Mother Elder!

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is one of my favorite plants for its plethora of delightful uses, for its incredible beauty in flower and fruit, and for its helpful and healthful relationship with garden plants in general, it "teaches them where to go and what to do." It's a tree of magic in european lore, being a guardian tree along with the Rowan. We chose to plant our Elder shrubs somewhat away from the fence to avoid it traveling and coming up in the fence, next to the drainage from the gutter. A few days later I noticed a shrub totally out of line with the staggered row we planted. This new elder was naturally occuring and coming up inside the fence - our neighbor whacked the part on his side and it started to grow lightning fast out in five directions toward our yard!

All parts of elder can be used for medicine or play. The older stems and branches can be cut and hollowed to make flutes and pea-chutes. Young Elder leaves can be dried and infused in oil to be made into salve that lightens freckles, brightens skin tone, acts as a moisturizer for chapped and cracked skin by helping the cells to bind, and is used for sprains and bruising. Elder flowers can be used as tea or tincture to encourage sweating at the beginning of colds and flus. This action of the hot tea with flowers or hot bath with tincture is effective if you get right under blankets. It causes viral infections to be eliminated directly through the pores, calms the nerves and brings up congestion. The most delicious ways to eat Elder berries are in wine left to age an entire year, jelly, and syrup - you can also dry the berries (they're tiny and can be dried in the sun) to enjoy throughout the winter sauteed with a little water and sugar and eaten over pancakes or baked right into muffins and cookies.

You can't go wrong using at least the fruit from this especially abundant lady plant. They're packed with procyanidins, flavonoids known to inhibit abnormal cell growth like cancer, to increase immune response, and to strengthen cell membranes against viral attacks. They are also potent sources of vitamin A and C, particularly important for long winters without fresh fruits and vegetables.

"... the tree itself is 'sambuca' - the pipe of Pan - and it is his spirit blowing through this most sacred tree that enters the world (and the sick body) to heal and teach humankind. In fact, elder is viewed in all ancient texts as a panacea, a cure-all. Pan is the sacred power of forest and animal, the Lord of the Hunt, Guardian of Forest and Animal. The exact meaning of panacea is 'to be healed or cured by Pan, the deepest sacred power of forest.' When the tree is used for medicine the sacred power of Pan is evoked through this, his most sacred healing plant. It has been set down in all ancient oral traditions that those who truly use the power of the elder for their medicine shall all grow old, becoming in their turn an elder, that, in fact, it will cure all ills that humankind encounters if one calls on its power properly." -- Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Stephen Harrod Buhner

OK, so now you're so psyched about the amazing medicinal powers of Elder that you want to make something to preserve and use the Elder Mother throughout the late summer and all winter long. Awesome! First step, go find some! This can be tricky at first without some knowledge of the plant's look - make sure you correctly identify her by looking at photos and comparing the leaves and bark to them. Fortunately, once you know what she looks like, you'll spot Elder all over the place! Elder grows in poor soils (avoid roadsides up to 6 ft and ditches along them), along edges and in areas where water flows. The berries hang down in sometimes HUGE clusters that begin green, then become purple, and at peak ripeness are basically black. Clip the clusters, fill a few bags or a bucket, de-stem the berries (this year I watched the series Heroes for 4 hours and cultivated my inner hero healer while de-stemming), and you'll end up with a bunch of beautiful berries and purple fingers. The next step is to wash the berries by putting small amounts in water and skim off the floating stuff until they're all clean. From here you can either press the berries with a potato masher and strain for raw juice or smash and simmer for 10 minutes to soften them and make it a little easier to express the juice. You can also do this with purchased dried berries, allowing them to rehydrate in cool water and then simmering.

At this point, you have something so intense in color that you'll feel really good about all this effort and you might start to think about the incredible thing you're doing by taking part in keeping yourself well, and by limiting the cost of what you spend on cough syrups and time out of work this winter. You just might start pondering color and its ability to indicate density of nutrition from bright yellows and oranges to deep reds and purples, and maybe you'll imagine the healing photons entering your body through this medicinal concoction you're making for yourself and those you love. Maybe you'll feel, as I often do while making medicine, a deep and profound reverence for all the lives that will be assisted through this process, for the life of the plant and the earth who is ally to all these lives.

All right! Feeling good now, you'll want to decide what you want to make with this juice. We had a huge harvest this year (Fox Bridge Rd, northeast side of Bunn Park, untreated and up away from the road), so along with what I've put up in the freezer, I made jelly and syrup. Jelly is made with the addition of sugar and pectin, to varying degrees - I've seen recipes including half apples or crab-apples for pectin, and also sumac flowers to cut down the cloying sweetness of the finished elder product. For now, let's think about syrup because it can be made with honey if kept below 110 degrees F. First simmer the juice without a lid until it's reduced by half. Meanwhile, gather honey and clean jars for bottling and canning (if necessary). You'll need twice as much honey as juice by volume, preferably from bees several miles from GMO crops and never heated above 110 as this denatures the honey. If you've got 2 cups of juice, you'll need 4 cups of honey. Once the juice is reduced, add the honey and stir continuously over a low flame until the whole batch is dissolved and mixed. Ladle the syrup into jars, wipe tops, screw on sealing mason lids and process in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes (or more at higher elevations). The canning part is unneccesary if stored in a refrigerator.

That's it! Now you have a incredibly special addition to pancakes, waffles, ice cream, or anything that requires a subtle flavor and a dose of sweetness. Send thanks to the Elder every time you and your loved ones enjoy this medicinal delight! Also enjoy the photos of the process by clicking on the photos at right!