Champagne and Cyanide

A day with herbalist Melissa Ronaldson learning about the different uses of Elder, Sambucus nigra.

Melissa started the day by inviting us to meet the elder tree. She shared some of the rich folklore around this plant: In Denmark it was believed that folk who stood under the Elder on Midsummer night’s eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, attended by all his retinue. In northern Europe generally, it was believed that the tree was inhabited by a Dryad, Hylde Moer, the Elder tree Mother who lived in the tree and looked after it. There is evidence that the tradition of asking the Elder Mother permission before pruning or cutting down of Elder (in English she is known as Lady Ellhorn) was still common up until the last century.

Repeating the old tradition of asking the Elder’s permission to pick from it felt strange, but it made me pay attention to the plant, and increased our awareness of how much we were picking. Melissa suggested a general rule for harvesting elderflowers – leave some for berries, leave some for the birds, leave some for the tree.

As we sat under the elder tree, Melsisa described the medicinal uses of different parts of the plant, which gained the name of ‘Poor Man’s Pharmacy’ thanks to its properties. The flowers are useful in head colds, flu, ear, nose and throat infections, sinusitis and hay fever. The berries are high in vitamin C, and anti-oxidants; they stimulate the immune system, and are specifically anti-viral to some strains of the flu virus. We heard a remarkable story about the outbreak of bird flu a few years ago: that autumn all the elderberries were eaten by the birds. A debate raged amongst herbalists as to why this was, and if the birds were seeking out elderberries anti-viral properties. A seven-year-old in Tottenham summed it up: saying the birds had taken matters into their own hands and prevented the virus from spreading to humans by eating elder.

Melissa discussed stories about elder wood, which some say it is dangerous to burn, and the tradition of using the hollowed sticks as pea-shooters. We talked about the potential toxicity of the leaves, bark and root – but there appears to be no reference to toxicity in folklore or old herbals – and these part of the plant are referred to as a powerful purgative. In contemporary science, the stems, leaves and roots have been found to contain a cyanide-forming glycoside – that is a compound that may release free cyanide as it breaks down. This raised the question about the difference between the actions of a isolated constituent of a plant and the use of the whole plant.

We spent the day doing practical experiments with elder, making elderflower champagne, elderflower fritters, and elder leaf ointment. The elder leaves steeped in oil smelt strongly of bitter almonds – a true Agatha Christie text for cyanide. Our cream should be useful for pain relief, but it should definitely not be eaten.

Recipes to follow.

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