Elderflower season is now in full swing with the fragrant, saucer-sized flowerhead out in abundance.

The weather has held them back a little so they may flower for longer than usual into June.

The elder (Sambucus nigra) is a small shrubby tree with dark, deeply incised bark and a messy habit, with a liking for growing under the canopy of larger trees and tight up against buildings. It’s a very common tree and you’ll find plenty growing from Sidford to Sidmouth along the length of The Byes. It seems equally happy with wet feet next to the river Sid, as it does in dry shade.

In many areas an elder tree was planted against the house in order to protect against witches, and more prosaically it was planted against outdoor privys and dairies because of its ability to deter flies and insects. Crush and smell a leaf when you’re next passing an elder and you’ll understand why. A belief in many European countries was that an Elder Mother protects each tree and it was extremely bad luck to cut one down; permission must first be sought from the ‘old Gal’. Bringing elder wood into the house was also considered bad luck.  

Elder was also understood to be a medicine chest with all parts (flower, fruit, leaf, bark and roots) offering a broad range of medical uses. Whilst today elderflower is familiar to most people as a delicious cordial, it is still widely prescribed by medical herbalists to help clear catarrhal inflammation in the upper respiratory tract, making it useful for sinusitis, hay fever and catarrhal deafness. An infusion or tincture (alcoholic extract) made from a combination of elderflowers, plantain and nettle leaf is an effective hay fever remedy.

Elderflowers are also known to be diaphoretic, meaning that they promote perspiration through dilation of the surface capillaries of the skin, helping to manage and dispel fever. An old remedy for the early stages of flu was to take one handful of dried elder flowers and one handful of dried peppermint leaves, pour over one and half pints of boiling water and steep for half an hour. Strain and sweeten and drink as hot as possible whilst tucked up in bed to promote a restful sleep as well as perspiration. A diaphoretic tea that includes elder flowers, yarrow and peppermint is still commonly prescribed for adults for cold and flu.

Some cultivated varieties of elder are particularly heavy fruiting - I’ve planted several in my garden to help reduce the pressure on the wild trees growing nearby and provide plenty for drying as well as for cordial, vinegar and fritters.

Canda Diacono is a qualified medical herbalist, registered with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. To find out more about a herbal approach to attaining good health, visit www.candadiacono.com. 

If you have any medical concerns please consult with a medical professional, and please be 100% sure of your plant identification if ingesting it or putting on the skin.