Mixologists (isn’t that a stupid word that I bet doesn’t even exist in the dictionary) all over town are sprinkling elderflower liquor in all kinds of cocktails these days. I was more familiar with elderflower cordial, a non-alcoholic drink reminiscent of times gone by and still served in old fashioned tea houses but I became curious as to other uses and provenance of the elderflower so I went digging.
The botanical denomination is actually Sambucus of which there are very many varieties – red, black, chinese, velvet, japanese etc etc. The plant is a shrub or a small tree most commonly found in the temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Central Europeans distill an extract from the blossoms which, added to simple syrup or glucose, becomes a mixture commonly added to pancakes. In Southern Europe such syrup is diluted with water and served as a cordial and the berries can be turned into jams and even wines.
The leaves, branches, seeds and roots of the plant contain a substance closely related to cyanide which, if ingested in enough quantity, can be toxic.
As any Wiccan will tell you, elderberry wood should not be cut to use for a bonfire and such superstition is rooted in many cultures’ traditions that believed the Elder tree to ward off evil spirits. Something that wasn’t lost on J.K. Rowling – the most powerful wand in Harry Potter’s world was made of sambucus and known as the “Elder Wand”. How did they cut the tree without awakening the evil spirits? Well, there is a rhyme that is supposed to be chanted while chopping the tree down which will keep the Elder Mother satisfied. It might be superstition, but just in case…