Don’t be fooled by the name. The magic this plant spins is an all-ages affair.
I remember when I first discovered the subtle, delicate flavor of elderflower. My friend Lizzy had invited me over under the premise that we’d do nothing but hang out on her front porch and get drunk on wine.
“We’ll pretend to be old ladies together,” she joked. I enthusiastically accepted.
When I arrived, she introduced me to the simple joys of the fröcc, a drink she’d discovered (and subsequently fallen in love with) while studying at Central European University in Budapest. A fröcc is essentially a wine spritzer — but unlike in America, in Hungary its popularity is anything but basic. It is the quintessential drink of summer.
And I promise to never make fun of wine spritzers because of it.
Your typical fröcc can be ordered at Hungarian bars in no less than at least seven distinct shades of booziness, from very boozy to mostly soda. They can also be enjoyed with a splash of fruity or floral syrup, too, and that is what Lizzy served me: a heavy pour of white wine, a splash of soda, and a bit of elderflower syrup.
I remember carrying the drink to an antique rocking chair on her front porch and sinking into it. There was a cool, early fall breeze coming throughout the screened windows on her porch, and as I drank the fröcc and let its boozy, sweet floral character wash over me, growing old suddenly felt pretty great.
If growing old, as an indefinitely single woman, meant spending all my time in porch-front rocking chairs, drinking wine in the early afternoon, and not worrying about whether or not anyone would ever love me as deeply as Lizzy did — I deeply, and emotionally, wanted in.
Which all feels like an eerily appropriate introduction to the folklore surrounding the elder tree.
Because throughout Europe, the elder tree is believed to be inhabited by the spirit of a powerful elderly feminine spirit. In Denmark, she is known as Hyldemoer, the Elder Mother; in parts of the British Isles, she is the White Goddess; in Germany (and other German-speaking countries) she is Frau Holle/Holla or Perchta; and in some Nordic lore she is also even identified as Freya.
While the elder tree is typically revered for the presence of this spirit, and the protective care the spirit provides to those who live or work near a tree or whom harvest her flowers and berries, there is also a well-known dark side.
In many cultures, the goddess is the guardian of the underworld, the faery realm, or the afterlife. She is sometimes seen as a gatekeeper between the living and the dead. And cutting down or burning down an elder – or doing so without asking for permissions – is considered an open invitation to her to unleash her vengeance on yourself and even your entire family.
In Ireland, the tree also has some connotations with witchcraft, as witches were believed to be able to disguise themselves as elder trees or use its boughs as a team of horses. Some sources say that burning the hollow branches of the tree was even believed to unleash the screaming of the devil.
…Not everyone, I guess, is pleased by the sight of a strong woman?
From Left: Roger Bunting, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Nordic Food Lab, CC BY-SA 4.0
The notion that elder trees can cause harm isn’t entirely unfounded, though. According to the Nordic Food Lab, the tree stores cyanide in molecules known as glycosides. This isn’t at all unlike how apples can store cyanide in their seeds (and similarly as do stone fruits, as well as cassava). But while your liver can eliminate small amounts of cyanide, the lab notes that ingesting any amount of leaves, branches, bark, roots, stems, or unripe fruits from the elder tree might overwhelm it, and provoke nausea, vomiting, feelings of general weakness, and dizziness.
At high enough concentrations (as little as 37.8 milligrams, but more typically 98 mg in one day), the glycosides carried by elder may even cause death; but that said, what we know today, notes the lab, is that cyanide also has a boiling point of 78.26 degrees Fahrenheit, “which means that even a little heat would vaporise the toxin and make the product safer.”
Much of this relates to everything but fully ripe fruits, or flowers: both which are considered, generally speaking, to be safe for consumption.
So where can you find an elder? You can spot it throughout much of North America as a small bush-like tree. In Minnesota, the tree blooms between July and August, and its berries follow in the fall. Two edible varieties of it can be found in Minnesota specifically — a common, native varietal (sambucus canadensis) and a cultivated European cousin (sambucus nigra).
Both varieties of elder may be used in culinary and herbal applications and are fairly interchangeable, although herbalists Guido Masé and Jovial King note in DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor that they prefer canadensis for its flowers, and nigra for its berries.
There is also a third common variety, red elderberry — or red-berried elder (sambucus racemosa), that grows wild in Minnesota but is not edible. Conveniently, this form of the tree blooms much earlier in the year — as early as April.
According to Minnesota Wildflowers, its flower clusters are distinctly egg-shaped as well, versus the flat-topped, wide umbels of its edible cousins. And as its name suggests, it also sports bright-red berries, unlike the ripe purple-black of edible elders.
So what is elder particularly good for? Western herbalists often turn to elder during cold and flu season. It is also an ancient wound remedy, and some folklore suggests that it is particularly effective at promoting good health in the very young and the very old — a seemingly odd anecdote that gains a degree of believability given the findings of mainstream medical research.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some research suggests that elder may have antiviral, anti-influenza, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. The berries also contain Vitamin C and a high concentration of antioxidant flavonoids, which the center notes “outranks blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, and blackberries in terms of total flavanol content.”
Few studies have been done on humans on elder’s flavonoids — however, there is other evidence of the plant’s beneficial nature. Specifically, “some evidence suggests chemicals in elder flower and berries may help reduce swelling in mucous membranes, including the sinuses, and help relieve nasal congestion.” It may also help us sweat more — and studies show it may substantially shorten the duration of the flu (in one such study, by as much as three days.)
Among its many other curious uses, it is also a traditional remedy for settling wild ravings and for wakefulness. This is, as herbalist Siloh Radovsky puts it, “Perhaps a reflection of its relationship to journeying and the imagination.”
Elder, the queen of the underworld, is nothing if not poetic.