You may have seen our post on Instagram earlier in the week for Swiss National Day (if you missed it you can check it out here). So today, we are delving into the cultural history surrounding the elder (or holder in Switzerland), the Swiss native most commonly known as elderflower or elderberry. This magical plant has an extensive medicinal and superstitious history, and is even the wood that the Elder Wand is made from in the Harry Potter series!
Originating from Æld, Saxon for ‘fire’, the elder was named for the use of its hollowed branches as blowpipes to start and stoke fires by removing the pith (spongy tissues inside the stems). Although the elder is considered a weed in Australia due to its rampant growth and easily spread seeds, its ornamental flowers and leaves, fragrance, and its medicinal and culinary uses make it a welcome garden pest.
Faiths and Cultures:
The elder has a rich history in European folklore and culture, and it was thought to be bad luck if elder trees were cut down in Britain especially. This may have originated from Danish folklore, where it was believed that the Elder-tree Mother lived in the branches of and watched over elder trees, and would haunt anyone who cut it down and used the wood without asking for her permission.
The elder has also been believed to be a source of protection; in Danish folklore the pith was floated on water and lit on Christmas Eve, as its light would reveal nearby witches and sorcerers. In Russia it was thought to ward off witches and evil spirits, and in Sicilian folklore elders were believed to kill serpents and chase off robbers.
Elders were a major part of English folklore in particular, where elder crosses were tied to stables, worn as protection against rheumatism, and cross-shaped shrubs were planted on new graves, and if they flowered the person buried beneath was happy. Because of this, the elder became symbolic of sorrow and death in Britain, and, in the 14th century, was also believed to have been the tree that Judas was hanged from, which was referenced to in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost.
Medicinally, the elder has been used for centuries, with traces of it found in Swiss archeo-botanical sites dating all the way back to the Late Bronze Age (1050 - 880 BC)!
Since then the elder has been used treat everything from gout, inflammation, and diabetes to joint pain, abscesses in the brain, and dog bites. While the effectiveness of the elder in treating many of these conditions has yet to be proven, it is now used in modern medicine to treat constipation and sinusitis in conjunction with anise, sorrel, and other flowers.
However, it should also be noted that the roots, stems, and raw, unripe berries of the elder are poisonous, and excessive consumption can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. This is due to the presence of sambunigrin, a cyanide attached to a sugar, where the cyanide is released when digested and the toxic effects can be felt. To avoid this, the flowers should be removed from stems and ripe berries should be cooked before consuming, as the cooking process breaks down sambunigrin safely.
Elders are also great for cooking, and the berries are a great source of vitamins C and A, as well as folic acid and potassium. Both the berries and flowers can be used to make syrup, which is used in cocktails, flavoured alcohols, and cordials, such as ‘Hugo’, a Swiss cocktail made from prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint, lime, and mineral water.The flowers can also be used to make elderflower sorbet, chocolate, tea, and the Swiss herbal sweet, Ricola. Socatǎ, a Romanian fizzy drink, also uses elderflowers, and inspired Coca Cola’s Fanta Shokata.
While the berries are less commonly used than the flowers, they are used to make elderberry wine, fruit pies, and relishes. Historically, elderberries were also used to doctor cheap wines and ports to make them appear more expensive. This practice became so popular that the cultivation of elder was banned in Portugal in 1747!
If you are interested in using elder into your cooking, these recipes are a great starting point:
With large clusters of fragrant, yellow, cream or white flowers in spring that become black, blue, or red berries, elders are an excellent source of nectar that attracts native butterflies and birds. If left unchecked, elders can grow anywhere from 2 m to 15 m depending on species. However, they can be maintained and shaped for use as hedgerows, while the prunings can be used as a mulch for the rest of your garden.
While most species are native to the temperate, subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, there are several species of elder that grow in parts of Australia, Asia, and South America too. They require a nitrogen-rich soil and will grow better in full sun than partial shade, and are able to live for up to 60 years.
Happy growing, cooking and eating!