Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Elder (as in handcream today)

Elder.  What a useful tree it is.  Plant it by the back door and it keeps insects away (we used to break off a twig and stick it in the horses' manes to keep the flies off them) as well as witches . . . .  When it's flowering, use the flowers for wine, or syrup, or champagne, or handcream.  Whilst its fruit makes wonderful port-like wine, a fine sauce called Pontack Sauce, and made into Elderberry Rob or Syrup or Tincture, can stop a cold in its tracks and even greatly shorten the course of Influenza, and it builds the immune system.

Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld, which meant fire - not that Elder wood is good for burning (quite the reverse as it burns quickly and gives out but little heat, and it is sometimes known as witch's wood) - but perhaps because the young branches had pith which could be easily removed to turn the stick into something you could blow down to encourage a fire to burn (and they made good pea-shooters too, according to a chap who visited us who had been evacuated here during the War, along with his sister.)

It is associated with magic too - Judas is reputed to have been hanged on an Elder, and Jesus crucified on one, which lends it superstitious properties.  In some parts of the country it was a custom for the driver of a hearse to carry an Elder wood whip - Green Elder was supposed to protect the dead from witches and evil spirits.

Yet its wood did have a purpose and as it has a fine close grain and is easy to cut and holds a  good polish, it was used for making butchers' skewers, shoemaker's pegs, tops for angling rods and needles for weaving nets, as well as combs, mathematical instruments and various musical instruments. (Facts from A Modern Herbal, 1931).

Anyway, today I had a little wander round my immediate neighbourhood and picked perhaps half a gallon (volume wise) of fresh flowerheads to make some handcream from for the winter months - it is absolutely brilliant for curing those dreadful deep cracks you get in your fingers when you have had your hands in water too much.

I found the recipe in one of my original recipe books - Farmhouse Fare, which I bought in 1978 (although there are earlier and later editions of it).  There are several versions of much the same recipe and the one I make was originally used as a face cream.  I stick to putting it on my hands. Incidentally, exactly the same recipe was described in one of Edward Thomas's books which I've read recently, where he spoke of his mentor, old "Dad" Uzzell making this recipe up whilst he was there.  I love the synchronicity of this.

"Melt 1 lb pure lard in saucepan and add as many handfuls of elderflowers (stripped from stalks) as lard will cover.  Simmer gently for about 1 hour and strain through fine sieve or muslin.  Before pouring into small screw-top jars, add a few drops of oil of lavender or other good scent."

Step 1 - melting the lard.

Step 2 - adding heads of Elder.  I am VERY allergic to the pollen, and it was bad enough just picking it, so I put the heads in whole, for fear of suffering all day as a result of removing the flowers.

Step 3 - a rather blurry picture of the cream as it sets.  I use wide-topped jars - in this case, these were expensive French butter jars with black push-on lids, which I begged from my Foody b-in-law a few years back.  You can use the sweety tins you get travel sweets in - they work just as well - or a wide-topped jam jar.  It doesn't need special storage - we just keep ours in the cupboard.

P.S.  I realize that the vegetarians and vegans who read this wouldn't consider using lard, but there are various other bases you can use.  I stick by my tried and tested recipe though.

One of the joys of foraging is enjoying the wild flowers you pass on the way.  Foxgloves just over the trackway from the top of our yard, and close by several Elder trees.


  1. Lovely,interesting post, I make the elderflower champagne, which is delicious on a hot day (which we might have soon), the elder is so pretty in the hedge, but I don't like elder berry jams, it takes on a funny consistency.

  2. Fascinating post - loads of stuff I didn't know but, like you, I am EXTREMELY allergic to the pollen! In fact, all those flat headed tiny flowered things are the same. Ground elder, Cow Parsley, Hog Weed, even Rowan are all bad. I wonder if you're the same.

  3. I enjoyed reading this and I agree; elder is a useful tree. I learnt this summer about the Jelly Ear fungus that grows on elder trees and can be eaten, although I've not tried it yet. The folklore is fascinating, too.

  4. I love elder - the berry wine, the fizz, and all the folklore etc.
    Thanks for the handcream recipe!

  5. So cool to learn from you, all this fun stuff that I never knew and now I do just makes me smile. Thanks,