|Sam bucus the elder
When anything becomes readily available it often suffers from a lack of appreciation. No less the Elder Tree, which bears the black berries in profusion in September, and gives us the flowers in June.
I recently saw this plant described by one of our members in print as a weed plant. To gardeners a weed plant is one that is growing where it is not wanted. This surely cannot be how a winemaker would describe Sambucus nigra,.
Tonight I will attempt to dispel those thoughts from your minds and elevate this tree to its rightful place as one of the most useful plants available to man – and woman.
Elder has a long history of use dating back to the 5th century BC. Hippocrates wrote about elder.
It has been described as the Judas tree; it being the tree that Judas Iscariot was alleged to have hanged himself from after betraying Christ. It is said that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made from elder. Out of these, the elder became the emblem of sorrow and death, and out of the legends which linger round the tree there grew up a host of superstitious fancies which still remain in the minds of simple country folk. An old custom among gypsies forbade them using the wood to kindle their campfires, and gleaners would carefully look through the faggots lest a stick of elder should have found its way into the bundle. A wealth of folklore, romance and superstition centre round this tree but, perhaps the superstitious awe of harming the Elder descended from old heathen myths of northern Europe. In most countries, especially Denmark, the Elder was intimately connected with magic. In earlier days, the Elder Tree was supposed to ward off evil influences and give protection from witches, a popular belief held in widely-distant countries. The Russians believe that Elder trees drive away evil spirits, and the Bohemians go to it with a spell to take away fever. The Sicilians think that stick of its wood will kill serpents and drive away robbers, and the Serbs introduce a stick of Elder into their wedding ceremonies to bring good luck. In England it was thought that the Elder was never struck by lightning, and a twig of it tied into three or four knots and carried in the pocket was a charm against rheumatism. A cross made of Elder and fastened to cowhouses and stables was supposed to keep all evil from animals. In the later part of the seventeenth century, in order to prevent witches from entering their houses, the common people used to gather Elder leaves on the last day of April and affix them to their doors and windows, and the tree was formerly much cultivated near English cottages for protection against witches.
It is also described as the instant tree due to its vigorous growth. For example, it is said that, if you drop a seed on your way to work in the morning you will have to chop the tree down on your way home in the evening. It is a fast growing tree, which is one of its attributes, and not a disadvantage. Its vigour allows it to grow in diverse climatic conditions. While we have it in abundance in Scotland it also grows profusely throughout Europe and North America.
The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. InAnglo-Saxon days we find the tree called Eldrun, which becomes Hyldor and Hyllantree in the fourteenth century. One of its names in modern Germany – Hollunder – is clearly derived from the same origin. In Low-Saxon, the name appears as Ellhorn. The pith pushes out easily from the young stems and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes – hence it was often called Pipe-Tree, or Bour-tree. The name Bourtree remains in Scotland The genetic name Sambucus occurs in the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers and is evidently adapted from the Greek word Sambuca, the Sackbut, an ancient musical instrument in much use among the Romans. The Sambuca, however, is a stringed instrument.
At the present day, Italian peasants construct a simple pie, which they call Sampogna from the branches of this plant. As well as the species, Sambucus Nigra, there is also the species Sambucus Canadensis. This is a much larger tree, which grows throughout North America. The flowers are 12 inches across and the tree bear’s blue bloomed berries in the fall – that’s Autumn to you and me- Once again the Americans have to be bigger. But this time not better.
Sambucus Nigra is like the pig; every part can be used for some purpose; black dye can be made from the root, as well as the bark. Green dye can be made from the leaves with alum, and blue and purple dye can be made from the berries – as many a housewife knows when she goes to bring in her washing from the line. A violet dye can be made from the juice with alum
The flowers can be added to gooseberries when cooking. They can also be infused and the elder water used to bathe the eyes. An ointment is also made from the flowers as a skin treatment.
The leaves have an unpleasant odour when bruised, which is supposed to be offensive to most insects, and a decoction of the young leaves is sometimes employed by gardners to sprinkle over delicate plants and the buds of flowers to keep off attacks of aphis and minute caterpillars. The leaves, bruised, if worn in the hat or rubbed on the face, prevent flies settling on the person. In order to safeguard the skin from attacks of mosquitoes, midges and other troublesome flies, an infusion of the leaves may be dabbed on with advantage. Gather a few fresh leaves, place them in a jug, pouring boiling water over them, leave for a few hours. When the infusion is cold, it should be poured into a bottle and kept tightly corked. The infusion should be made frequently. The leaves are said to be valued by the farmer for driving mice form granaries and moles from their usual haunts.
The wood of old trees is white and of a fine, close grain, easily cut, and polishes well, hence it was used for making skewers for butchers, shoemakers pegs, and various turned articles, such as tops for angling rods and needles for weaving nets, also for making combs, mathematical instruments and several musical instruments. The heart wood is so hard that it was used for the pegs in the gear wheels of water mills. The pith of the younger stems is one of the lightest known solids, is cut into balls and used for electrical experiments and for making small toys. It is also considerably used for holding small objects for sectioning for microscopical purposes. Philatelists use the pith on the end of their tweezers to avoid damaging valuable stamps
But that is, by no means the end. In Kent, there used to be entire orchards of Elder trees cultivated solely for the sake of their fruit, which was brought regularly to market and sold for the purpose of making wine. The berries were not only used legitimately for making Elderberry wine, but largely in the manufacture of so-called British wines – they give a red colour to raisin wine- and in the adulteration of foreign wines. Judiciously flavoured with vinegar and sugar and small quantities of port wine, Elder was often the basis of spurious ‘clarets’ and ‘Bordeaux’. Cheap port was often faked to resemble tawny port by the addition of elderberry juice, which forms one of the least injurious ingredients of factitious port wines. Doctoring port wine with elderberry juice seems to have assumed such dimensions that in 1747 this practice was forbidden in Portugal, even the cultivation of the Elder tree was forbidden on this account. The practice proving so lucrative, however, is by no means obsolete, but as the berries possess valuable medicinal properties, this adulteration has no harmful results. The circumstances under which this was proved are somewhat curious. In 1899 an American sailor informed a physician of Prague that getting drunk on genuine, old, dark-red port wine was a sure remedy for rheumatic pains. This unedifying observation started a long series of investigations ending in the discovery that while genuine port wine had practically no anti-neuralgic properties, the cheap stuff faked to resemble tawny port by the addition of Elderberry juice often banishes the pain of sciatica and other forms of neuralgia, though of no avail in genuine neuritis, Cases of cure have been instanced after many tests carried out by leading doctors in Prague and other centres abroad, the dose recommended being 30 grams of elderberry juice mixed with 10 grams of port wine.
Elderberries are one of the richest sources of anthocyathins, which are the largest group of water soluble pigments in plants. Anthocyatins stimulate the body’s immune system by increasing the production of disease-fighting lymphocytes.
Throughout the world, elderberries have been used for centuries as a remedy for colds, flu and fever. In a study conducted in Israel, an elderberry extract was used during a flu epidemic. Within 24 hours of taking the extract, 20 % of the patients had dramatic improvements in flu symptoms. By the second day, 73% were improved; by the third day, 90%. Only 16% of the untreated group felt better after two days; a majority of the untreated group took almost a week to begin to feel better.
While most of us take reports of the medicinal merits of various plants with a certain degree of scepticism, there is some recent scientific work that suggests that elderberries really do have therapeutic properties. The evidence from California is that a chemical called quercetin is a powerful anticancer agent; and quercitin is found in substantial amounts in elderberries.
Since wine is now believed to reduce the chance of heart attacks a combination of the grape and the elder could be a recipe for immortality