By Sasha Aparicio
The elder plant has deep roots in European history, as well as in the history of several other civilizations around the world. The mystical plant is the center of stories about witches and spirits that reside in its wood. Since before colonial times, the powers it is believed to hold reached far and beyond stories and settled in medicine bottles and wine glasses, and even on doorways.
Evidence of the respect attributed to the elder plant, and the knowledge around its uses, are still available to us thanks to books published in colonial times. While the printing press was likely invented in China in the 9th century, the printing press wasn’t popularized to produce texts for the public at large in Europe until the 14th and 15th centuries 1History.com. (2018). “Printing Press”. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/printing-press .
During this period literacy was limited in the general, but it did allow the greatest thinkers and researchers to record their thoughts and findings for others to learn from and replicate. Today, these books are like tiny time capsules into the past; they give us a glimpse into what life was like, including what people eat and drank, how they cured illnesses, and how they viewed the rest of the world.
Colonial Literature and What It Tells Us About the Elder Plant
There are at least three jewels of texts that were printed in North American colonial times that capture age-old knowledge on the use and benefits of the elder plant and elderberries.
The Anatomie of the Elder, by Dr. Martin Blochwich, 1677.
In this book, Dr. Martin Blockwich described the many medicinal uses of the elder tree, its fruits, and its leaves 2Blockwitz, Martin. (1677). The Anatomy of the Elder. London. Digital version published by Text Creation Partnership (2008). https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A28386.0001.001?view=toc . In over 200 pages, the text describes the plant in itself, and how powders, oils, syrups, spirits, vinegars, and waters can be derived from the plant to treat different types of fevers, carbuncles, colic, worms, dysentery, constipation, hemorrhoids, ulcers, inflammation and several other ailments. This text, while published long before the rise of modern medicine, hinted towards several properties of the elder plant we now know to be true, including its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties 3Abuja, Peter; Murkovic, Michael; Pfannhauser, Werner. (1998) “Antioxidant and Prooxidant Activities of Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) Extra in Low-Density Lipoprotein Oxidation.” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. 46 (10) pp. , 4Olejnik, Anna, et. Al. “Anti-inflammatory effects of gastrointestinal digested Sambucus nigra L. fruit extract analysed in co-cultured intestinal epithelial cells and lipopolysaccharide-stimulated macrophages”. Journal of Functional Foods. Vol. 19. Pp , 5Rodino, S. et. Al. (2015). “Comparative studies on antibacterial activity of licorice, elderberry and dandelion.” Digest Journal of Nanomaterials and Biostructures. 10 (3). Pp. 947-955. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marian_Butu3/publication/282756082_Comparative_studies_on_antibacterial_activity_of_licorice_elderberry_and_dandelion/links/56ea7b4308aec8bc07822fbf.pdf . [would be wonderful to have an excerpt]
The Art of Cookery, by Hannah Glasse, 1747.
The Art of Cookery features several recipes based on elderberries, leaves, flowers, and elder shoots 6Glasse, Hannah. (1747). The Art of Cookery. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/TheArtOfCookery . In her book Glasse instructs readers to use elder vinegar as a marinade and sauce for meat and game, and even describes how to pickle young shoots of the elder tree to taste like pickled bamboo.
One of the most delictable-sounding recipes is one for Elder-flower wine:
To make Elder-flower Wine, very like Fontiniac.
Take six gallons of spring-water, twelve pounds of white sugar, six pounds of raisins of the sun chopped. Boil these together one hour, then take the flowers of the elder, when the are falling, an rub them off to the quantity of half a peck. When the liquor is cold, put them in, the next day put in the juice of three lemons, and four spoonfulls, of good ale. Let it stand covered up two days, then strain it off, and put it in a vessel fir for it. To every gallon of wine, but in a quart of Rhenish, and put your bung lightly on a fortnight, then chop it down close. Let it stand six months, and if you find it fine, bottle it off.
A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook, by Elizabeth Ellicot Lea, 1821.
Though published after the North American colonial era, A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook captures recipes used as long as 150 years before publishing 7Ellicott Lea, Elizabeth. (1821). A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook. Ed. William Woys Weaver. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt19cc2fv . In her book, Ellicot Lea details recipes for elderberry jams for colds, ointments made of elderberry, and even elderberry wine.
The recipe for elderberry jam for colds is quite interesting:
Elderberry Jam for Colds, etc.
A quart of nicely picked elderberries, to a pound of loaf-sugar and a tea-cup of water; let them boil slowly for an hour. If you prefer it without the seeds, strain he berries after boiling them for a few minutes, before you add the sugar. This is useful and agreeable for colds, taken through the day, or at night, when the cough is troublesome. It is also said the purify the blood, and is taken to prevent erysipelas.
The Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpeper, 1652.
A third use of the elderberry plant in the colonial era, in addition to medicinal and culinary uses, are its cosmetic uses. Medical Doctor Nicholas Culpeper published the book The Complete Herbal in the mid-17th century to describe the uses of different herbs for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. He describes how elderflower water could help to soften the skin, lighten freckles, and soothe sunburn. The berries could also be made into a paste for dyeing the hair 9Nicholas, Culpeper (1652). The Complete Herbal. http://www.survivorlibrary.com/library/culpepers_complete_herbal_1880.pdf .
He writes, “the distilled water of the flowers is of much use to clean the skin from sun-burning, freckles, morphew, or the like… the leaves or flowers distilled in the month of May, and the legs often washed with the said distilled water, takes away the ulcers and sores of them.” (pg. 128)
More recent excavations in New England shows that colonists, regardless of whether they followed a recipe or medical advice, certainly consumed elderberries. Sandy Helsel wrote in The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry, “We assume that the colonists used these recipes and ate elderberries, but archaeological excavations of a Newport, RI privy turned up real evidence – 2,508 elderberry seeds were found therein!”8Helsel, Sandy. (2013). The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry. Without a doubt, the elder tree, its berries and its flowers are deeply entwined in our history. Folklore tells of its seemingly mystical powers, and the literature published in our history captures the knowledge on which the uses of the elder plant in food, medicine, and beauty were put into practice.
Description: Image from “The Art of Cookery”. The footnote reads, “ The Fair, who’s Wise and oft consults out Book, and thence directions gives her Prudent look with Choiciest Viands, has her Table Crown’d and Health, with Frugal Ellegance is found.