The elder is a beneficial bush with an interesting history. It's been associated with gods and witches and used to do all kinds of things, from making music to curing disease.
The bushes grew wild and abundant, as they do today, on wastelands and roadsides, and people developed uses for almost every part of them. The leaves, for instance, were used to make a foul-tasting but diuretic tea. Crushed with olive oil, they were considered a superior cure for hemorrhoids.
The sweet-smelling flowers, or elderblow, were made into a tasty medicinal tea. It's soothing and diuretic, and said to reduce fevers by bringing on a heavy sweat. Elder flower teas is recommended for colds, flu, congestion, bronchitis and fevers, as well as skin inflammations. Externally, it's used as a lotion for skim problems, an eyewash and an inhalant for head colds.
Elder bushes are easily recognizable at this time of the year. They grow in waste areas, or areas that have been cleared and now they're covered with big umbels of white flowers, like fragrant umbrellas. To dry them for tea, gather in full bloom, rinse, dry and spread out on trays.
I usually break up the umbels because small pieces dry more quickly. Put the trays someplace warm and dark - an attic's good - and in a few days they'll be dry enough to store. Wait until they're crisp, then put them in jars, where they'll be ready to ward off colds all winter.
Before you gather all you can find, though, remember that wherever you gather blossoms you'll be reducing the fruit that will come later. Gather sparingly, and from a wide field, and you'll be scouting out your berry territory for next month.
And cook up at least one batch of elderblow fritters, which are light and airy and a delicacy with a very short season.
Elder flowers have also been used to flavor vinegar and to give something of the taste of muscatel to homemade wines. Our colonial ancestors made an elderblow wine too, reputed to be light and delightful. The only recipe I could find for this wine is from Mackenzie's 5,000 recipes, printed in 1829. It calls for half a peck of flowers.
"To six gallons of spring water, put six pounds of raisins, cut smll, and a dozen pounds of find sugar, boil together for about an hour and a half. When the liquor is cool, put half a peck of ripe elder flowers in, with a gill of lemon juice and half the quantity of ale yeast. Cover it, and after standing three days, strain it off. Now pour it into a cask and put a quart of Rhenish wine to every gallon. Let the bung be slightly put in place for 12 or 14 days; then stop it down fast and put it in a cool place for four or five months.
I haven't tried this recipe, so I offer it as much as a piece of history as a piece of advice. More, in fact. But if you try it, or convert it to a smaller recipe, please let me know how it goes.