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In the early 1970’s a friend, who was an accomplished artist, accepted a commission to paint a house near Barnard Castle in County Durham. Through all the years since then I have an abiding memory of that painting and for one reason in particular – in the foreground, framing the country home, was an Elderflower bush.


That was the moment the beauty of Elderflowers was first revealed to me. The tightly closed yellow buds and frothy cream flowers on their green umbels –there can scarcely be a lovelier flowering wild shrub when in full bloom. And Elderflower blossoms in great abundance almost everywhere in Great Britain – in hedgerows, woodlands, by derelict buildings and on wasteland in June and early July.

The Elder (Sambuscus nigra) is native to the British Isles and the name itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’. From earliest times Elders were believed to be sacred to an ancient goddess of vegetation. People believed they were inhabited by a tree dryad which represented the soul of the tree, or was seen as an aspect of the goddess herself.

Elders were often planted by houses and farms in the belief that if the dryad was treated well, and honoured, it would protect the home and its occupants against evil spirits.

Although there was a widespread taboo against cutting Elder down, or burning any of its wood, by at least the 17th century almost every part of the tree was considered medicinally effective in treating ailments from toothache to the plague!

Today only the flowers are used in contemporary herbal medicine. They have a long standing reputation as a treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system.

Cordials, wines and syrups have been made from Elderflowers and berries for centuries and are still widely used especially in country areas in Europe.

‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple’ by Hannah Glasse, first published in England in 1747, contains a recipe for Elderflower Wine – ‘very like Frontiniac’. Frontignan is a commune in the Hérault department of Southern France, famous for sweet wine made solely from the Muscat grape, which today holds controlled designation of origin status. Certainly the scent of Elderflower at their freshest is that of Muscat – wonderfully sweet, rich and heady. It makes the most sublime cordial, ‘champagne’, infused vinegar and jam when teamed with sharp Gooseberries. This last combination of flavours is a relatively new innovation; attributed to Jane Grigson- cook and food writer who pioneered the inspired pairing in the early 1970’s.