Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Elder - the Elixir of Life?

There seems to be a fine crop of elder Sambucus nigra berries in our local hedgerows this year. John Evleyn, the 17th. century writer, gardener and diarist, was a great fan of this ubiquitous hedgerow tree. “If”, he wrote, “ the medicinal properties of the leaves, bark, berries,&c., were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countrymen could ail, for which they might not find a rememdy from every hedge, either for sickess or wound. The inner bark of elder applied to any burning takes out the fire immediately; that, or in season, the buds boiled in water-grewel for a breakfast, has effected wonders in a fever; and the decoction is admirable to assuage inflammation. But an extract may be composed of the berries, which is not only greatly efficacious to assist longevity, but is a kind of universal preventive against all infirmatives whatever; and of the same berries is made an incomparable spirit, which drunk by itself, or mingled with wine, is not only an excellent drink, but admirable in the dropsy. The ointment made with the young buds and leaves  in May with butter is most sovereign for aches, shrunk sinews &c., and the flowers macerated in vinegar not only are of a grateful relish, but good to attenuate and cut raw and gross humours”. All of which may go some way to explaining why my maternal grandmother, who used to make some pretty potent elderflower champagne and elderberry wine, lived to a ripe old age...... although more recent research and opinion has been more circumspect about the safety of some of the folk medicine attributed to this plant. 

Elder shoots grow remarkably vigorously in their first year and I have vivid childhood memories of cutting these, hollowing out the pith and using them as pea-shooters. The hollowed-out twigs have also been used to make flutes and the generic name Sambucus supposedly comes from the Greek (?) sambuca, a musical instrument – although the word was originally applied to a stringed instrument rather than one that you blow. Elder pith, dissected from the centre of the stems, figured in my education when I was at school, for demonstrating electrical charges and for holding plant specimens that were then thin-sectioned for microscopy by hand, using a cut-throat razor (can you imagine Health and Safety allowing that in a school today!)

Recently elder as a natural resource has undergone something of a revival, with the popularity of elder flower cordials and elder flower presse, which has created an unprecedented demand for the inflorescences. Nice to see that at least some of the potential of our native biodiversity is being realised…..

9 comments:

  1. This brings back some memories, Phil! More years ago than I care to remember, I used to make a lot of 'hedgerow' wines. The favourites were elderberry (which always gave a very tasty and full-bodied wine) and elderflower (where the elder flowers were used for flavouring, but the sugars for fermentation were supplied by raisins - giving a light and refreshing brew). I stopped making such wines when there was a scare about hedgerow fruits absorbing harmful chemicals (primarily lead) from car exhausts. I guess that nowadays with lead-free fuels it's now safer again - unless the chemicals that they use to replace the lead are more dangerous?!?!

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  2. I have a similar plant which is supposed to be 'American Elder'. The flowers and berries are similar, but the flowers have no scent. Since it is an introduced plant, our native medicine system has no use for it so far. I am scared to eat the berries too!

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  3. Another interesting post Phil. I have noticed a very heavy crop of berries this Autumn...a delightful plant.

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  4. Fascinating Phil.

    I somehow can't imagine a cut throat razor being allowed in schools these days lol

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  5. Hi Richard, I can remember that my grandmother's elder wines tended to be slightly fizzy. When you sat in her living room you could sometimes hear corks popping out of the bottles in the larder. I don't think there's anything harmful in lead-free fuel exhaust that could be accumulated in roadside elders....

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  6. Hi lotusleaf, I don't think I've come across that one.

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  7. Hi Nigel, I pass some heavily laden plants on my way home every night, that were an absolutely picture back in the summer, when they were covered in those flat plates of flowers..

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  8. I've still got my cut-throat razor in a drawer at home somewhere, Keith...

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  9. Beautiful photographs as usual. Years ago I had a machine for cutting thin sections. Be blowed if I can remember what it was called. Metronome keeps asserting it'self but it wasn't one of those.

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