Common Elder: a natural and cultural history – new article just published

Common Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a plant that has fascinated me since my childhood, when I spent many happy hours scrambling around in its branches and pelting friends with the small fruits that stained our clothes and skin. I was therefore delighted to be able to finally write about my fascination in an article in the May issue of British Wildlife magazine. Although many dismiss it as a rather weedy, commonplace plant, I hope that readers are pleasantly surprised by just how interesting Common Elder is, in terms of its utilitarian value, the mythology and superstitions associated with it, and of course the wildlife that it supports.

I’m developing a talk based on this article, which I’m happy to present online for any natural history or botanical groups. If it’s of interest, drop me a line via my Contact page.

17 thoughts on “Common Elder: a natural and cultural history – new article just published

  1. spamletblog

    Always used to have one in the garden, so I could get some rhubarb fermenting a couple of weeks before the flowers are ready. Then watch for the blooms to take on a slightly darker tinge as the anthers turn orange on emptying: at this stage just put a muslin bag over an umbel and give it a twirl, to get just the corollas to go in your pink champagne, without any of the cats’ pee notes that the green parts of the plant gives. This way you still get the berries for later too–if you can beat the ants as they place sleeves of fat blackfly over the whole lot!

    Elderflower champagne is infinitely better than the greatly overrated grape variety.

    The white wood takes a great polish too.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks, that’s interesting. I would have assumed that you needed fresh flowers for the “champagne” but clearly not. I’ll have to give it a go.

      1. spamletblog

        They are fresh: that’s why I had the bush in the garden, so that I could catch the corollas as soon as they detached. Most people just break off the whole umbel, which is a waste and full of earwigs and fluorescent green spiders, and smells awful unless you can dry them very quickly spread out on newspaper on a hot sunny day. You only need a small teacup full of the corrollas (pressed in) inside a small sock, for a gallon of champagne. For rhubarb, simmer the stems gently until they start to break up. Then set them to ferment with sugar in a bucket. After a couple of days, the strings are all lifted clear of the juice by the rising gas, and you can lift them off in one piece to leave one of the mmost beautiful coloured juices you’ve seen or tasted. If you can resist drinking the fermenting rhubarb juice as it is, pop in your sock weighted with the cup of corollas, and give it a squeeze now and then until it’s all clear and ready to go in your champagne bottles. How sweet or dry you make it is up to you, but you can get up to 3lb of sugar to convert in each gallon, which is stronger than your run of the mill champagne. Think i’ve still got the odd ancient bottle from better days around somewhere! πŸ™‚
        Works very well with sweet gooseberries or apricots if you have them to hand ripe, a couple of weeks before the elderflowers are ready. Don’t put flowers in while the bulk is fermenting vigorously or it just drives most of the floral volatiles out.

        There used to be seasonal collectiors of sacks full of umbels round this way for people taking them to Ransoms in Hitchin for steam distillation. It seemed to me it must taste pretty rough, as the pickers took whole umbels whether in full flower or not. Most of the cordial you get just tastes of sulphur dioxide to me. :/

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Interesting. By “fresh” I meant that the flowers had just opened. I would have though that those would have most of the scent and that the older flowers you’re describing would be much less highly scented.

  2. spamletblog

    Oh: incidentally, the cake of strings you lift off the rhubarb juice can still be used in rhubarb crumble, with a bit of added sugar and acid if necessary. Nothing needs to go to waste (as with carrot wine, that tastes like whiskey and you still get to eat the carrots! πŸ™‚ )

    1. spamletblog

      It’s not possible to get the corollas off until the anthers turn orange, when you will find one or two start to drop before the others. There is still plenty of sweet scent with the detached corollas. If you try to force them off before they are ready, you break off the green parts and it smells like cat’s pee. You can still catch some corollas once the anthers turn brown, but most will have fallen by then. If you go over the bush regularly over the week or so it’s in flower, you can dry a few batches of corollas on newspaper per day, but the more green bits you include the longer it takes and the more smelly it is. My one bush used to give me a couple of pints of dried corollas crammed into jam jars per year, and they seemed to keep indefinitely, both for making wine and for soothing drinks.
      The bushes do grow very fast though, so you have to be ruthless in cutting out the sticks after they’ve fruited, or you won’t be able to reach the next year’s crop. Keep the new shoots to single straight sticks each year, and it’s easier to run your fingers up the stems to strip off the thick sleeves of blackfly the ants will put there. If you have space for some thistles or sow thistles, the ants might switch to those instead (though those are good in salads too!).

      Sadly, my tree died after a neighbour dug a pond the other side of its fence. I tried to get jews ears and oyster fungi to grow on the stump, by drilling it and injecting ripe fungi extracts, but nothing ever grew on it: well, no obvious fruiting bodies anyway. :/


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