There are two trees which hang over the back wall of my courtyard garden, giving shade and height, making it feel like a lush woodland. One is an ash (the ‘Goddess Tree’), currently covered in thick clumps of winged seeds, with a resident blackbird who serenades the rising and setting sun every day with its beautiful voice. The other tree is an elder, and at this time of year, between beltane and the summer solstice, it is just coming into flower.
All parts of this ‘Queen of Herbs’ can be used for medicinal, culinary or practical purposes. It’s a veritable herbal medicine chest, acting as an effective remedy for colds, flu, sore throats, fever, cystitis, infections, constipation, eczema and chickenpox, to name but a few. A tea made from the flowers brings down a fever, and elderflower ointment soothes and tonifies the skin. The purplish-black berries which appear on the tree at the other end of summer, around September, also have curative properties and make delicious jams, compotes, syrups and a rather pokey wine. So many gifts!
Magical lore states that any elderberries found during December are particularly magically endowed and that a tonic wine made from the berries can, when taken cautiously, enhance psychic powers. If you’ve ever consumed too much elderberry wine in one sitting, you may have found this out for yourself…
Elder is found in country lanes and cottage gardens, steeped in folklore and magic and believed by many to be imbued with witchy qualities. Ruled by Venus and presided over by The Elder Mother, named Hyldemoer or Hulda (mother of the elves in Scandinavian folklore), elder has strong associations with the regenerative Crone aspect of the Goddess – especially, I think, in the colder months when its tangle of untamed, arced branches grow wild and crooked against the winter sky.
Here at the gateway to summer, however, the tree brims with stories of fairy, dryad (female tree nymph) and nature spirit magic. It’s a tree of protection and connection to other realms. Legend has it that if you stand beneath an elder tree on the night of the summer solstice and inhale the sweet scent of the blossom, you will catch a glimpse of the fairies. I might give this a go with my two year old little girl (who naturally sees fairies everywhere) this year!
As well as obligatory fairy-spotting, I’ll be inviting the wonderful energies of this tree into my life this year by harvesting the flowers to make cordial and champagne. For me this is the quintessential taste of summer, made from the creamy, frothy, upside-down umbrella-shaped flowerheads or ‘umbels’ which comprise hundreds of individual, five-petalled blooms. I’ll also be coating the flowerheads in light batter and frying them to make yummy fritters.
A couple of simple elderflower recipes:
To make elderflower cordial at home, harvest 20 open flowerheads which are heavy with pollen (you may have to wait a week or two, as the flowers are only just out here), gently shaking them to remove any tiny creatures. Add 1.5 litres of water to 1 kg of sugar and heat until all the sugar dissolves. Add the zest and slices of 3 lemons, 50g of citric acid and finally the flowers, and stir. After 48 hours you can seive the liquid into sterilised bottles and mix it with still or sparkling water, delicious with ice and a slice of lemon.
For elderflower fritters, sift 50g of plain flour into a basin then add a tablespoon of oil and 80ml of sparkling mineral water. Stir in a tablespoon of sugar then beat an egg white and fold it into the batter. Rinse 6 or 7 elderflower heads, snipping them into individual florets, then dip the elderflowers into the batter and lower them into a pan of hot oil. Fry until the batter is pale gold and crisp and eat the fritters while they are hot and crisp, sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with honey or agave syrup.
Wishing you joy on this full moon x