The Elder Statesman of Medicine

20th October 2017

'Widdershins’ is published by Impress Books at £8.99, and is available from all good bookshops. Helen Steadman is currently writing the sequel.

Helen Steadman is the author of ‘Widdershins’, a novel about healers who are tried for witchcraft in seventeenth-century England. When researching, she took a couple of courses in herbal medicine – and while she learned to make lots of different plant remedies, her favourite is elderberry linctus. Here shares her favourite recipe and reveals some elder wisdom…

In My novel, making the elderberry remedy leads to lots of trouble for some of the characters. But that was back in the 17th century. Today, it shouldn’t cause you many problems, beyond stained hands and a messy kitchen, providing you take care to identify the berries correctly.
Elder was once known as the medicine chest of country people. It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years, and even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, refers to its healing power. Some natural medicine is based on the idea of sympathetic magic where ‘like cures like’. Since bare elderberry sprigs resemble the inside of lungs, elder has traditionally been used to treat respiratory illnesses such as coughs, colds and flu.

The elder tree was historically treated with suspicion. ‘They call her the witch tree,’ I write in Widdershins, ‘because only something wicked inside could spawn such dark berries,’ and she’s also referred to as the hag tree. Some people believed that the elder tree harboured witches, while others thought it harboured the Elder Mother spirit. Either way, folklore suggests it’s unlucky to cut down an elder tree, and burning the wood can result in death. The elder is also said to be a favourite of the faerie folk, who make wands, pipes and flutes from its hollow branches – so, if you’re out berrying this Halloween, then watch where you put your feet as you might disturb a faerie procession going by…

Most woodlands and wild hedgerows will contain an elder bush or two, but it might take a bit of time and care to find them as elder is less common than hawthorn and blackberry. Because elders like to grow in the same conditions as blackberries, nettles and thistles, it’s wise to wear wellies and carry a stout stick to help you wade through the vegetation. Avoid nettle stings and worse by making sure your arms and legs are covered in thick clothing.

Depending on weather and location, ripe berries can be found from August through to November. Correct identification is a vital aspect of any wild food foraging. When searching for elderberries, the most obvious signs to look out for are the sprigs of tiny purple berries. The berries start off green before turning red and then eventually a deep purple-black. The sprigs themselves range from scarlet to dark purple, and each berry is the size of a tiny bead. The berries are harmful if unripe or raw, so only pick purple berries, and resist the urge to eat them straight from the bush.

Once the elderberries have been correctly identified, just pluck whole sprigs from the tree. Before making the linctus, the berries need to be stripped from the sprigs. It’s possible to do this by hand, but it’s quicker and less messy to use a fork. The juice will stain hands and clothes, so old clothes are essential. Once the berries have been stripped, it’s worth spending a few minutes shaking the bowl and removing any unripe berries and stray bits of stalk.

The linctus is very simple to make and the basic recipe requires only berries, sugar and boiling water. It’s also possible to enhance the flavour by adding warming spices, such as a stick of cinnamon, a thumb-sized piece of ginger root (peeled and chopped), star anise, or even a chilli pepper. Because the amount of linctus made will depend on the volume of berries picked, the recipe uses proportions – one part ripe elderberries, two parts boiling water, one part sugar – rather than exact quantities. This will make it easy to adjust for small or large batches. For example, a pint of berries will need a pint of sugar and two pints of boiling water.

Put the berries into a large pan with a heavy base (a jam-making pan is ideal, but any large pan will do); add the sugar and cover with the boiling water. Bring to the boil and simmer the mixture for fifteen minutes, but no longer, as this risks killing off any medicinal properties (although the resulting syrup would still taste pleasant). Remove from the heat. It’s vital to then strain the linctus through a sieve lined with cheesecloth or muslin to catch any seeds or stem. Once strained, pour the linctus into sterilised bottles and seal, before storing in a cool, dark cupboard.
Elderberry linctus is a natural remedy traditionally used to keep winter ailments at bay. Take two tablespoonsful before bed, either neat or diluted in hot water. It’s also simply a tasty syrup, and makes a lovely cordial poured over ice and topped up with sparkling water, or added to alcoholic drinks such as champagne, cider or gin. Properly stored, it should survive throughout winter, although it’s hard to resist and may be gone long before spring arrives.

If you’ve a few spare hours this autumn, and want to get in touch with nature, why not make the most of the crisp days and combine a healthy walk with a spot of foraging? Just watch out for faerie folk and witchfinders!

CAUTION: As with all foraged wild food, great care needs to be taken to identify the berries correctly. If you are in any doubt, consult a professional herbalist or tree expert before picking any berries. Most parts of the elder tree are considered to be toxic: bark, leaves, sprigs, roots and seeds. Always boil the berries and then strain them to ensure any seeds or twigs are removed. It is particularly important not to eat the seeds as they contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides.

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