www.barrowvoice.co.uk First Publised 1975
Barrow Voice
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The Elder Tree

The elder tree (Sambucus nigra) is a small British native tree; its frothy white flowers in spring and dark shiny berries in autumn are familiar sights in the hedgerows around Barrow. There’s also a lovely cultivated elder tree called Sambucus nigra Black Lace. It has dark leaves, pink flowers and reddish berries in the autumn and is very pretty. You can use it in the same way as the native elder. You only need one elder tree to have berries because the fl ower has both male and female parts so is self-pollinating.

The flowers are popular these days for elderfl ower cordial. I was reading on the Belvoir Fruit Farms website that it was the first cordial that they ever made with everyone, family and locals included, out in the hedgerows picking the flowers.

The cordial is easily available these days. I did make some years ago, which was more successful than the elderberry wine we tried to make. What a mess! Just trying to remove the berries from the stalks was bad enough let alone making the wine itself! It stains, or it did us, hands, clothes, tea-towels etc. These days I rely on ready-made and some farm shops sell elderberry jams and jellies too.

There is much folklore written about the elder tree. Planting one, especially a self-set seedling, near to the house was thought to protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. But to burn elder wood on the fire could have dire consequences, bringing death and disaster in its wake. This is because it was believed the wood released the devil into your home. Witches and the like are said to live in elder trees!

Try cooking over an elder wood fire and the food isn’t fit to eat. This is possibly because the wood has a nasty strong smell even before it’s burnt! The wood has a pithy centre which, when removed, leaves the tubes hollow and suitable for pipes, chanters and whistles. The fairy folk, it’s said, use instruments like pan-pipes made from elder. They love music and dancing especially on Midsummer’s Eve. One much newer tale about the use of elder wood is found in the Harry Potter stories by J K Rowling. The elder wand is one of the Deathly Hallows. It’s the most powerful wand in that magical world defeating all other wands it encounters...as long as you are the True Owner…

The tree is thought to have derived its common name of elder from the Anglo Saxon word ‘aeld’ (f re) and this is related to the fact you could easily remove the pith and blow down it. Fire was so important to the Anglo-Saxons as it provided heat for cooking and food. They used iron and flint to strike a spark and then blew down tubes of elder wood right into the heart of the fire like a primitive bellows.

Wildlife loves the elder tree. The flowers attract butterflies, moths, bees and a variety of pollinating insects. The berries are a treat for birds and small mammals, quickly stripping the ripe berries in no time at all. The elder is also known to have health- giving properties, although parts of the tree are potentially toxic, which is why I would always recommend using medicines bought from reliable sources and not home-made. Elderflowers and berries are said to alleviate allergies and to boost the immune system. They are also said to be antiviral, antioxidant and anti-infl ammatory and are often used in colds and flu remedies. Elderflowers are said to help sore red eyes, whilst a tea may have preventative qualities that boost natural good health.

It’s so hot as I'm writing this! What a summer this year! My favourite go-to drink in this weather is elderflower cordial and iced water. You can find lots of recipes on the internet or in magazines, some using wine or gin, fizzy or still water and all very refreshing. A delight to eat with it is a slice of elderflower drizzle cake - like lemon drizzle only made with the cordial. I hope we have a fruitful autumn after the summer drought.

Maggie J