are lots of different recipes around, but this is mine.
400ml of elderberry juice (from a batch made for cordial)
I small piece of ginger root grated
200g of honey
100g of dark brown sugar
Boil the elderberry juice long with the ginger and cloves for 20 minutes, then strain through a cheesecloth and a sieve. Return the sieved juice to a clean pan and reheat, adding the honey and the brown sugar. Once the sugar and honey have dissolved boil for a further 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and decant into a sterilised medicine bottle. Once cooled label and refrigerate. You can then add a tablespoon to warm water as an immune boosting drink when needed.
Elderberry’s are not very sweet and were once made into a ketchup, when boiled and crushed they do have an almost tomatoish smell so I can see how this would work. This lack of sweetness also means they can be made into a jelly to be eaten with cheeses and meats. Although you can do this with the berries on their own, as I’ve already mentioned crab apples make a perfect accompaniment and help to preserve the jelly. If you can’t get hold of wild crab apple windfall apples or bramleys will work just as well.
Elderberry & Crab Apple jelly
1kg of freshly picked and washed elderberries
300g roughly chopped apples, with the pips removed (leave the skin on)
800g white sugar
The juice of one lemon
2 pints of water
Add fruit and water to the pan and simmer for at least 20 minutes, mashing the contents to release the juices. When the fruit has broken down strain the contents of the pan through a sieve and a piece of muslin. Then return the juice to a clean pan and add the sugar then boil for at least 30 minutes. Test the setting point by dropping drips onto a plate, this can take an hour depending on the fruit. When the drips stop running/dribbling you have found the setting point. Then pour into sterilised jars, putting a wax disc over the top while the mixture cools. When the jelly has cooled label, screw on the lid and store in a cool, dry, dark cupboard.
With such a versatile wild fruit it seems wasteful not to utilise this abundant hedgerow harvest, remembering of course to leave some for others, most importantly as food for the birds.
Happy Hunting, Claire Fleetneedle
Caution: Do not eat raw elderberries
These are some of my personal experiences using Elderberriess, combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult with an herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the above please stop using the herb immediately. And always take care when identifying the plant.
LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.