Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) is an essential summer scent, a classic element in the hedgerow. It has been used since Roman times.
The whole elder tree has uses: leaves, flowers bark and berries. Elder has been termed ‘the medicine chest of the country people’ (Ettmueller). John Evelyn wrote:
‘if the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds’.
While the leaves, flowers and berries all have many uses, don’t bother with the root. Of this Culpeper says rather dismissively: ‘I know no wonders the root will do’.
As one of the white-flowered queens of the hedgerow, elder was a reminder of the White Goddess. It was therefore revered. An elder tree in your garden is very lucky, especially if it is self-sown. It was often included in the herb garden to put the herbs under the protection of the ‘Elder Mother’ or ‘Spirit of the Elder’. Show respect to an elder by tipping your hat.
The botanical name sambucusis comes from the Greek ‘sambuke’, a musical pipe. New shoots of elder bushes were traditionally used to make tuneful pipes.
Elder wood and bark is believed to be physically warmer than that of other trees because they bloom at the peak of the sun’s strength, at midsummer.
Benefits of elderflower
Elderflower was the go-to complexion enhancer on every dressing table in the past. It is widely used in skincare for its conditioning and skin lightening properties. These make it handy for reducing freckles and sunburn and for treating greying hair.
Elderflower water (Aqua Sambuci) is an infusion of elderflowers popularly used for softening cleansers, toners and conditioners for hands, face and body. It is soothing for irritated and inflamed skin and can be used against skin infections, chilblains and chapped hands. Learn how to make it here. There are many skincare uses for simple elderflower water.
They include: a soothing bath, or refresher post salt-water swimming, a nightime toner for oily skin, treatment for greying hair, aftershave lotion, compress for inflamed eyes, bath for sore feet, hand cleanser or remedy for chapped hands and an insect repellent. Then there are the traditional uses of elderflowers to treat piles, swellings and wounds. How versatile, here’s how to make them all.
How to harvest elderflowers
Collect the flowers when first in bloom and gleaming white (ignore any that are yellowed or starting to smell ‘catty’). Traditionally this right time to gather is in the three weeks that straddle midsummer, although I find you have to get out earlier to get the best blooms. Shake them down from the boughs onto a sheet or pick blossoms and throw them into a heap where they will become warm – the corollas will loosen and can be easily gathered by sifting.
For future use in infusions, elderflowers need simply to be dried for keeping, this is best done in an oven, the quicker, the better.
Elderflowers used to be salted (at a ratio of 10:1 flower:salt) to preserve them for future use in distillation – these would be referred to as ‘pickled’ elderflowers. These pickled flowers take on a gentler fragrance than the fresh flowers and are preferred for making elderflower water.