Beverages and Potions from the Elder Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Beverages and Potions from the Elder

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The elder (Sambruca nigra) is a common tree native to the UK and Europe, and is naturalised in many parts of the world. It is found growing in mixed deciduous woodland, marshy woodland, thickets, clearings, hedgerows and gardens. It flowers in late spring, producing an off-white flower, which grows to approximately 5 to 6 mm in diameter. Indeed, it has been said, with some truth, that the English summer is not here until the elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe. The berries may be red or purple, but are most commonly black.

At one time, the elder was rather more scarce and was considered as sacred as other white-flowered, dark-berried plants such as the holly and rowan.

The fragrant flower heads from the elder tree can be used to make two delightfully refreshing summer drinks. One is the non-alcoholic elderflower presse and the other is the slightly alcoholic elderflower 'champagne'.

The somewhat more potent but equally popular elderflower and elderberry wines may also be made, as may elderflower 'beer'.

Although in principle, almost any parts of plants can be used to make home-made country wines, in the case of the elder, the leaves and bark should NOT be used. This is because they contain toxic compounds and, indeed, can be used as a natural insecticide.

Selection of Flowers for Elderflower Recipes

The best time to pick the flowers is on a dry warm day when they are in full bloom. One should select only those umbels which have creamy-yellow stamens, and never pick flowers that are damaged or discoloured. It is important that the flowers are not collected from busy roadsides where they may be exposed to vehicle pollution.

The flowers should not be washed, but care should be taken to shake off any insects and to remove thick stalks. The flower heads are very delicate and so care must be taken not to bruise them.


Elderflower Presse

  • 25 elderflower heads
  • Four oranges (sliced)
  • One lemon (sliced)
  • 1.8kg (4lb) sugar
  • 85g (3oz) tartaric acid
  • 1 3/4 litres (3 pints) boiled, cooled water
  1. Remove as much of the stalk as possible from the flowers and place them in a bucket. Pour in sufficient cold water to just cover the blossoms. Place a loose-fitting lid on the bucket and leave for two or three days.

  2. Strain the water from the flowers by pouring it through a muslin cloth into a sauce pan (dispose of the flowers on the compost heap).

  3. Measure the volume of liquid and add 750g of sugar and one tablespoon of tartaric acid per litre.

  4. Heat the pan gently until the sugar has dissolved completely, but don't allow it to boil.

  5. Pour the liquid into clean cordial bottles with screw tops.

  6. To serve, dilute one part of elderflower presse with nine parts of iced water or natural springwater for a delightfully refreshing drink.

Elderflower presse may be used as a base for several other recipes.

Elderflower 'Champagne'

This is a wonderful summer drink and is covered in How to make elderflower 'champagne'. This recipe does not use yeast, as wild yeasts occurring naturally in the flowers facilitate fermentation.

Elderflower Wine

Elderflower wine is traditionally the most popular of Britain's country wines, having a clean and distinctive 'nose'. Connoisseurs say that it has a hint of Muscadelle in the finish. It should be served well-chilled and is a good accompaniment to light meals and salads.

  • One litre (three pints) of elder flower heads
  • 0.5 litre (one pint) of white grape juice concentrate
  • 800g (1 3/4 lb) of white sugar
  • 3.5 litres (4 1/2 pints) of water
  • Two tsp of citric acid
  • 1/2 tsp of tannin
  • Campden tablets
  • Sauterne wine yeast
  1. Note that petal wines are probably not appropriate as one's first foray into home winemaking. It is best to start with some of the excellent kits available from specialist stores and then to progress to fruit wines such as plum or damson).

  2. Pour two litres of hot water onto the petals and mash them with a wooden or plastic spoon. Allow to cool and then stir in the acid, tannin and one crushed Campden tablet. Cover it and leave in a warm place. Mash the flowers daily for four days.

  3. Dissolve the grape juice concentrate and sugar in one litre of warm water and strain the flower water, through a muslin bag, into the syrup. Stir in the nutrient and yeast, pour into a demijohn fitted with a fermentation lock, and ferment to a Relative Density1 of 1.015. Rack into a clean demijohn and add two crushed Campden tablets to terminate fermentation.

  4. Move the wine to a cool place for a few days, but leave for no longer than one week. During this time dead yeast cells, fruit pulp and other solid materials (the lees) will slowly sediment to the bottom of the jar, and the wine will start to clear from the top downwards.

  5. Siphon off the wine into a clean demijohn that has been freshly rinsed with sodium metabisulphite solution (prepared from Campden tablets). This procedure may need to be repeated at four-month intervals until the wine is brilliantly clear.

  6. Finally siphon the wine off into freshly washed bottles that have been rinsed with sodium metabisulphite solution, cork and store the bottles on their sides to keep the cork moist and minimise entry of oxygen from the air.

Elderflower Beer


  • 0.5 litre (one pint) of elder flowers (not pressed down)
  • 4.5 litres (eight pints) of water
  • One lemon
  • 454g (1lb) of sugar
  • Brewers' yeast and nutrient2


While you're bringing the water to the boil, squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl with the elder florets and sugar. Pour the boiling water over them, cover them closely and allow the mixture to infuse for two hours. Stir in the yeast and ferment in a warm room for one week before straining into a screw-topped flagon. Store in a cool place for a week, after which the beer will be ready for drinking.

Elderflower beer is a 'mock beer'; true beers are made from malt and hops.

Elderberry Wine

There are any number of recipes for elderberry wine, but this one can be drunk either hot or cold.


  • 1 kg (approx 2lb) elderberries, stripped from stems
  • 4 1/2 litres (one gallon) of water
  • 454g (1lb) of raisins
  • Pinch of ground ginger
  • Six cloves
  • 1/2 tsp of wine yeast (eg, Burgundy)
  • 150 ml (1/4 pint) of brandy


  1. Rinse the berries in cold water, and place them in a large plastic container. It's essential to remove every last piece of stalk, which can impart a bitter taste to the wine.

  2. Boil the water, pour it over the berries and leave it to stand for 24 hours.

  3. Press the mixture through a muslin cloth.

  4. Put the juice and all the other ingredients, apart from the brandy and yeast, into a preserving pan and simmer gently for an hour, skimming when necessary.

  5. Allow the mixture to cool and, when it is lukewarm, stir in the yeast. Transfer it into a fermentation jar, top up, fit an air lock and leave to stand in the dark for two weeks.

  6. Rack off into a clean vessel and add the brandy. Then siphon off into clean, corkable wine bottles.

This wine is best if allowed to mature for a few months - so Christmas is a good time to bring it out.

Elderberry 'Port'


  • 1 kg (2 1/4 lb) elderberries
  • 250g (9 oz) blackcurrants
  • 525g (1 lb, 2 oz) blackberries
  • 525g (1 lb, 2 oz) raisins
  • 1200g (2 3/4 lb) sugar
  • 1 tsp tartaric acid
  • 1 tsp Pectolytic enzyme3
  • 1/2 tsp of Port yeast and nutrient


Follow the basic procedure as for the elderberry wine, except add the pectolytic enzyme once the water has cooled, right at the start. This is because enzymes are proteins that are denatured (inactivated) by heat.

Medicinal Benefits of Elderflower Beverages

The elder has long been used for medicinal purposes. Elderberries, in particular, have been used to ease winter coughs, and a glass of hot elderberry wine can certainly soothe the throat. The berries contain more vitamin C than any other herbal extract, apart from rosehips and blackcurrant. Perhaps for this reason:

Elderberry Wine has a curative power of established repute as a remedy, taken hot, at night, for promoting perspiration in the early stages of severe catarrh, accompanied by shivering, sore throat, etc. Like Elderflower Tea, it is one of the best preventives known against the advance of influenza and the ill-effects of a chill... It has also a reputation as an excellent remedy for asthma.
Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal (1931)

Maude Grieve also advocates adding a little cinnamon to the wine.

Research indicates that the anti-influenza activity of elder is due to inhibition of the enzyme, neuraminidase, which is present in the virus coat. The virus uses this enzyme to poke holes in our cell walls, thus allowing the virus to enter our cells and ultimately hijack the cells' machinery to produce more influenza virions. Black elder may also have activity against HIV and common cold viruses.

Elderflower wine is generally not quoted as possessing medicinal qualities. However, extracts from the flowers and leaves of the elder, known as tisanes4, have been used in folk medicine to bring relief to colds, chills and other fevers. It soothes coughs by increasing bronchial secretions. In the form of an herbal compress, it is also used to alleviate swelling and inflammation in, for example, rheumatism.

Elderflower Tisane

It is possible to make tisane from either fresh or dried elder flowers. However, most people use the dried flowers because the drying process weakens the cells' walls, thus enabling recovery of components from within the cells.


Add three to four grams (about two teaspoonfuls) of dried elderflowers to two-thirds of a cup of freshly boiled water and allow to steep for five minutes before straining.

Use in Herbal Cosmetics

There is much interest these days in making home-made cosmetics, for example:

Bath and Shower Gel

The gel is produced by the mucilage present in Irish moss and is said to be very invigorating. It also softens the skin.


Prepare an elderflower infusion by pouring boiling water over some elderflower umbels. Take 1 1/2 litres of fresh Irish moss. Add 1 3/4 litres of water together with four tablespoons of the elderflower infusion. As an option a few drops green or other colour food colouring may be added.

To use, rub handfuls of the gel over the body before rinsing your skin in the bath or shower.

Natural Pest Control

An extract from the leaves of the elder may also be used as a natural pesticide to combat carrot fly and cucumber beetles. When pests become evident, take 200g of elder leaves, add 500 ml of water, simmer lightly then strain. Add one tablespoon of soap to a further 500ml of water, mix thoroughly, then add to the elder solution. Mix well and spray onto affected plants.

1Also called 'Specific Gravity'.2Yeast nutrient is essentially 'vitamins for yeast'. The best nutrient is actually dead yeast cells in the form of yeast extract.3A compound that breaks down the pectin in fruit, thus increasing the extraction of the juice and improving the clarity of the wine.4A tisane is any tea that is made with herbs, rather than true tea.

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