The Shrub for all Seasons

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"The Shrub for all Seasons"
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Elder or Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a shrub-like tree found both as a wild and cultivated plant, and can grow up to 30 feet tall. People have known of its usefulness since prehistoric times, Plinius and Hippocrates have included it in their writings as far back as the 5th century BC.

The elder has a rich background of cultural superstitions. In the Middle Ages legends held that it was the home to witches and that cutting down one would bring on the wrath of those residing in its branches.

The Russians and the English (?!) believe that elder trees ward off evil spirits and it was considered good luck to plant some near the house. Sicilians think that sticks of elder wood can kill serpents and drive away thieves.

This op is compiled of research on the net, personal research (yes, I try out things myself before I write about them!) and personal experience.

The elder weapon

Let's begin at the beginning, the beginning of the season and the beginning of my life. It's a fact that little boys love weapons, the only difference between then and now is that due to the advancement of technology the weapons of today are more lethal than the ones in the olden times. When I was a girl, the boys used to cut off elder twigs, about 15cm long, took out the marrow so that they had a tube (I don't know how, I was always only on the side of the victims!), plucked the green hard berries and blew them forcefully through the tubes at the girls passing by. Not a nice sensation when you were hit!

Fritters "Mariane

When the elders are in full bloom in spring, they emit a strong smell, especially when it's raining, go near, put your nose in and sniff, then try to transfer the smell into taste, now you know what the products made of the blossoms taste like. Marianne, my best friend's mother-in-law, says that for some reason (Which? She doesn't say!) the smell/taste always reminds her of a dead male hairdresser. ;-)

200 g flour (1 3/4 cups)
2 eggs
1/8 milk
small pinch salt
16 elderberry blossoms with stems
sugar for dusting
oil for frying

With a whisk, mix the flour, eggs, salt, and milk into a pancake batter. Rinse the elderberry blossoms several times, then pat dry with paper towel. Briefly dip the blossoms into the dough, and then deep fry until golden brown. Dust with sugar and serve. Don't eat the stem.

Elderflower champagne

I have no personal experience of this, neither have I drunk it nor prepared it. I'm adding the recipe only to show you what else you can do with elder blossoms.

4 large heads elderflower (picked on a sunny day)
6 pints cold water
2 pints boiling water
1 1/2 lb granulated sugar juice
rind of 2 large lemons
2 tbsp white wine vinegar

Do not wash the flower, but remove any insects and the thick stalks (best with a pair of scissors). Place the sugar in a very large bowl and cover with 2 pints of boiling water. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Then add 6 pints cold water, the rind and juice of the lemons, the vinegar and flowers. Stir well. Cover and leave, covered, for 48 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain through a fine sieve into clean bottles with screw tops*. Leave an inch gap at the top of each bottle and screw down well. Leave in a cool place to mature. Nice served with ice. Ready to drink in 6 weeks but it tastes better the longer it is left.

*I found that recipe on the net, but its advisable to use empty champagne, not wine bottles, those might explode. Some years ago a family sued a German womens magazine, because it had forgotten to add that info. The bottles exploded in the cellar store room and the pieces of broken glass hit and destroyed an expensive rubber boat!

Elderflower jelly

Up to this op I had never tasted this speciality, but my research made me buy it on the market and ask the woman behind the stall for the recipe, I hope youll appreciate that!

Pluck elderberry blossoms on a sunny day (seems important!)
rinse in water
put 1 umbel into 1 litre of cold water (multiply according to the amount of jelly you want to make)
leave for 2 days
pour the liquid through a sieve, throw the blossoms away
make jelly with the juice

Im still getting used to the taste of this yellow jelly, its very intensive and certainly something very special!


Now were already in September, the elderberries are ripe and can be plucked. We take the umbels with the stem, wash them and then remove the berries with the help of a fork. This op is not for the uninitiated, Im not going to tell you how to make juice, wouldnt even know what to tell you. In Germany we use a special pot which operates with steam, I hope youve got that, too, and dont still have to use the method of the Middle Ages: an upturned stool with a cloth tied to the legs onto which the hot pulp is placed so that the juice can run into a bowl standing underneath!

Some housewives bottle the pure juice, others add sugar before bottling, thats up to your and your familys taste. The juice can be drunk with mineral water, very refreshing, or hot as a remedy against cold or it can be used to make soup.

Soup Grandma Martha

If you want to have a soup with some substance, do it as my grandma did:

2 1/2 lb elderberries
6 tb cold water
9 c water
2tb lemon juice (if you like)
lemon rind
3/4 c sugar
4 tb cornstarch

Wash berries and place in a soup kettle. Add water (more or less depending on how intensive you want the soup to be) and a twist or two of lemon rind. Cook until the berries are soft. Strain into a bowl, pushing through as much of the pulp as possible. Return the liquid to the kettle, bring to a boil, and remove the kettle from the stove.

Combine the cornstarch, cold water and lemon juice, pressing out all the lumps. Add to the soup, together with the sugar and stir thoroughly. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly until thick and clear. Adjust the sugar and lemon to suit your taste. Serve hot or cold.

My grandma used to beat egg-white with sugar until stiff and place little white blobs onto the dark violet soup (sugared, too, if you like) where they swam like swans and/or cut a slice of bread into cubes, roast them and place them onto the soup.

Elderberry jelly mother Selma

We always made jam and jelly at home, but only late in our lives came across elderberry jelly. My mother got to know it in a guest-house, tried it at home and from the very first year we couldnt imagine how we had ever been able to live without it. Relatives and friends have followed suit. A glass of this jelly is a wonderful present for people who already have everything, very likely youll be invited again!

1 litre elderberry juice
1 kilo sugar and pectin (in Germany we have a special kind of sugar with added pektin, very convenient)
1 apple or pear to make the jam milder
1 lemon (of which you squeeze some drops into the jelly before you take it off the stove, helps to make it firm)
prepare the jelly the usual way (see above, cant help you here, not knowing your habits)

I don' only use the jelly as jelly should be used, i.e., on a slice of bread, I also use it for dessert mixing it with yoghurt, skimmed milk or cream cheese. Oh, its so delicious! If I had to choose one jam or jelly to stick with for the rest of my life, I would waver between quince and elderberry jelly and then take the latter. I hope that sounds convincing enough.


I think its high time you learnt whats in this shrub from leaves to berries. Not that I understand what Im quoting here, the chemist wiz kids will do, though.

Vitamins B 1, B2, B 6
Vitamin C
The flavonoids rutin and quercetin
Cyanogenic glucoside
Hydrocyanic acid
Cane sugar
Free fatty acids
Potassium nitrate
Amino acids

Quite impressive, eh?

Apart from the above mentioned hot juice for colds I havent used elderberry as medicine, so I can only quote the net doctor: Elderberries have been a traditional remedy for constipation, colic, diarrhea, colds and rheumatism. Elderberry tea is good for coughs, sinus congestion and reducing the swelling of a sore throat. Elderberry also promotes the removal of waste products from the body and is considered a powerful immune stimulant.

Lets throw our house pharmacy into the bin and plant an elder in the garden!


Elder flower water, used as a skin lotion for its mild astringent properties, is still sold in old-fashioned pharmacies to this day.

Health and beauty, what more do we want?

When youre in Italy the next time, order a Sambuca liqueur, it does nothing for your health or beauty, but it does good nevertheless. A roasted coffee bean swims on the surface, and the liquid (strangely enough its pale like water, not yellow or violet like preserves No. 1 and No.2) is set on fire. Blow out the flames before you drink!

More about this author: Marie-Luise Stromer

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