The Invincible Elder
“Judas was hang’d on an elder…” —Biron in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”
“What shall we do with it?” Ron Weasley asked Harry Potter and Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.” “It’s the elder wand. The most powerful wand in the world. With it we’d be invincible.”
Who knew that the lowly-looking shrub perched at the edge of our pond held such powers? That from its branches I might make my own magic wand? That its tiny, white, star-shaped flowers have long been used in Europe for syrup and cordials, its dark purple berries for jelly, pies and remedies? That Native Americans have regarded elder as an important medicinal plant, or that such abundant superstition surrounds the ancient shrub?
Nor did I know, as I write this sheltered at home during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, that people would horde elderberry to ward off COVID-19. That the shelves of Pittsburgh’s Whole Foods would be nearly empty of elderberry products, and what remained was limited to two per person. Or that Norms Farms in Missouri, which sells elderberry products, has a five to seven day shipping delay due to overwhelming demand.
In the British Isles, European elder (Sambucus nigra) is “more like a tree,” said Mason Heberling, assistant curator of botany at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Coppiced or pollarded elder is also a key part of hedgerows in the United Kingdom, a combination of “hazel, hawthorn, ash, oak, beech, elder and blackthorn,” wrote Anne Angus in her book, “Hedgerow.” My friends in Ireland first introduced me to their homemade elderflower syrup mixed with sparkling water, which I love, but it was years before I realized that the more shrub-like American elder (Sambucus canadensis) was indigenous to Pennsylvania and grows wild on our Westmoreland County farm. When I finally figured that out, I attempted to make my own syrup, failing miserably.
The good news for foragers like me is that elder can be found throughout our country. The shrub “has an amazing range, from the Atlantic to the Rockies, the Gulf of Mexico to Quebec,” said Patrick Byers, who’s studying elder and human health at the University of Missouri. Greeks and Romans used elder, he explained, as well as Europeans, Asians and Native Americans, but elder products are relatively new in U.S. markets. “New, but also very old,” he said. Only recently has elder shown up in craft cocktails, wines, jellies, soft drinks, tea, juice, concentrate, syrup and more.
In 1997, Byer’s state of Missouri had no cultivation of elder; now they have over 300 acres, where research is underway to examine the link between elderberry, viruses and brain health. Initially they focused on the fruit, but are currently considering the flowers as well. “There’s great interest now in the elderberry and its medicinal value,” he said.
According to herbalists, elder’s healing properties are extensive. The shrub has been used as a diuretic, laxative, an anti-inflammatory, to expel mucus and to treat gynecological problems, gout, burns, headaches, eczema, coughs, ringworm and sore throats. Native Americans added dropsy, a blood purifier, liver troubles and a host of other remedies to the long list. Carrying a knotted elder twig in your pocket may ward off rheumatism. In 400 B.C.E., Hippocrates is said to have called the shrub a “medicine chest.”
“The tree was once part of every medicinal garden, monastery garden, and farmyard,” wrote Ria Loohuizen in her book, “The Elder.” “People planted it wherever they settled, in order to have its beneficial products always at hand.” Yet time has changed our outlook on the shrub. As Euell Gibbons wrote in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” first published in 1962 and reprinted this year, “elderberry is one of the most abundant, most useful, most healthful and yet most neglected of our native wild fruits.”
Some say the branches, leaves, seeds and roots contain a form of cyanide, and should not be eaten raw or in excess. In 1983, 25 members of a California religious community were sickened by drinking juice made of uncooked berries, leaves and branches of Sambucus mexicana. “We attempted to answer the cyanide concern in our research program,” Byers said. His studies showed that while cyanide precursors were present in the elderberry products they tested, levels were “lower in fact than the apple juice samples.” Still, be prudent when eating in the wild. Byers advised heating or fermenting fruits and flowers, and eliminating stems and leaves. “Some people are very sensitive to cyanide and cyanide precursors,” he said.
How does one identify our local shrub? Penn State described American elder—once classified as a honeysuckle, but now in the viburnum family—as having individual canes that grow in clumps reaching 4 to 15 feet. Pinnately compound leaves have five to eleven serrate leaflets averaging 5 inches in length. White flowers clusters, called corymbs, are 3 to 10 inches in diameter. Elder might also be described as “a giant weed,” Loohuizen said, because of its unruly appearance—warts and all. For that reason, many modern homeowners chop it down.
Heberling said elder requires relatively high light so is usually seen on the wood’s edge. Nine species exist worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica, and once identified, it’s easy to spot. Last February, I saw elder lining the side streets in Bogota, Colombia. I’ve seen it blooming on Route 95 in south Florida. And in summer I will see it again along the length of the Pennsylvania turnpike.
“The wood is distinctive because it has a hollow stem,” Heberling said, with a whitish pith easily removed. For that reason, elder stems have been used to make pea-shooters, flutes, whistles, maple syrup spouts, pop-guns and bellows. “According to myth, Prometheus carried the fire of the gods down to earth in a hollow elder twig,” Loohuizen wrote. Mature wood is hard, used for carving and whittling, and to make pegs, spindles and combs.
Myths surrounding the tree abound, some positive, others negative. The Druids viewed elder as a holy tree, believing that those who sat under it on midsummer’s eve might see the fairy king and queen. Sleeping beneath a blooming elder protected against snakes and mosquitos, and elder defended cattle against lightning. When elder crosses placed on coffins sprouted, that meant the spirit had departed.
The elder mother—called Lady Ellhorn in Britain and Hylde Moer in Danish—was believed to live inside the tree. (Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson wrote fairy tales about her.) She warned not to use elder as firewood as it may invite the Devil, or make a baby’s crib from it, as harm might be inflicted. The Elder Mother insisted on people obtaining permission—hands folded and on bended knee—to cut branches. As I am not one to get on the bad side of an old superstition, you can bet I was on bended knee when I cut a stem to look at its pithy channel.
Christ’s betrayer, Judas Iscariot, may have hung himself from an elder tree, and an edible mushroom called Judas’s ears often grows on elder bark, though my shrubs have none. “Judas was doomed to listen to the wind accusing him of his betrayal,” Loohuizen wrote. Some say Jesus’s cross was made of elder, that witches could turn themselves into the elder, and that the tree’s roots may be in contact with hell.
Should you wish to plant your own, “elder is one of the most rewarding plants in terms of propagation,” Byers said. Hardwood cuttings can be potted in a growing medium or planted directly into soil. Softwood cuttings, root cuttings, and planting seeds are other ways to grow the plant. According to Penn State, elder likes well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. and cultivation should be shallow. Plants come into full production after three to four years.
When foraging for elderberries, “make sure you’re harvesting elderberry, first of all,” Byers said, explaining that elder can be confused with pokeberry and greenbrier. One of the beauties of elder is that there are two harvests—flowers and berries—but leave enough flowers so the berries will come on, and some berries for birds and bears, who depend on the shrub for food. Make sure berries are ripe, and flower blossoms open and dry. “The best aroma is when all the florets are open,” Byers said. Never pick bruised or damaged flowers, remove as much of the stem as possible, and don’t store flowers in plastic. Flowers should be used as soon as possible, or dried for later use. Shrubs should be away from pollution, and Heberling advised not harvesting from public lands without permission.
The good news is that elder is “not threatened or endangered,” Heberling said. “It is prolific, with lots of seeds.” However, like many other native species, elder is becoming less common in North American forests due to hungry deer, he said. Byers doesn’t worry about climate change, calling elder “an adaptable and resilient plant.”
I believe my initial failure at making elderflower syrup was boiling the water, which some recipes call for, but my Irish friends do not do. Loohuizen claimed boiling leads to a noticeable loss of flavor and aroma, and that her unboiled syrup lasts for at least a year stored in dark bottles in a cool place. Most recipes call for a combination of elderflower, sugar, lemon and sometimes citric acid, and can be found easily on the Internet. Flowers dipped in batter, fried and topped with icing sugar is another elderflower favorite, though I have not tried it yet.
Linda Sinemus, who sold produce at the Ligonier Farmer’s Market for 18 years, has made elderberry jelly from her grandmother’s favorite recipe since she was a young girl. She boils elderberries in a German steamer pot, extracts the juice, and combines it with sugar and pectin. “My son doesn’t make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with anything but elderberry jelly,” she said.
Her father used to drive the tractor to a stand of elder on the farm, put Sinemus on a high lift, and raise her up to fetch the berries, one of her fondest memories. “I’d dive into the middle of the bushes,” she said, snip the flowers and put them in a basket, and her father would lower her down. Trees on her Latrobe farm bloom in late May to early June and berries ripen from mid-July to mid-August. But you’ve got to beat the birds. “They’ll clean the entire bush,” she said.
“Elder grew everywhere when we were younger,” Sinemus said, “but a lot of spraying along the roadways has killed off most of the shrubs.” That is lamentable, as people depended on elder for food, especially “during the Depression,” she said.
Perhaps we should all plant a shrub or two now…