Ah spring, and the buzz of bees in the creamy umbels of elder blossoms. This year seems to be a particularly good year for the local elder with the few good spring soakings we’ve had. The elder tree in my back yard, which came from a traditional Lakota Wopila ceremony two summers ago as a tiny start, is now towering over the fence and spilling into the neighbor’s yard. The birds love it and are constantly in it and around it, as well as the bees, as already mentioned. Elder is one of my favorite local plants and a good friend. Right now is the time to gather elder blossoms to dry for teas in the fall and winter, to soak for tinctures that will last for years, and to make daily batches of cordial for refreshment and enjoyment and for an easy way to let a little bit of the wild slip inside of us.
Elder has long been revered as a medicine chest. Charlemagne in the 8th century declared that all people in his kingdom must grow an elder tree in their garden due to it’s pharmocopeia of goodness. Most parts of the tree have been used medicinally, but I am most familiar with the use of the flowers and berries. The flowers are in full force right now, so you can do your harvesting and note where the best plants are to go back and get berries in the summer. I love the practice of tracking the trees in certain places through the year and watching how they evolve through the seasons. Elder grow all over here in Santa Barbara and throughout most of the country as well.
Elder flowers are cooling and diaphoretic (sweat inducing). They are antipyretic (reduce fever) and antiviral (help boost immunity to resist viruses). According to Matthew Alfs they are best for Pitta and Kapha dosha balance in the Ayurvedic tradition, due to cooling aspects with Pitta (fire) and drying aspects with kapha (water and earth). In addition to the medicinal uses, flutes have been made from the tree due to the ease of hollowing out the pith in the center of the branches, as well as clapping sticks for percussion, thus the appellation of music as well as medicine tree.
At the first feeling of a fever or cold, you can begin drinking a tea of the flowers to help head it off at the pass. Here in Santa Barbara, when we have our hot and muggy spring days, a glass of elder flower tea or cordial can help you to keep your cool.
Here is a recipe for elder flower cordial;
5 cups boiling water
1/4 c sugar, maple syrup, or honey (if using honey, add after water cools down a bit)
8-12 bunches of fresh elder flowers, majority of stems removed as the stems can be toxic
If using sugar, add sugar to water and mix. If using maple syrup or honey, add sweetener after water has cooled to lukewarm, just warm enough to dissolve sweetener as honey can become a toxic food when heated.
Grate both lemon peels into the hot water, then slice lemons and add to the mix. Add the elder flowers last, snipped from the stems. (add hone or maple syrup now) Stir and cover with a clean kitchen towel and let sit overnight, Pour off through cheesecloth and decant into a lovely bottle for serving to family and friends. Enjoy and keep your cool while boosting immunity for spring and summer.
Later in the summer I’ll do another blog with some uses for elder berries, so start tracking your trees now. Elder berries can be harvested fresh and processed, as well as frozen and used later.
Remember, whenever you harvest anything, to be sure you are positive of the identification before you ingest the plant in any way. Check out United Plants Savers to keep up on which wild plants are endangered before you harvest. Harvest with respect and love and ask the plants first before you harvest, then listen for the answer in your heart.