The elder or sambucus nigra is an ancient, flowering shrub native to Europe. Its low maintenance growth habits and numerous household uses make it a common sight in gardens along with prolific wild growth in hedgerows, woodlands and wastelands. For decorative purposes look for dramatic variants such as ‘Black Lace’ with its deep purple foliage and pale pink flowers, or go for the more traditional green varieties with their finely flavoured white flower heads.
Those frothy flowers not only look pretty, they also make great cordial and summer drinks and have useful medicinal properties, great for colds, flu and sore throats with an anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal and anti-viral action. The hollow stems of the branches are also useful for getting a fire going.
Elderflower has been used as a medicine since Roman times, when ancient herbalists saw it as a kind of ‘cure all’. All of the plant is useful, with the roots boasting diuretic properties and the leaves used to make a cold and flu fighting tea or, similar to arnica, to make creams to treat bruises and soft tissue injuries.
These days the plant is prized for its flowers rather than roots or leaves. Modern herbalists recommend drinking elderflower tea in spring to guard against hay fever later in the summer.
Summer coolers: elderflower champagne and cordial
Elderflower heads produce drinks with a delicate, citrusy flavour that make ideal summer refreshments. Elderflower champagne is a more adult alternative to the traditional cordial and adds that fashionable retro touch to summer picnics or events and it’s wonderfully easy to make at home!
- 10 elderflower heads
- 2 litres boiling water
- 600g caster sugar
- 2 litres cold water
- 2 lemons, juiced
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
For elderflower champagne plunder the elder bushes before midday to get the flowers at their best. Shake the heads to dislodge any insects.
Take the boiling water off the heat, add the sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Add the cold water, lemon juice, vinegar and elderflower heads, stir gently and leave to cool.
Cover the mixture with a clean cloth and leave in a cool, dark place to ferment. At this stage you can add half a teaspoon of wine yeast to speed up the process by a couple of days, or you can sit back and allow nature to do her thing.
A week later, strain the mixture through a clean, muslin cloth and funnel into sterilised plastic or glass bottles. Seal the bottles and leave for a week before drinking, opening the bottles regularly to allow any fermentation gases in the elderflower champagne to be released – exploding glass bottles make a terrible mess!