An almost constant presence in my early life in Derbyshire was the elder tree. It was found in most country hedgerows, and in late Spring its masses of creamy-white blossom filled the air with a sweet perfume. The European Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) is widespread in Northern Europe, and along with the European Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa) is a member of a family of more than 20 species spread throughout the world.
Although the elder tree can grow to more than 20 feet tall, many are found in the form of dense shrubs, due to the regular trimming of hedgerows, or the competition for light/space with other vegetation. For hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, the flowers and ripe fruit of the elder tree have been known to have powerful curative properties. Talking about the elder, John Evelyn (1620-1706), the English gardener and diarist, stated, ”If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our country men would ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge either for sickness or wounds.” However, care must be taken, as the stems and leaves contain sambunigrin, a cyanogenic glucoside which can accumulate in human tissues; only ripe, black berries, should be picked. Still, elderflower ‘champagne’ or a rich elderberry wine are both possible!
The German region of Bavaria is home to a number of elder-based recipes, amongst them ‘Hollerküchln’. This involves picking fresh clusters of elder flowers – they are borne in corymbs, or flat bunches – then rinsing them to remove any insects. These are plunged into a rich batter, then quickly fried; they are crunchy, and delicious! Elderflowers are also the basis of a pleasant tea, which is claimed to have anti-inflammatory powers, and be beneficial to those suffering from a cold or ‘flu. It is said that the flavonoids contained in elderberries are also a strong stimulant to the human immune system. They seem to modulate the production of several classes of cytokines in human cells. Some cytokines can be important cellular harbingers of inflammation, and work has been done showing the effect of elderberry products on inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, e.g. European Cytokine Network, 2001, April-June; 12 (2) pg 290-296, ‘The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based natural product, on the production of human cytokines: 1. Inflammatory cytokines’, Barack, V; Halperin, T; Kalickinan, I.
As well as providing human-kind with food, drink and medicine, the elderberry is a prime food for mammals and birds. The Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) will both take the berries, as will the Common Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius). Among the many bird species known to enjoy elderberries are the Whitethroat (Slyvia communis), Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) and Common Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus). As you can see from the rather bare-looking cluster of elderberries shown in this Yorkshire hedgerow, the birds have already started to feast on the riper fruits. Truly, it may be said that the elder is one of the most useful and delightful of European wild shrubs!