I’ve often listened to my mother regale guests with the story of my elderflower ‘champagne’. I took them a bottle as a gift on one of my regular trips to London, and although I gave my aging parents strict instructions to unscrew the top slightly every now and again if they weren’t going to drink it immediately they failed to pay heed to my warning. One day, long after I’d given it to them they discovered the bottle tucked in the back of the cupboard. They decided it was time to give it a try. My father oblivious to the impending danger he was placing himself in unscrewed the cap enthusiastically, swiftly and dramatically the bottle exploded. A highly pressured spray of elderflower champagne shot from the spout covering the walls, ceiling, cupboards, floor and him. He stepped back in shock, dripping from head to foot as the bottle, so full of long contained gas, spun like a dervish on the work surface spraying its contents on to every available surface including the mirror on the opposite side of the room.
Pretty elder flowers
A less hazardous alternative to champagne is elderflower cordial. It’s one of those things I imagine they made back in the middle ages seeing as the plant has featured in legend and folklore since the early days of Christianity. Text refers to it as the Judas Tree, because Judas Iscariot allegedly hung himself from an elder tree after betraying Jesus, and seen as a symbol of sorrow.
In Scandinavian folklore the elder has more magical connections with goddesses and spirits believed to inhabit its branches, while in Anglo-Saxon stories it’s described as a blessed and protected plant. The belief being that anyone who damages an elder would be cursed, and the only just cause for cutting one down or taking a part of it, was as a cure or to make a protective charm. In this case the dryads, protective spirits of the tree, would be entreated on bended knee and with bowed head, with a request, reciting the words “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” (Trogillus Arnkiel, a 17th century Germanic religious scholar, quoted in Grieve’s Modern Herbal)
Elder flowers have a firmly established place in the repertoire of herbal medicine; often used to treat inflammatory disorders, congestive conditions of the respiratory system especially when accompanied by fever, coughs, colds, flu, asthma and hay fever. The diaphoretic action helping to reduce fever and so ease the symptoms of measles, scarlet fever and other infections. The flowers, were also added to a bath to soothe irritable nerves and itchy skin, a tincture of them used as an eyewash for sore eyes, while a poultice made from the flowers could soothe ear ache.
These days the most common reason for collecting elderflowers is to make cordial. It’s sad that there’s such a short window of opportunity to do this. I always plan to get out picking in good time, but as usual life and work conspires against me and before I know it the end of the season is approaching, and I just have enough time to rush out and collect what I can before the sun scorches the remaining blooms to a grubby mucky brown. It’s not as if collecting them is an onerous job around here. Just a short walk around the block rewards with views most dream of, and usually yields more produce than one can cope with. In a half mile stretch of hedgerow and woods I can collect elder flowers (followed by elderberries), blackberries, sloes, cob nuts plus assorted wild herbs and plants (sorrel, pennywort….the list goes on).
It’s funny how my kids love elderflower drinks but can’t stand the smell of the flowers. Aroma of ‘cats piss’ as the teen describes them, but still they are always happy to have freshly made cordial, which if I don’t hide it away disappears in a flash. This time I used my foraged flowers to make elderflower presse, rather than the slightly more explosive champagne and in addition to some cordial. A presse makes a refreshing drink, with less sugar than the cordial. I use limes instead of lemons, or as on this occasion a mixture of the two which produces a lovely citrussy drink for a hot summers day.
A walk through the woods to find elder flowers
bingo! Found a good tree full
I love the folklore and recurring theme’s of protection, mystery, witch craft, healing and superstition that run through every account of the elder in nature, but I guess the real message as I sit in the sun sipping my elderflower presse, is to treat the elder with respect and nature will give back in kind. This is a message that translates to all nature really and is important for us to remember now, at a time when so much of our natural resources are taken for granted, ignored and destroyed (do I sound like a bit of a hippy? Well, I don’t care, its true!)
about 8 large elderflower heads
8 litres water
2 and a half pounds / 1.2 k sugar
4 tablespoons of mild white wine vinegar
You will need a big bucket with a tight-fitting lid and a fine sieve or large piece of muslin.
Dissolve the sugar in boiling water. Leave to cool then add the elder flowers, the juice of 2 lemons, 1 lime and then slice the others up and add along with the vinegar. Cover the bucket with the lid or with a cloth and leave for a day or two. Strain through a fine sieve or piece of muslin and store in screw top bottles. Leave for at least two weeks (but drink within a month or so).
flowers and lemons steeping in a big bucket