September is a wonderful month for foraging in the UK. We’ve got blackberries, sloes, damsons, rosehips, and of course elderberries growing in the hedgerows! In this post, I share my experience trying an elderberry syrup recipe and folklore of the Elder tree. I intend to use this syrup for a vitamin C boost in the winter, and it is a well-known remedy for relieving symptoms of coughs and colds.
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Foraging for Elderberries
Some of the foraging enthusiasts I follow on Instagram recently mentioned that they were gathering elderberries, which sparked my interest. Elderberries are commonly used to make medicinal syrup as well as a cordial drink. I decided to keep a lookout on our daily walks for elderberries, since the trees are prolific in the UK. In addition to syrup, the berries can also be used to make wine and oil for medicinal use. In the late spring, you can harvest the flowers to make cordial, which is a common British beverage. Fun fact, the distilled water of elder flowers was traditionally used to treat leg ulcers, eye complains, and sunburn!
It didn’t take long before Lucy and I came across a tree with berries ripe for picking! I collected several bunches of elderberries. Once picked from the stems, I had one cup of elderberries for my syrup recipe. Elderberries are small and glossy black, sort of like a small currant. If you forage, just make sure you double-check that you’ve correctly identified the species before eating any plant or berry!
Benefits of Elderberry Syrup
Elderberries and honey have antibacterial properties and cinnamon and ginger help with inflammation. This syrup is full of antioxidants, which is why it is popularly sold at health food stores and pharmacies as immunity defense. There are also current clinical studies investigating the efficacy of elderberries in treating influenza (flu). This little berry is a prized find for late summer foraging! I’d use caution consuming too much at once though, because it can also be used to treat constipation; take too much and you might find yourself on the toilet!
Folklore of Elder
Use of Elder (berries, flowers, bark, roots) is ancient, with references by Hippocrates, and traditional use in North American indigenous nations. Many European cultures have folklore associated with Elder. In the context of Britain, Elder is a sacred plant in paganism, both traditional and modern. The Elder Mother is a spirit supposed to inhabit the Elder tree and has magical powers. Some of the folklore associated with Elder includes carrying a piece of the tree to protect oneself from attack, blessings with elder water, and connection with the faerie lands. Elder also holds significance in Christianity. You can find out more about the folklore for this post by the Herb Society.
The word Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘aeld’ meaning fire, because the hollow branches were used as kindling. In medieval herbals, the plant Elder is more likely to be Elecampane, rather than the tree, owing to the Old English name for Elder being “Elen”.
Elderberries in Early Modern Medicine
In my doctoral research on 18th century domestic medicine, I frequently came across recipes in manuscripts containing elderberries. In particular, there are several recipes for distilled elderberry water. For example, one from the Arscott Family Recipe book housed at the Wellcome Library in London goes as follows:
Elder Berry Water
Take a Gallon of Wort, and 2 Gallons of Elder
berrys, a handful of Angellica, an Ounce of
Coriander Seed and Carroway Seeds. Boyl the Wort,
and when its almost Cold bruise the Elder Berrys
very well and mix them with the Wort and Seeds
and Angelica, then put a little Ale Yeast to it as
much as will make it work a little, keep it in a
Vessell close Covered, and once in 2 or 3 days—
Stir it up together, and let it stand 10 Days.
Still it in a Limbeck. This is good for the Collick.
This version certainly would have had a strong flavour with coriander and caraway seeds. As you can see, it was used to treat colic in babies. Culpeper described the many virtues of Elder in his herbal, noting that the berries can be used to bring forth phlegm and choler. He also mentions their use as a black hair dye.
For more historical remedies see:
- 1 Cup Elderberries no stems
- 3 Cups Water
- 2 Tbsp Grated Ginger
- 1 Tsp Cinnamon
- ¾ Cup Honey
- Forage for elderberries, ensuring that it is the correct tree and that the berries are fully ripe.
- Remove the ripe, black elderberries from the stems and place in a strainer. Make sure to avoid getting stems in your mixture as they are poisonous.
- Rinse your elderberries.
- In a medium saucepan, add the elderberries, ginger, cinnamon, and water.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce.
- Simmer, stirring frequently and gently crushing the berries with a wooden spoon. Continue simmering until reduced by half, approximately 40 minutes.
- Strain the liquid through a sieve into a mixing bowl, gently pressing the berries to extract the extra liquid.
- To your liquid, add 3/4 cup of honey (good quality). Stir until dissolved.
- Store in a clean jar or bottle with a secure lid in the fridge.
- Take 1-2 tsp. to help sooth symptoms of coughs and colds. Can also be added to hot water for a warm drink.
This time of year is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the bounty available in nature (while leaving plenty for the wildlife). I’ve already collected crab apples, and I’ll be heading out to forage blackberries tomorrow! Are you a forager? If so, what are you foraging and making at the moment? If you try out this elderberry syrup recipe, please let me know if you like it!