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*NEW* Janet Alton now offering Nutrition consultations

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Elderflower1Every part of the elder was once used medicinally.

The inner bark boiled in water is a fairly drastic purgative and not to be recommended nowadays. A tea made from the roots was said to be a sovereign cure for the dropsy - the water retention associated with heart or kidney disease - and may well have had some effect, given that some constituents of elder have diuretic properties. The leaves would be heated with lard and suet to make an ointment used for bruises, sprains, wounds, chilblains and even piles. Boiled in water, the leaves and/or the flowers made a cooling lotion for sore eyes. Elderberry wine was said to be a very good remedy for asthma, and a 'rob' (the juice thickened by heating) was an ancient cure for a sore throat, well sweetened with sugar. These healing properties, especially in infections such as colds and sore throats, are no doubt connected to the fact that elderberries are particularly rich in Vitamins A and C.

Bruised elder leaves are an effective insect repellent and were once used by farmers to keep flies from bothering working horses. Apparently they will even keep mice and moles at bay if placed about their known runs. A handful of leaves boiled in water, and the resulting infusion cooled and sprayed onto your prize roses or fruit trees, is said to repel aphids and prevent blight. The flowers were useful too: our great-great-grandmothers swore by astringent Elder Flower Water - once an official preparation in the British Pharmacopoeia - to keep their skin fresh and free of spots. It was also said to whiten the skin and to make freckles less noticeable. The Romans used the juice of the berries as a hair dye.

Modern medical herbalists tend to concentrate on using the flowers and the berries. A tea made from elderflowers, yarrow and peppermint can be wonderfully soothing in a feverish cold. Elderflowers are diaphoretic and decongestant - that is, they provoke sweating (thus bringing down a high temperature) and they relieve that bunged-up feeling in the nose, by acting on the inflamed membranes inside. And not just in a transient cold - elderflower tea taken regularly can help relieve chronic catarrh and sinusitis. Hay fever sufferers would do well to start a course of elderflower tea, perhaps mixed with nettle, in March or April to lessen the misery of summer sniffles later on. A decoction of the berries (simmered in water for 20-30 minutes) taken regularly, can help treat rheumatic aches and pains. The long-established use of elderberry juice in colds and sore throats is still valued by medical herbalists.

Perhaps the best-known use of elder is in wine-making, and there are many good recipes using both the flowers and the berries. Less well-known is the use of tender young elder shoots, stripped of all bark and pickled in vinegar, ginger and mace - the so-called 'Mock Bamboo'. Perhaps more to modern taste is Elderberry Chutney, which is great with vegetable risotto! Collect some elderberries this autumn and have a go at the recipes below.

ELDERBERRY ROB (Source: A Modern Herbal, by Mrs Grieve)

  • 5 lb fresh, ripe, crushed elderberries
  • 1 lb sugar

(To remove the elderberries from their stalks, use a fork.) Put the ingredients in a thick pan and simmer over a low heat until the juice evaporates to the thickness of honey. Cool and bottle.

Elderberry Rob makes a wonderfully soothing cordial for a cold or cough. Simply add a couple of tablespoonfuls to a glass of hot water, especially at night. It is rich in Vitamin C, decongestant, promotes sweating and is soothing to a tight chest.

ELDERBERRY CHUTNEY (Adapted from: A Modern Herbal by Mrs Grieve)

  • 2 lb elderberries
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 pint vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1/4 teaspoon mixed spice

Wash the elderberries and remove them from their stalks using a fork (make sure they are nice and ripe). Put them into a thick pan and crush them with a wooden spoon. Add the onion, vinegar and all the seasoning. Bring to the boil and simmer until the mixture thickens. Be careful not to let the mixture burn. Cool and put into covered jars.

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