The Magical Gifts of the Elder Tree

Our dogs, Ruby and Molly, regularly walk me along the River Tweed past the elder trees at Milne Graden. They are a very pretty sight when just coming into flower. In medieval times, this tree was recognised and respected for its herbal and culinary gifts.

Throughout history, apothecaries have used the elder tree as a source of medicine and food. Its leaves have been infused in oils and applied to aching muscles and pains – no high street chemist in those days! The flowers have been dried or used fresh for tea (another seasonal idea to add to the current trend of fruit teas), used to make champagne, and also employed as the main ingredient of tinctures to help strengthen the immune system and fight against colds. Finally, the culinary brave would make jams, syrup and vinegars, and the very special blue elderberries were used to make wine – hic!

The forager among us has been busy on the riverside this summer, collecting flowers from the elder tree for homemade cordial. Elderflowers have been hard to find this year; a lack of sun is, I’m afraid, the price we have to pay for a lush and verdant land! All the family have enjoyed this precious drink – diluted with still or sparkling water, or even with gin, tonic and a slice of lemon. The bottle drains fast though – thank goodness there is a secret supply of frozen cubes in the freezer…


Cooking time: 10 minutes
Makes about 2 litres

25 elderflower heads, picked when dry and just about to open
Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150 mls in total)
1kg sugar
1 heaped tspn citric acid (optional)

  1. Inspect the flower heads and remove any insects.
  2. Place in a large bowl along with the orange and lemon zest.
  3. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest.
  4. Leave to infuse overnight.
  5. Strain the liquid through a scalded jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan.
  6. Add the sugar, lemon and orange juice, and citric acid (if using).
  7. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
  8. With a funnel, pour the syrup into swing-top bottles.