The magnificent elder

The early Egyptians discovered that elderflowers improve the complexion and soothe skin ailments, and from that time onwards the elder tree has been cultivated for its myriad medicinal properties.

Called ‘medicine chest tree’ in Europe, the elder had been introduced to most parts of the civilised world by the 17th century. These ancient medicines are still used today in rural areas all over the world, and elder trees are found in cottage gardens because it was believed that they kept witches away! Note that the variegated or golden elders are not the correct medicinal plants.


When planting, dig an extra-large hole and mix plenty of compost into the dug-out soil, together with a spade full of bone meal. Put some of the loosened soil mixture back, then fill the hole with water and allow it to drain. Sink the roots deep into the centre of the prepared hole, replace all the soil, firming down as you go until ground level is reached, then make a substantial dam around the tree. Ensure that it receives a deep weekly watering. Every spring dig in a barrowful of compost around the tree, and prune to shape it during July.


The prunings can be rooted in trays of wet sand as they propagate easily. Cut 45 cm long branches and press hard into the wet sand. (Cut just above and just below a node top and bottom of the 35 to 45 cm branch.) Keep them moist and shaded.


Harvest the lacy white flowers when they are fully open in spring; they can also be dried for winter use. Harvest the berries when they are black and fully ripened.


Elder trees protect the whole garden with their insect-repelling leaves and their big ‘presence’, in which everything thrives – plant one in a corner and make a compost heap underneath it. Onions do well near elder trees.


Elderflowers can be eaten fresh, sprinkled onto fruit salads, puddings, ice-creams, fruit drinks and punches, and even onto salads, stir-fries and pastas. Italians say that the flowers taste like muscat grapes, and the little round buds can be added to pickles. When the plump jetblack berries ripen, they can be made into jams, jellies and wine. Elderflower lemonade and elderflower champagne are traditional summer drinks – today they are so popular in Europe that they are available branded and bottled.

MEDICINAL USES Elderberries have a high vitamin C and mineral content and have been used through the centuries as a tonic for flu, coughs, sore throats, anaemia, oedema, neuralgia, insomnia and anxiety. Elderberries are used in tonics and cough medicines in Europe and in patent medicines in America. They are made into a gargle for toothache, mouth infections and sore throats, a popular treatment for kidney and lymphatic ailments and an epilepsy treatment. They also treat burns, scalds, erysipelas sores, sore eyes, skin growths, rashes, grazes, flaky patches and sunburn.

Elderflower tea is effective in breaking the fever associated with a cold or flu. To make the tea, pour a cup of boiling water over ¼ cup fresh elderflowers. Allow the tea to stand for five minutes. Strain and sip slowly at the first signs of a cold or fever. When taken chilled, the tea is a great comfort for menopausal hot flushes and it acts as a gentle diuretic. Usually two cups of elderflower tea is best, morning and afternoon. This precious tea has also been used to clear coughs, to open congested noses and sinuses, to ease hay fever, as a circulatory tonic, and to treat problem skin, both as an internal treatment and as a wash or lotion.


Elderflower lotion (see recipe on page 79) smoothes the skin and helps to relieve eczema and psoriasis. Bath vinegar made from these flowers (see May issue, page 90) soothes sunburned and dry skin and can be added to the final rinse water after shampooing to give dull hair a shine. Elderflower skin cream (see recipe in an earlier article of this issue) treats dry hands, cracked heels and scaly legs and will soften cuticles and strengthen the nail bed.


An insect-repelling spray made with elder leaves is excellent for deterring aphids and mealie bugs and is very helpful for white fly on indoor plants.

Elderberry & Apple Jam

This jam is one of the Herbal Centre’s best sellers and is simply delicious served with whipped cream on hot buttered scones!


  • 4 cups ripe elderberries, pulled off their stems
  • 6 cups peeled and chopped apple
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 3 cups soft brown sugar
  • ½ cup fresh stevia leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 stick cinnamon


Simmer all the ingredients together on low heat in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot until soft and tender – about 30 minutes. Stir well, checking frequently to see that the jam is not burning. Drop a little onto a cold saucer to see if it sets, and cook a little longer if necessary. Remove the cinnamon stick and bottle the jam in sterilized glass jam jars. Seal well, label and store in a dark cupboard.

Elderberry flower Cordial

This is a much-loved cool drink for a hot summer’s day served with crushed ice. It is refreshing and delicious, and is still made in country towns all over Europe and Britain.


  • 4 cups sugar
  • 2 litres water
  • Juice of 4 lemons
  • ½ cup thinly peeled zest
  • 50 g citric acid
  • 30 large elderflower heads, with the stalks cut off
  • Method

Boil the sugar in the water for 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and zest, followed by the citric acid. Allow the mixture to stand for 20 minutes, then add the elderflowers and stir well. Keep the pot covered and leave overnight. The next morning stir thoroughly, strain, pour into labelled bottles and store in the fridge. Serve chilled and diluted with crushed ice and iced water. Serves 10

Elderberry Cough Syrup

Ripe elderberries can be used to make a potent comforting cough mixture on which I have come to rely, especially for children and for hard-to-get-rid- of coughs.


  • 2 cups elderberries, pulled off their ruby stems
  • 1 cup honey


Simmer the elderberries with the honey in a double boiler for 30 minutes. Cool the mixture, then strain it through a new sieve that has been sterilized in boiling water. Pour into glass screw-top jars and label. Keep in the fridge. Take a dessertspoonful of syrup before going to bed, retaining the syrup in the mouth for as long as possible (remember to brush your teeth afterwards!). Take a dessertspoonful at intervals throughout the day.

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The magnificent elder

Margaret Roberts
About The Author
- The Late Margaret Roberts was a herbal pioneer in South Africa and lectures and consults on herbs, medicinal foods and environmentally safe natural insecticides at tertiary institutions countrywide and at her Herbal Centre at De Wildt. She has shared her knowledge through over 40 books and ongoing radio and television series. Margaret received a Laureate Award from Pretoria University in recognition of her outstanding contribution to this field. Remebering her with fondness. RIP