Every year there’s a new fashionable herb on the market. It’s always some exotic thing that comes from afar with a foreign sounding name and a miracle cure.
Yet we can sometimes forget what’s right around us. As we’re learning with the local food movement, what’s nearby and available is oftentimes best.
Elderberries, also known as elder, love our region. They’re on roadsides (the bush with the clusters of flat-topped, white flowers), and you’ll find them on hillsides, near rivers and in abandoned waste places. Sometimes they’re planted to marvelous effect in yards. And whether for food, medicine, beauty or function, we love them back.
For food: Last year’s harvest of one shrub yielded gallons of berries (up to 25 gallons can be yielded from one mature shrub). Some we strained and made into juice for making wine. Another batch was dried to use on cereal or bake into muffins, which add a hearty, crunchy texture. The dried berries are just like raisins, and they’ll last all winter and beyond. But the best use was fresh berries in a chocolate cake, which rendered a moist, rich, and sponge-like dessert experience.
For medicine: In herbal medicine, both elder flowers and berries have been renowned for generations for immune-system support. Elder is used for coughs, colds and other winter maladies. The lacy flowers, which are often used for fevers, are harvested in June and tinctured. The berries, which are ready to pick in late summer or early fall, are tinctured, eaten, or more commonly, made into syrup.
To make elder syrup, gently cook down the berries, strain out the seeds and skins, and mix in a little honey to the remaining juice. Simmer on low heat until the mixture is thick and concentrated. This syrup will keep in the fridge or freezer for months. A tablespoon of it during winter eases the throat, and infuses the body with vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that only berries can provide. Not only that, it tastes delicious. I’ve even put the syrup on ice cream or added it to smoothies.
For beauty: We planted elder around our homestead farm and in the gardens. It’s so easy to grow, you can literally take a dormant cutting of the wood and stick it in the ground. It will sprout roots off a node and come to life in the spring. It grows prolifically and produces bunches of beautiful white flowers and dense clusters of purple berries. In areas where I want to control the height of the shrub, which can reach 15 feet or more in fertile soil, I cut it back significantly in late fall — literally almost to the ground. The next year, it will reliably re-grow into a fuller bush complete with flowers and fruit.
For function: A bush that produces food, medicine, and beauty is already functional. Yet the benefits continue. Here are my three favorite functional uses for elder:
1. As a living hedge: I planted this shrub on a small slope that gets some animal traffic. I wanted something to grow thick and lush, keep the slope from eroding and make it difficult for animals to walk on. Elder did the trick. I dug up a plant from elsewhere, divided the roots and planted it along the slope. In two years it’s filled in to create a living hedge.
2. As a visual barrier: There is a beautiful 12-foot-tall tall elder blocking the view to the outdoor shower, which gets used by many people. It creates a beautiful visual barrier from outside and foliage-surrounding privacy from within.
3. For the chicken yard: Planting elders in the chicken yard has provided shade and hiding places for the chickens. It also prevents the yard from getting too sun-baked, and the elder uses the nutrients left behind by the chickens. In the fall the chickens hop up onto the branches to eat the berries, thereby enhancing their health (chickens have immune systems too).
For magic: Eldermoor is the name of the fairy that is reputed to live in the elder tree. In days of old, elder has been planted at the entrance to or the center of the herb garden as Eldermoor has the role of the overall protector of the garden.
Whether you harvest in the wild or grow your own, Elder is a beneficial friend to make here in the mountains. Sambucus nigra is native to Europe but fully naturalized here while Sambucus Canadensis is native to North America. Both are equally as beneficial. Our friends at Useful Plants Nursery have made the cultivation elder a specialty with their own introduced varieties specific to the Western North Carolina mountains (usefulplants.org).
— Lee Walker Warren lives in a Cohousing Neighborhood at Earthaven Ecovillage. She is an herbalist, writer, and manager of a pasture-based, cooperative farm. She is a Co-coordinator of the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference, and annual event dedicated to the Wise Woman Tradition. This year’s conference takes place Oct. 14-16. Details can be found at sewisewomen.com.