Our History with the Elder - food, medicine and more.

by: Sara on 10/28/2019

Today's blog is from the newly released, The Elderberry Book: Forage, Cultivate, Prepare, Preserve by John Moody. It is also part of our Homegrown City Life series where our authors bring country living to the city with big ideas for small spaces. Topics include cheesemaking, fermenting, gardening, composting and, more—everything you need to create your own homegrown city life!  

The Elderberry Book deepens appreciation for a plant that has played a crucial role for thousands of years. This inspiring, and educational resource guides you through the elderberry's history, how to cultivate and forage from the balcony to the backyard, and its preparation in traditional foods, medicines, wines, crafts, and tools.

In a humble 17th-century western European village, a grandma makes elderberry tea for her sick grandson. In a Mediterranean house in the 10th century, a man uncorks last year’s elderberry wine, now ready to enjoy over dinner with friends. In a Roman town in 2 23 AD, a physician makes a paste of elderberry leaves and other herbs to apply to an unknown skin infection on his patient. On the Great Plains of America, an Indian cuts wood from a bush to fashion into a new flute for his son, while in Greece a young lady plays the sambuke, a wooden stringed instrument.

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Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

What do these people, diverse through time and geography, have in common? A native plant known by many, many names—Arbre de Judas, Baccae, Baies de Sureau, Black-Berried Alder, Black Elder, Boor Tree,Bountry, Elder, Common Elder, Ellanwood, Ellhorn, European Alder,  Fruit de Sureau, Grand Sureau, Hautbois, Holunderbeeren, Sabugeuiro-negro, Sambequier, Sambu, Sambuc, Sambuci, Sambu cus, Sambucus nigra, Sambugo, Sauco, Saúco Europeo, Schwarzer Holunder, Seuillet, Seuillon, Sureau, Sureau Européen, Sureau Noir, Sus, Suseau, Sussier. To us, it is known as the elder or elderberry.

Elderberry Died wool

Elderberry died wool

If the dog is humanity’s best friend, then the elderberry may be its best plant friend, for this plant has been a part of our lives for many thousands of years. Let’s look at our long relationship with the elder. Few  plants have received the amount of attention across peoples  and places like elder. Also, few plants have been with us as long— archaeological evidence has found elder seeds in sites over 9 ,0 0 0 years old. It makes sense. Few plants provide one-stop shopping like the elder. It is fruit, medicine, and craft, all in one fast-growing and resilient plant.

Elderberry Flutes

Elder wood flutes

The Elderberry Book follows a simple structure. It will start with just a brief survey of our long relationship with elder. We will cross time, cultures, and continents. Then, we will briefly look at elder’s anatomy and terminology so that later in the book and out in the fields and forests, you better understand how to find and identify it. Next, we will talk about how to tend elderberry, from different ways to plant and propagate it to the most common diseases and pests that may afflict it. This naturally leads into a discussion on harvesting elderberries—both by foraging for them or from your own plantings. Since elderberries occur in abundance, knowing how to preserve the harvest comes immediately after. Last, we will look at the myriad ways elderberry can be used, both culinary and craft. By the end, I hope you will have a deeper appreciation for one of God’s great gifts, the elder tree.

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