Where to begin, when we speak of the Elder tree, there is magic afoot.
Sambucus nigra is a species in the newly designated Adoxaceae family. It is native to Europe, northwest Africa, southwest Asia, and western North America. This deciduous tree is more like a shrub, growing 12-25 feet tall, and can be found throughout most of California. The bark turns from light grey to a course, dark outer bark as it ages. The leaves are organized in opposite pairs, 2-6 inches long, 2-3 inches wide. The hermaphrodite flowers emerge in large clusters of smaller individual flowers, each containing 5 petals. It's musky, floral scent attracts all kinds of pollinators, the tiniest flies likely do most of the hard work. It's limbs bend low with small, dark purple berries, ripe for snacking during the late summer months. The elder berry is an important source of food for many birds and other small creatures in the chaparral.
As the elder has made its way around the world, there is much historical folklore of its use. In Celtic traditions, the elder is a tree of protection. If one seeded itself near the home, it was a sign of peace and protection. The elder tree is strongly connected to the realm of the Faery Folk. As with similar white-flowering trees such as the hawthorn and rowan, the elder is revered as a place where one may glimpse a land of enchantment. When the flowers are in bloom under the midsummer moon, the fairies are said to visit.
Elder wood has been used by both Native American and Celtic cultures to carve flutes, whistles and other musical instruments. The Chumash call it the "tree of music." It's core is soft, almost spongy, making it easy to hollow out. The wood itself makes for poor fuel and it spits and screams when it is burned. Many believe this is a bad omen and the elder should never be burned but should be given breathe in the form of song. Throughout many cultures, the elder has been used to make music.
"Elderberry is the music tree, our heartbeat. It helps to restore the normal flow. I use the leaves, berries, flowers and bark to make a mild tea that gets normal flow going in the body." -- Cecilia Garcia (Chumash)
The tree itself contains several toxic compounds and should be harvested and used wisely. The unripe berries and leaves are poisonous but the flowers and black berries are highly nutritional. The flowers are still used to make champagne as they contain some unique strains of yeast. The ripe berries are also used to make wine, an exceptional wild fermentation. The flowers can be eaten raw, added to beverages, deserts, syrups and more. The flavor is floral but not sweet, slightly tangy yet smooth and delicious. The flower is said to have powerful properties for the skin as well. Washing one's face with elder flower water is said to preserve her youthful beauty.
The Chumash use the flowers to make a tea for treating cold, fever and flu symptoms. The flower tea can also be used to relieve premenstrual aches and bloating. A light shampoo can be made by rubbing the flowers together with a small amount of water.
The ripe berries are also used to treat colds and coughs. These berries are sweet and can be a good source of vitamin C during the late summer months. The Chumash incorporate the berries as a staple food in both dried and fresh form. Not only do they use the berries for food, but they also used them for natural color dyes in the art of basketry.
On this journey of distillation with the elder flower, I have had many insights. This is a music tree indeed. Her flowers sing out in the hydrosol. Her berries call in the early birds, enticing them with the sweet taste of her fruit. All things arrive at this tree with song in hand. I believe this tree is named more adequately than most. It is the tree that weaves a song throughout my life, it's history rooted in my own. What a gift I have received in this exchange, the discovery of yet another miraculous creature of the plant world.
This sublime hydrosol has an exquisite taste and boasts many medicinal benefits. The elder is renowned for its effects on the nervous system, making this an excellent hydrosol for calming both the mind and body. It has a notorious impact on the immune system -- although the flower does not contain any vitamin C, it compliments these foods/supplements in a powerful, energetic way.
A compress can be made to help draw acid from the tissues and joints. The hydrosol is an herbal ally for minor injuries, muscle aches and chronic inflammatory diseases. You can dilute the hydrosol in teas, herbal beverages and even ice cubes! It is an excellent summer treat for all ages. We distilled 2 batches of this beauty, available while supplies last.