(adapted from Hedgerow MedicineBackyard Medicine, p69)

Elder (Sambucus nigra) has been an important, revered and feared herb through the ages, and across cultures. It is less used now but is the only wildflower in this gallery to be widely grown commercially in the UK and USA, for its cordials and other drinks. The berries make a lovely wine and are delicious cooked with apples.

As a caution, do not eat the leaves; the berries can be consumed but not the seeds within, which can be toxic. Too many raw berries can lead to diarrhoea. As a food the berries are usually cooked, so are then completely safe.

The flowers taken as a tea remain an excellent fever remedy, ‘clearing the channels’ and bringing on sweats, while also the basis of delicious drinks (elderflower champagne anyone?) and desserts. The berries, taken as a glycerite or syrup, work against winter flu and colds, and the leaves, as an ointment, are good for treating bruises.

If the medicinal properties of its [elder’s] leaves, bark, berries &c. were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our country-men could ail, for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wound.
– John Evelyn, Sylva (1664)

Elder flowers dry, boyled in milk and drink it at night. It weill sweat & do much good.
– Book of culinary recipes, 1739–79, Norfolk Record Office

Elder leaf ointment

Warm 250ml extra virgin olive oil in a small pan and add two handfuls of chopped elder leaves. Simmer gently until the leaves are crisp, and strain. Return the oil to the pan. Melt 25g beeswax in the oil, then pour into sterilised glass jars (run them through the dishwasher to achieve sterility). Leave to cool before putting the lids on, and label.

Use this ointment for bruises, sprains and chilblains.

Elderberry syrup

Pick bunches of ripe elderberries that are firm and black. Put the bunches (any amount) into a large saucepan with half their volume of water. Simmer and stir for 20 minutes, allow to cool and squeeze out the juice using a jelly bag or fruit press.

Weigh the juice (now you measure!) and for every 500ml of juice add 250g muscovado sugar, a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves and several slices of lemon. Simmer for 20 minutes, strain and pour while hot into sterilised bottles.

Dosage is 1 teaspoonful neat every few hours for coughs, colds and flu, or use as a cordial by adding hot water to taste.