Elder: Heirloom Herb and Source of Elderberry Syrup

Trendle Ellwood
17 Min Read

The elder is a deciduous shrub of myth, legend, beauty, and usefulness.  In June through early July, the whole bush is adorned with lacy, cream-colored clusters of terminal flowers that exude a light, musky, honey-like scent that I, and many others, find intoxicating.  In the old days, these flowering shrubs graced country hillsides and valleys with their elegance.

In those times it was considered very bad luck to slash down an elder.  Everyone knew that the elder mother, a spirit, occupied the shrub and unmercifully hunted down and haunted anyone who dared perform any type of damage to her home.  An ancient poem read, “Elder be the Lady’s tree, burn it not or cursed you’ll be.”

Elder’s were attributed with such powers as protecting a dwelling from lightning, calming babies, bestowing the power of seeing the future and allowing one to glimpse fairies.

An old fashioned fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Elder-Tree Mother,” is a story about a little boy who has caught cold and is healed by the elder mother who comes out of the pot of elder tea.   It is a wonderful example of the high esteem that used to be bestowed upon the elder and can be read online.

Now, much to our misfortune, we have no such notions or superstitions and the elder is no longer appreciated and in fact seems to be disappearing from our rural landscapes.

Still, elder can be sighted in forgotten corners of the countryside, often alongside streams and waterways as the shrub is fond of moisture.  My farmer neighbor once commented to me that I was the only person that he knew that had elder growing in my front yard.  Too bad he doesn’t know more cool people!  Lucky for the elder it is very ornamental and is catching on in popularity for plantings in yards.

Even if none of the folklore is true it is still beneficial to have elders around.  A shrub with such an interesting history and so many uses definitely deserves a place in our gardens.  I have many of them beautifying our homestead yard.  They make wonderful screens and backdrops and have a graceful, casual air about them.

The elder is a plant of many talents.  Its shoots and buds can be pickled and its flowers are not only beautiful but also prove to be very functional.  They can be frittered, made into syrup for ice-cream, jellied, made into a hand, face or body lotion or there is the Scandinavian tradition of drinking Elder Blossom Nectar, with or without white wine or vodka, on Midsummer’s Eve.

If you want to take a break from your chores and immerse yourself in pure luxury put fresh or dried elderberry flowers in a muslin bag and let this steep into your bathwater.  The smell is very relaxing and the extract is soothing to the skin.  Don’t try this without the bag!  I thought that it would be joyous and romantic to take a bath with the flowers floating in the tub water but the flowers all came off the stem-like little beads and stuck to everything.  I had a hard time getting them all off of me, especially from my hair.

You can eat the flowers.  Fritter them by dipping the blossom heads in batter.  From experience, I have learned to not coat them too thickly or they come out soggy, instead, coat them lightly with the batter then they come out lacy, crisp and beautiful.  I have inspired my kids to eat them by renaming them flower funnel cakes, which reminds them of, and varies little in taste from, the funnel cakes that they like so much at the fair. (But believe you me, the homemade ones are much cheaper!)

Elder Fritter

  • 12-15 flower heads
  • 3 oz all-purpose flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3 Tbs milk
  • 3-4 Tbs water
  • oil for frying

Go through the flowers and remove any insects that might remain in them.  Leave some of the stem to hold unto while dipping into the oil.  Pour about a half of an inch of oil into a frying pan and let this heat up until it sizzles when a drop of batter is dropped into it.  Meanwhile, sift the flour and salt together in a bowl.  Separate the egg, mixing the yolk with the milk and water, mixing together until smooth.  Whisk the egg white until it is almost stiff and fold into the batter.  Dip each elderflower into the batter.  Shake off any clumps of batter then lay flat side down into the hot oil, turn over and brown on the other side.  Remove and drain, then sprinkle with sugar.  Yum!

You can experiment with this recipe by adding cinnamon or nutmeg to the batter or sprinkling the spices on with the sugar.

Elderflower Fizz

This flowery, grapey-tasting summer drink tastes somewhat like sparkling wine.

  • 5 cups elderflowers picked from stems
  • 1 1/2 lemons
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 gallon water

Shake insects from flowers, and cut away the stalks.  Slice the lemons and put them with the flowers and sugar in a large ceramic or plastic container.  Pour the cold water over all and stir with a wooden spoon, cover with a lid or weighted plate; let sit for 24 hours.  Strain into jugs and pour the liquid into clean dry bottles.  Fill within 2 inches of the top and cover with lids or caps.  Drink within 3-4 weeks.  I guess that the naturally occurring yeast on the elderflower heads begins to ferment with the sugar creating a very weak alcohol content.

If you don’t eat, drink or bathe in all of the flowers, they will turn green on the vine before they ripen to a deep rich black-purple color.  These berries are packed full of vitamins A, B, and C and are rich in antioxidants.  They also have the highest level of potassium and phosphorus of any temperate fruit.  Everyone has heard of Elderberry Wine, which not only tastes good but is considered to be good for you.

When setting up at the local farmers market and selling elderberries people would often say something like, “I have some blackberries out by my garage or barn, are they elderberries?”  I then would show them the pokeberries that I had brought with us, they are the only berry in these parts that people get elderberries confused with.  Poke berries and elderberries are both purple-black but pokeberries are bigger than elderberries and hang down like grapes, while elderberries fan out in a spray.  Make sure you are able to correctly identify any wild berries before eating them, the unripe berries, leaves, twigs, bark, and roots of the elder are poisonous.

It would take you all day if you gathered the birds-eye sized elderberries one by one from the shrub.  Instead, you pick the clusters by the stem and bring basketfuls of them to the shade where you remove the berries from the stems.  When children come by our market stand during elderberry season I often ask them if they had ever teased an elder.  Of course, they think that I am asking them if they have ever teased an elderly person and they look at me with big question marks in their eyes.

Then I show them the elderberry clusters, tell them that they are from the elder and demonstrate to them how to tease the berries off the sprays and into a bowl with a fork, (the easiest and neatest way of removing the berries from the stems).  They are often quite fascinated with this and end up staying and teasing the elderberries for quite some time while their parents shop.  Another option is to freeze the clusters of berries on cookie sheets.  Once they’re frozen, they come off the stems more easily.

In Pliny’s day, country people used elderberry juice as a hair dye and Culpepper is quoted as saying that, “the hair of the head washed with the berries boiled in wine is made black.”  I might have to try that this autumn as my dark hair is acquiring a lot of gray!

Elderberries are all the rage right now as a cure for influenza.   Due to the flu outbreaks in the news, people are looking the elder up, getting to know them, learning how to dry and tincture the berries.  Could it be that some force is trying to get us to return to nature?

Elderberry Syrup (Elder Rob)

Elderberries, made into rob is an age-old remedy for coughs, colds and sore throats, which can easily be made at home.  Elder Rob is also a smoothing bed-time drink added to a cupful of boiling water.  Combined with soda water and ice and garnished with a slice of lemon it becomes a refreshing summertime drink.

  • 1 quart ripe elderberries, stripped from their stalks
  • 4-5 Tbs water
  • sugar

Wash the elderberries and drain in a colander.  Put them with the water in a saucepan.  Cover and simmer slowly over very low heat.  Crush with a wooden spoon to extract the juice, then strain through a strainer, pressing all the juice from the berries.  Measure the juice back into the pan, for every 2 1/2 cups of juice add 2 cups of sugar.  Slowly bring to a boil, stir constantly until the sugar dissolves.  Continue to boil for 5-10 minutes until the liquid is thick and syrupy.  Remove from heat and skim.  Allow to cool.  Pour into clean bottles and cap.

Very rarely someone will come through the farm market looking for elderberry pie, claiming that it is his or her all time favorite, but mostly the taste for such a pie has been lost through time.  After all, there are seeds in each berry so the pie is full of crunch!

Just in case you want to try one, just to say that you did, this recipe came from the book Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, + Scuppernong Wine, The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking by Joesph E. Dabney

Dorothy’s Elderberry Pie
  • Pastry for 2-crust, 9 inch pie
  • 2 ½ cups fresh elderberries
  • 3 cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 tbs. Flour
  • 4 teaspoons vinegar or lemon
  • juice or half and half
  • 2 ½ tbs. Butter or margarine

Line 9-inch pie pan with pastry.  Wash elderberries thoroughly.  In a bowl, mix berries, sugar, salt, flour and vinegar and/or lemon juice.  Mix gently with a fork.  Pour berry mixture into pastry-lined pie plate.  Dot the top with butter.  Wet rim of pie shell lightly.  Cover with top pastry, which should have 6-8 slits ½-inch long in it.  Trim off edge.  Seal by pressing the 2 rims together with thumbs or with fork tines.  Place on cookie sheet in preheated 450 degrees oven for 10 minutes.  Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 40-45 minutes until crust is golden brown.  Serve slightly warm.

And we haven’t even mentioned elderberry jelly which is an old-time favorite, often mixed with blackberries which come ripe at the same time.  Either you love the taste of elderberry jelly or you hate it.  The best way I can describe it is as a serious, earthy, rich, wild, taste.

Elderberry Jelly
  • 3 pounds any mixture of elderberries, blackberries, or grapes
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 box low-sugar pectin
  • 5 cups sugar

Wash and pick over berries and place in a saucepan.  Cook over low heat until juice begins.  Simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain liquid through jelly bag or double layer of cheesecloth and let drip overnight.  Measure juice and add water, if necessary, to make 3 cups.  Add lemon juice and pectin and bring to boil.  Add sugar and boil for one minute.  Pour into sterilized jars and cap with canning lids or seal with pectin.  Jars sealed with canning lids may be processed for 5 minutes in boiling-water bath if desired.

It is easy to acquire elder plants from cuttings or from digging up suckers as the plants spread by runners.  Two varieties of elderberries are required for pollination.  The leaves of elder can be crushed and used around the garden to deter caterpillars and aphids.  Branches from the elder have been hung around with the livestock to deter flies.

Elder is a great pick for a natural garden as it is a wonderful wildlife food source.  Butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to its flowers.  Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, turkey, quails, mourning doves, mockingbirds, ring-necked pheasant, northern flickers, band-tailed pigeon, and ruffed grouse are all fond of its berries.

I know without looking when our elder’s berries are ripe as I awaken one late summer morning to the flute-like song of the wood thrush outside of our bedroom window.  He pays us a visit just to feast on the poignant purple-black berries.

How can we not adore a plant that is so full of uses, folklore, and mystery?  Whether we gather our berries from the wild or grow them on our property, I don’t believe that any homesteader’s life is complete without the purple juice or the creamy flowers of the much-loved elder.  All that I have shared here is only a sample of all the wonderful and wild concoctions that can be made from elder.  And who knows perhaps if you take a nap under the arching branches of this beautiful shrub you will even glimpse fairies.

Happy Eldering!

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