The Cultural History of Grapes

The Cultural History of Grapes

Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. But they have far more uses than ordinarily meet the palate. There are at least 8000 cultivated varieties of grapes, most of which are grown in the Northern Hemisphere.

Name: Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
Family: Vitaceae
Synonyms: Grapevine, Vigne, Weintrauben, Rebstock

 

Description:

Grapes are one of the most important agricultural crops in the world. From New Zealand to California, Chile, South Africa and of course, their traditional turf around the Mediterranean Basin, grapes are cultivated in Mediterranean climate zones around the world. Grapevines are surprisingly hardy. They can live on next to nothing. They thrive on poor soils, so long as they are well-draining and don’t mind the heat. The only thing they won’t survive is a cold, wet climate.

When left untended, grapevines can reach a height of about 15 m. As climbers, they will scramble up anything that will give them support. In cultivation, they are often trained on wires and cut back after each season so that only the strongest one or two shoots remain.

The gnarly stem forms finely grained, dense wood. The leaves are palmate (hand-shaped) with deeply indented lobes, with very jaggy serrated margins, depending on the variety. In May or June, they begin to flower, forming bunches of tiny, white, 5-petaled flowers with a very delicate and sweet aroma. Alas, this phase does not last long. Soon, bunches of sweet, juicy berries start to develop.

Depending on the variety, their size and colour vary. The smooth-skinned, yellowish-green to reddish, or purple-black berries usually contain 2 seeds each (except for seedless varieties). Vines can be propagated by seed or cutting. Most European stocks are grafted onto American rootstocks due to a devastating blight that nearly destroyed all European vine stocks.

There are also many wild grape species, which also tend to be a meandering bunch. They can sprawl over an extensive area if left undisturbed. Their berries also grow in bunches, but they are much sparser and consist of much smaller berries, which are usually quite tart. Like their cultivated counterparts, the flowers are small and rather inconspicuous.

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Distribution:

The geographical origins of the vine is still a matter of debate. Various wild varieties can be found in different parts of the world, far beyond the Mediterranean. When the Vikings first arrived in the Americas, they called it ‘Vinland’ for the many wild grape varieties they found there. The type now under cultivation in Europe seems to have originated in Georgia. Under the influence of Greek and Roman expansion, it steadily spread west and north from there. Today grape production is prolific in all warm, temperate regions of the world, from Central and Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, to New Zealand.

Problems and Pathogens:

Viticulture is a profitable business, which, however, claims a vast amount of land. Wine lovers may appreciate the variety of tastes and textures this diversity produces, but environmentally it is a disaster. Relying almost entirely on just one single cash crop is highly risky. Furthermore, monocultures heavily depend on fertilizers, and pesticides that are highly damaging to the environment.

Various pathogens can threaten grapevines: powdery mildew rots the stalks, shrivels the leaves, splits the grapes and finally kills the vine. Red spider mites suck the sap from the leaf veins, phylloxera vastatrix strikes the roots, and the cochylis moth grub attacks the flowers.

wine press

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE

The story of viticulture is so old that nobody really knows where and when it all started. The Bible mentions that Noah planted a vineyard, but even he was probably not the first. Wine is mentioned in almost every classical text, with records dating back some 6000 years.
It appears as though the Greeks were the first to popularize fermented grape juice, with the Romans soon following suit. As major trading powers, they spread the art of viticulture all around the Mediterranean Basin. By 600 BC, wine was a sought-after export commodity, especially popular with the Gauls who, in time, became expert growers themselves.
However, in the latter half of the 18th century, tragedy struck. By then, grapes had moved to the Americas along with the colonists. The drama unfolded when a North American grower sent some specimen of his rootstocks back to the old world for further study. Unfortunately, the sample he sent was infested with a devastating blight (phylloxera vastatrix) that threatened to wipe out vineyards across Southern Europe. It was a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.
Luckily, the cure also came from North America – and just in time. A frantic search for a blight-resistant yielded results, and another sample was sent to Europe. Growers started quickly grafted their ancient varieties onto American rootstocks, which saved them. Although the industry took some time to recover, European wine-growers rank again at the top of the international charts.

The wines of Ancient Greece seemed to have been quite a different kind of brew than what we are used to today. Historical records describe a much thicker and heavier beverage that had to be diluted at a ratio of 1:3 for consumption. Typically, it was infused with other substances such as resins, aromatic herbs and even psychotropic plants. It is not surprising then that the Greeks associated wine with Dionysus, the wild, shamanic god of ecstasy. His rites were frenzied and orgiastic. A menacing mob of Maenads, (his priestesses) pursued the god (or his representative) in a feverish hunt and tore him apart. Eventually, an animal (a fawn or fox) replaced the human sacrifice. In time, Dionysus was tamed and re-cast as a chubby, cheerful, but domesticated deity of wheat and wine. The animal sacrifice was replaced with a ritual sharing of ceremonial bread and unadulterated wine during the annual celebration of the Elysian Mystery play.

The Romans equated Dionysus with Bacchus, their god of wine and intoxication, whom they worshipped in much the same manner. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the Lord of wine, and Isis fell pregnant with Horus after eating his grapes.

The Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian recounts a ‘tall satirical tale’ in his ‘True History’. A strange vineyard once grew on the far banks of a river that ran with wine instead of water. The grapevines grew woody stems, but their upper parts sprouted beautiful maidens whose hair was a tangle of leaves and bunches of grapes growing from their fingertips. Their enchanting song lured passers-by. But woe to those who succumbed to their embrace: instantly drunk and unable to escape, the hapless took root and soon sprouted shoots and leaves themselves.

Aphrodisiac associations:

Wine is a divine gift of the gods. In moderate amounts, it lifts the spirit, exhilarates and inspires. It opens the mind and holds the key to the heart and soul. Innumerable works of art have been inspired, and countless adventures started by a spark of its passionate fire. But in excessive quantities, it stupefies and causes delusion. It is a fine line between ecstasy and frenzied oblivion.

 

Ever tried making homemade wines?

MEDICINAL USES

Both red and white wine was traditionally used as a solvent to extract other substances when making medicinal wines and cordials. But various parts of the plant itself were also used as medicine.

PARTS USED:

Leaves: fresh young leaves
Flowers: dried or fresh flowers
Berries: fresh or dried fruit
Seeds: oil pressed from the seeds

HARVEST TIMES:

The flowers appear in May/June. The leaves should be picked in spring when they are tender, and the grapes ripen from September onwards (in the Northern Hemisphere).

LEAVES

Constituents:
In the summer, the leaves contain a mixture of sugar and glucose, tartaric acid, potassium bi-tartrate, quercetin, quercitrin, tannin, Amidon, malic acid, gum, inosite, a crystallizable fermentable sugar and oxalate of calcium. In the autumn, they contain more
quercetin and less quercitrin.
Actions:
Anti-inflammatory, astringent, styptic
Indications:
An infusion of 1 TSP of fresh, finely cut leaves per cup of water helps with conditions such as rheumatism, gout, nausea and spitting of blood. A preparation known as ‘Papinorum Extract’ made from the leaves is used in Homeopathy to treat epilepsy and inflammatory conditions of the hip. Dried and powdered, leaves were fed to cattle as a treatment for dysentery. A decoction was used to prevent a threatened miscarriage. The astringent properties help to arrest internal and external bleeding, cholera, dropsy, diarrhoea and nausea. The decoction can also be used to treat mouth ulcers and as a douche for vaginal discharge. Grape leaves are used as a treatment for varicose veins and fragile capillaries. For this purpose, leaves are harvested as soon as they turn red and are used either fresh or dried.

FLOWERS

Actions:
Nerve tonic
Indications:
1tsp of dried flowers per cup of boiling water is said to strengthen neuronal dendrons. It also supports the bone marrow to build red blood cells. The infusion can be used internally or applied externally as a rub to aid neuronal function (even for numbness of the lower limbs)

BERRIES

Constituents:
Malic, tartaric, ascetic ascorbic and racemic acids, alanine, alpha-linolenic acid, alpha-tocopherol, arginine. Oxalic acid in unripe fruits, Ca, P, Fe, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid
Actions:
Fortifying blood tonic, nourishing, stimulates kidney and liver function and thus aids elimination and inner cleansing, gentle laxative
Indications:
A grape-fast is a popular method to rid the body of accumulated metabolic waste products and other toxins. 2 kg of grapes should be eaten throughout the day for two weeks, with little or no other food. It is recommended to do a full day fast one day before embarking on this regime. This is an excellent way to stimulate and tone the kidneys and thus to lose weight by releasing water from the tissues. It reduces fat, regulates bowel function, purifies the blood and cleanses the skin. A grape-fast can alleviate rheumatic pain and heartburn, regulate metabolic processes, water retention, oedema and circulatory complaints. Grapes are restorative and nourishing food that aid recovery from anaemia and debilitating conditions. Dehydrated grapes (raisins) have demulcent, nutritious and slightly laxative properties. Grape sugar (fructose) is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It almost instantly restores energy levels in case of exhaustion and debility.
 Contraindications:
A grape fast is not recommended for dyspeptic, excitable, hot-blooded individuals, as it may cause palpitations.

SAP:

Grapevine sap, a watery substance that naturally occurs when pruning the vines, was used as a lotion to treat weak eyes and corneal floaters. It has also been used as a skin lotion. Internally, it acts as a diuretic.

 

wine press

 

GENERAL USES

  • Basketry: The annual shoots are pruned in the winter. They are very flexible and have been used for basketry and broom-making.
  • Cosmetics: A lotion made from the flowers has been used for freckles, while the oil (seeds) is used for making soap.
  • Dyes: The berries yield a purplish colour, which is not durable. The fresh or dried leaves dye yellow.
  • Fuel: The old grapevine stocks are popular as firewood, especially for grilling due to the aromatic smoke. The twigs make good kindling.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Grapeseed oil is pressed from the seeds. It is used for culinary and cosmetic purposes. For culinary use, the oil must be refined to make it fit for consumption. Unrefined grapeseed oil is slightly sticky. As a massage oil, it is best to blend it with other oils.
  • Culinary uses: Grapes are wonderfully refreshing, nourishing and cleansing fruits that can be enjoyed straight from the vine. Their sweet and tasty juice makes a refreshing beverage and can also be used to make jelly. Evaporated to produce a concentrate, it makes a good sweetener. But above all, grape juice is fermented to make wine and champagne. Wines come in a staggering variety: reds, rose or white wines, champagne or sparkling wine, are made from hundreds of different grape varieties. A dessert wine is produced by adding alcohol to the ferment to prematurely stop the fermentation process.
  • The young tendrils can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. The flowers are also edible and can be prepared as fritters.
  • The sap tastes sweet and can be used as a drink, but harvesting large quantities weakens the vines. Roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute.
  • Pickled leaves are used as a wrapping for finger-food appetizers (dolmas) that are especially popular in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines.
  • A crystalline salt, cream of tartar, also known as potassium bitartrate, is derived from the residue of pressed grapes. Sediments collected from wine barrels are used for making baking powder.

 

Photographs by Kat Morgenstern

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa

Plant Profile: Moringa (Moringa oleifera Lam.)

Moringa is a tropical tree that is not very well known outside its native habitat, despite offering multiple gifts for the benefit of mankind.

 

Habitat:

Moringa has spread from its native habitat in the sub-Himalayan region of India to tropical and subtropical areas around the world. It is now cultivated on many continents. It is highly adaptive and tolerant to even the most inhospitably arid soil conditions. Prolonged cold spells with temperatures falling to below 20 °C are the only conditions it can not tolerate. Its preferred conditions are temperatures between 25°-30 °C and well-draining soil.

 

Description:

Moringa is a fast-growing subtropical tree native to the Himalayan foothills. In as little as 10 months, it can grow to an astonishing height of three meters – from seed! However, it rarely grows to more than 10 meters in total – a tree of medium stature.

Its feathery leaves and bean-like seed pods give it the appearance of a legume species. But that is not the case. Moringa is the only genus of the Moraginacae family, which comprises 13 species. The pods, which are slightly thickened at one end, are known as ‘drum sticks’. Each pod contains 15-20 winged seeds.

The tree branches freely and produces dark, green feathery tri-pinnate leaves with elliptical leaflets. The flowers grow in bunches of small white or cream-coloured flowers and have a subtle fragrance.

Moringa BlossomImage by Yaayaa Diallo from Pixabay

Moringa Blossom

 

History

Moringa is one of the most important and universally useful plants of the tropics.

The entire plant is edible – leaves, seeds, pods, flowers and even the roots – although some experts warn against eating them. (The British called this tree ‘Horseradish root tree’, an allusion to root’s distinct flavour).

Moringa is remarkably rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, C and E, calcium, potassium, iron and, perhaps most importantly, protein. It is recommended as a nutritional supplement for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and the elderly and infirm. It is one of the few sources of high-quality vegetable protein that contains all essential amino acids.

In India, the young, green and immature pods (the ‘drumsticks’) are a popular ingredient of curries. The seeds yield a high-quality oil used in cooking which is rich in oleic acid. It is very stable, comparable to olive oil in terms of resistance to rancidity and nutritional value. The leaves are the most perishable. Ideally, they should be consumed within a couple of days of harvest. To extend their shelf-life on the market, they need to be bagged and cooled. Alternatively, their nutritional value can be better preserved by drying and powdering them. The powder can then be added as a nutritional supplement to soups, beverages, curries and other foods. But the most miraculous powers are contained within its seeds: Moringa seeds act as ‘flocculants’. They can purify water by causing contaminants to ‘flock together’ and precipitate, i.e. sink to the bottom of the vessel, thus effectively purifying the water. Pharmacologists at Gadja Mada University in Indonesia showed that “one crushed Moringa seed can clear 90% of the total coliform bacteria in a litre of river water within 20 minutes. While an animal study showed that even 2,000 seeds per litre of water had no toxic effects on mice.”

This is powerful and important indeed, especially given the poor water quality in many tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Given that access to clean drinking water is still a problem in many tropical regions, Moringa offers hope. Promoting the planting of Moringa trees could significantly improve water quality, as well as help to boost nutrition in some of the poorest regions of the world.

 

Moringa sticks

Moringa Drum Sticks Image by S V from Pixabay

Medicinal uses:

Medicinally, Moringa is primarily used to address problems arising from malnutrition. It has a tonic effect on the gastric system and can cure diarrhoea. Thanks to its high vitamin A content, it is a great immune system booster. Vitamin A also helps alleviate visual problems, such as night blindness and xerophthalmia.

Despite its impressive nutritional profile, Moringa can not cure severe malnutrition. The body can no longer process iron, protein or fat once severe physiological abnormalities have been triggered (e.g. infections, impaired liver and intestinal function, imbalance of electrolytes and related problems). However, Moringa is the best available ally to prevent such severe cases and correct mild and moderate ones.

Moringa can also reduce blood sugar levels and thus help control diabetes and high blood pressure. Furthermore, it is said to be helpful in the treatment of respiratory problems, tuberculosis and malaria.

The raw seed pods act on the liver and are used as an anthelminthic (deworming) agent.

The seed oil contains antibiotic and anti-inflammatory compounds. It is used in the treatment of bacterial and fungal skin conditions. Topically, it can be applied to aching joints.

Recent research suggests that Moringa may be effective against certain kinds of cancer, particularly skin cancer. Traditional healers have long used Moringa for this purpose, but further studies are needed to evaluate and verify these traditional uses. They also claim that it to be an excellent nutrient to prevent cancer.

It is easy to add Moringa to the diet, and almost anybody could benefit from it. But above all, it should be used to improve the conditions of those who live in extreme poverty. Moringa should be planted in every available patch of public land to make it accessible to all.

 

Lead image by Iskandar Ab. Rashid from Pixabay

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple is an iconic tree of the northeastern parts of the US. In the fall, when its foliage turns bright orange and red, thousands of people come from far away just to dee this fabulous color display. But that is just one facet of this beautiful tree with its rich and varied history.

Botany

Sugar Maple is a stately tree of the Acer family. It can reach a height of up to 130 feet. Its growth rate is relatively slow, however. A mature tree can reach an age of about 200 years. In the southern range of its distribution, it associates with Oaks, while in northern and northeastern regions, it grows among birch and beech woods.

Habitat and Distribution

The Maple Tree family is widely distributed throughout the world. Altogether, there are almost 200 different species and about half of them occur in the northern hemisphere. Most of them are indigenous to central and eastern parts of Asia but some are indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean. About 13 species, including the Sugar Maple, are indigenous to North America.

Its distribution ranges from southern Canada down to Arkansas, Tennessee, and the southern Appalachian Mountains. Sugar Maple is the dominant and most conspicuous tree of the eastern forests famous for its showy display of brilliant red, orange, and yellow autumn foliage.

Ecology

In the woodland ecology of the northeastern forests, Sugar Maple plays a key role. It provides nourishment for various species including the white-tailed deer and plays host to a number of insects.

Environmental factors are the main threat to the Maple population. The growth of mature trees is decreasing and ‘infant mortality’ among saplings is increasing, due to acid rain. Because of their shallow but extensive root systems Maple trees are especially susceptible to surface soil pollution. Global warming also poses a threat.

Pigmentation

The striking coloration is due to the breakdown and dispersal of chlorophyll, which reveals other pigments such as carotenes, tannins, and anthocyanin, which react differently depending on the pH level of the soil.

colourful maple leaves

History

Sugar Maple’s distinctive palmate leaf has gained world fame as the national emblem of the Canadian flag. It has served as the state tree of four US states (New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).

Economically, Sugar Maple is one of the most valuable hardwood trees of the northeastern forests of the US. Its wood has a fine grain and is lighter, yet stronger than that of White Oak, making it useful for the manufacture of many household items such as rolling pins, cutting boards, ladles, and spoons. Carpenters, woodturners, and instrument makers value its beautiful close grain. As a durable hardwood, it has also been used for floor boarding and skirting-boards, etc.

But Sugar Maple is one of the few trees whose most important economical role is not the value of its timber, but the yield of its sweet-tasting sap.

Maple Sugar and Maple Syrup

European settlers first learned about this sap and the technique for tapping it from First Nation Natives, who had been using it as one of their most important food sources for as long as anybody could remember.

Yield

When the snow starts to thaw and life returns to the woodlands, the tree sap begins to rise. Sugar Maple produces copious amounts of sap, which contains about 3% of sugar (on average). To produce 1 gallon of strong-flavored maple syrup requires 30 -4 0 gallons of sap. The sap is boiled down to evaporate the water and thus concentrate the sugar content. The ideal density of 66. 5%. sugar. At higher concentrations, the syrup begins to crystallize while at lower concentrations it can easily spoil.

An average tree yields about 12 gallons of sap per season, which can be turned into 3 pounds of sugar. Large trees (at least 25 – 30 inches in diameter) can sustain 2 or 3 taps. Younger trees with a diameter of 10-12 inches (at about 65 years of age) only sustain one tap.

Maple sugar is now produced on a commercial scale.  Enormous amounts of sap are tapped for local as well as for international consumption. Vermont is the largest producer in the US today, followed by New York and Maine. However, Canada is the largest producer worldwide, covering about 75% of the international demand. Other species of Maple also contain sweet sap and can be used to obtain syrup, although Sugar Maple is by far the most productive.

Traditional sugar camps

Maple Sap TapNative Americans set up semi-permanent sugar camps in the forests to which they traveled for the annual ‘sugaring season’ (from about mid-February to early April). The camps usually consisted of two structures: a small birch-bark-covered lodge where the utensils were stored and the sugaring lodge, which also served as a temporary living space.

Every year, before sugaring could commence, the sugar-making lodge had to be freshly restored and repaired. The lodge consisted of one or two platforms set up along the inside walls, while the middle was kept as the cooking space.

Each camp harvested between 900 – 1500 taps. To set up a tap requires a diagonal 4″ incision to be cut into the tree at about 3 ft above the ground. Perpendicular to the cut the bark was removed for another 4 inches and a 6×2” wooden spout, usually made of Slippery Elm was inserted below. Beneath the spout, a birch-bark vessel was positioned to collect the sap.

Sugaring-off

The taps had to be checked regularly. Once the container was full, their contents were transferred to a larger pot which was placed near the edge of the fire and slowly heated. This process, known as ‘sugaring off’ was a delicate affair requiring great care. It was done at low heat so as to avoid excessive frothing and bubbling.

Birch bark containerBefore there were kettles, pots, and pans made of metal, the Native Americans used birch bark containers and vats made from moose skins. To heat the syrup, they would place red hot stones into these containers filled with the syrup. These were then cooled in the snow. Once the water had frozen into a sheet of ice, it was simply discarded.

The fire was kept going all night and people took turns to watch over it and to attend to the sap, cooling it and reheating the syrup, all the while stirring it with ladles made of maple wood.

When the syrup reached the right consistency, it was strained through a basswood mat, or through a well-worn linen cloth. For the final sugaring-off, all the equipment was carefully cleaned and scoured. The syrup was reheated once more and some bear grease or deer tallow was added to render the sugar softer and less brittle. Gradually, the the mass thickened and stirring it with the maple wood paddle was getting harder. As soon as it reached just the right consistency, it had to be crushed quickly so as to pulverize it. If cooled beyond a certain point the sugar solidifies crushing it becomes much harder.

The settlers soon learned the technique and adapted it to their equipment. Although the tools have changed, the process is essentially the same except for some small modifications that have simplified the procedure.

For Native Americans and for some of the small family producers ‘sugaring off’ was not just a commercial endeavor. It was a cultural event, an integral and important part of the annual cycle, and a joyous, festive time that heralds the coming of spring.

maple sugar sweets

Other Maple delicacies

Some of the thick syrup was used to make special delicacies. It was poured into fancy shapes which solidified as they cooled down. Another special treat was known as ‘gum sugar, which nowadays is known as maple taffy. To make this sticky stuff, the syrup was poured onto the snow, where it quickly hardened. It was then scooped up and portioned into small packets wrapped in birchbark.

Sometimes it is poured onto vanilla ice cream. Once it hardens, it can be picked up with a spoon or stick to be eaten like a lollipop. The settlers added their own variations to the range of Maple products. Among them, is a thick spread known as maple butter, maple vinegar (which by all accounts appears not to have been too tasty, but is said to improve with the addition of whiskey), maple beer, and maple punch.

Maple SyrupComposition of Pure Maple Syrup:

The flavor, abundance, and exact composition of sap depend on environmental factors such as the weather and the pH level of the soil. Little snow and deep frost during the early part of winter, followed by heavy snow, were said to produce the best harvest. Rain changes the flavor of the sugar and thunderstorms are thought to ruin it.

In contrast to white sugar, maple syrup and maple sugar are highly nutritious.

Carbohydrates (%):

  • Sucrose 62.65
  • Hexose (glucose, fructose) 0.5 – 3
  • Other trace sugars

Organic acids (%)

  • Malic 0.090
  • Citric 0.009
  • Succinic 0.007
  • Fumaric 0.004
  • Amino acids (%):
  • Phenols 300-960
  • Amino nitrogens 30-190

Minerals (PPM)

  • Potassium 1500-2200
  • Calcium 400-1000
  • Magnesium 100-300
  • Phosphorus 50-125
  • Manganese 5-80
  • Zinc 5-50
  • Sodium 1-25
  • Iron 1-15
  • Tin 0-25
  • Copper 0-2

Vitamins (micrograms/liter)

  • Niacin (PP) 276
  • Pantothenic Acid (B5) 600
  • Riboflavin (B2) 60
  • Folic Acid Traces
  • Pyridoxine Traces
  • Biotin Traces
  • Vitamin A Traces

 

Ethnobotanical uses

Native Americans also used Sugar Maple medicinally. Particularly the Iroquois medical tradition made ample use of it. It is included in compound medicines to purify the blood, while a compound infusion of the bark was used as eye drops to treat blindness. They also used the leaves to prepare a decoction that was used as a wash to treat the affected parts of a skin condition known as the “Italian itch”.

Forest runners would take an infusion of the bark together with another plant for shortness of breath, while the inner bark was used as cough medicine. The dried and ground inner bark was sometimes used as flour substitute. A purple dye was obtained from the rotten wood but it was rare, as the wood is quite rot-resistant.

Maple autumn foliage

Potash

The white settlers soon found it more profitable and less bothersome to turn their stands of Maple trees to ash which could be turned into economically valuable potash. Maple wood yields a relatively large amount of ash (4% compared to only 1% of Douglas Fir). During the 18th and 19th centuries, potash was a valued raw material destined for export to England. It was destined for the British textile industry, where it served as a vital ingredient in the processes of making soap, glass, and gunpowder.

In 1751, Britain even passed an act in Parliament ‘to encourage the making of Pott Ashes and Pearl Ashes in the British Plantations in America’. An acre of woodland could be reduced to 2 tons of potash – with a tidy profit for the farmers. Sometimes, however, it was their only significant source of income: in 1800 a ton of potash demanded a price of $200 – $300. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson stopped all exports of any goods including Potash as a reprisal against the search and seizure of American ships by France and Britain – with the result that illegal export (i.e. smuggling) became even more lucrative.

Recipes

 

Maple Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 2- cups flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons powdered ginger
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

Method

Sift together flour, soda, ginger, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg vigorously, and then stir in the maple syrup, sour cream, and butter. Mix cream and butter. Combine the flour with the other dry ingredients and then stir into the egg mixture. Pour into a greased flat pan and bake for 30 minutes at 350°F, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Maple frosting is a tasty option.

Maple Wine

From “Valuable Secrets”, 1809

“Boil 4, 5, or 6 gallons of sap according to its strength into one and add yeast according to the quantity you make. After it is fermented, set it aside in a cool place well stopped. If kept for two years, it will become a pleasant and round wine.”

Plant Profile: Walnut

Plant Profile: Walnut

Walnuts (Juglans regia)

It’s ‘nutty season’! (No, I don’t mean politics, in this case) I have was reminded of the fact by the intermittent popping noises coming from outside my window and by the mass of fuzzy hazelnut balls that are piling up on the front porch. These Turkish hazelnuts are plentiful, for sure, and easy to collect. But they are small and extremely tedious to crack. Thankfully, nature provides plentifully and these are not the only nut trees around. We also have some Walnut trees – English Walnuts, that is! Majestic to behold, Walnut trees, are among my favorite trees, and seeing them laden with nuts is a joy.

The ‘foreign tree’

Walnut trees (Juglans regia) are well integrated foreigners in our northern latitudes. Their home is in the warm, and fertile regions of south-east Europe, northern Greece, northern Italy, and France, where they are widely cultivated. Walnuts reached the ‘Low Countries’ north of the Alps in the pockets of Roman soldiers. But, it took several centuries before they really made themselves at home. Teutonic tribes, who gave them their name, apparently regarded them as an oddity, which is expressed in the name they gave the tree: ‘Walnut’ is derived from the Germanic word ‘welsh’, meaning foreign.

They did not reach Britain until the 16th-century and are only found in the warmer, southern parts. The Roman nut became known as the ‘English Walnut’, perhaps to distinguish it from the American walnut (Juglans nigra), or the Pecan nut (Carya illinoinensis). So, it seems this ‘foreigner’ has not only well adapted to its new home but has also been adopted by the locals, who think of it as one of their own.

A southerner in northern climes

Although in time walnuts adapted quite well to the much harsher northern climate, their southern origin becomes evident in spring. Despite the fact that they come into flower quite late (April), they remain vulnerable to late frosts, which can quickly ruin the prospects of a good harvest.

A generational tree

In previous centuries, walnut trees were considered so valuable that they were specifically itemized in the will. A productive grove could cover a good part of a family’s livelihood. But that aside, planting a walnut orchard was an investment in the future: walnut trees are slow to mature. Although they start to produce nuts from the tender age of 15 years, they don’t become fully productive until they have reached the age of thirty. A mature tree produces about 50kg of nuts per year.

The American Cousin

The American (Black) Walnut is quite a different fellow. They are native to the US and occur wild throughout the eastern United States. However, they are not as well-loved as the ‘English’ variety, since they have the rather unsocial habit of emitting a chemical from their roots that inhibits, and eventually kills other plants in its vicinity.  Besides, they are incredibly hard to shuck. People report placing them on their driveways and driving the truck over them in order to crack their shells. Crows & co have picked up on this trick. The birds strategically place nuts in the flow of traffic (e.g. at stoplights) in order to enlist our help in cracking the nuts.

Foraging

In a good year, a mature walnut tree is laden with nuts, which begin to fall in late September/early October, depending on your growing zone.

The nuts are covered by a hard, green hull that is exceedingly difficult to remove and besides, will stain your hands, clothes, and work surface.  Wear gloves, if you don’t want your hands to look like you have been chain-smoking. It is best to harvest the nuts when they are fully ripe, at which point the green cortex will split open to reveal the nut inside, or sometimes it disintegrates into a black mush, leaving the nut behind.

Remove the black stuff as much as possible. It is very high in tannin and can affect the quality of the nut inside. Once you have removed the outer cortex wash the nuts. Put them into a bucket of water. This will naturally separate the good ones from the rotten ones. Bad walnuts tend to float, while the good ones will sink.

After washing the nuts, you can either shuck them or dry and store them for later use. If dried and stored properly, walnuts can keep for a year. Shucking exposes them to oxygen, which will cause them to turn rancid more quickly, due to their high levels of unsaturated (as well as saturated) fats. Keep the nuts in a cool and dark place where there is no danger of worms or vermin looking for a free lunch.

American Walnuts are much harder to crack than English walnuts. It is said that soaking them in water for 8 hours prior to cracking makes the job much easier. For English Walnuts, this is not necessary. They readily succumb to the persuasive powers of an ordinary nutcracker. Black Walnuts need a more forceful treatment.

Walnuts are very rich in oil – 2 kg of nuts will yield about one liter of oil. which is considered a delicacy. It is not so easy to obtain from your foraged nuts, though. Native Americans are said to have boiled the nuts to extract the oil. But this also destroys some of their nutrients.

Walnut oil has a delicious nutty flavor and is excellent in salad dressings or home backing to impart a delicate nutty flavor.

Most of all, forager appreciate walnuts for their delicious ‘meat’, which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. (see recipes below)

Medicinal uses

The soft kernel on the half-shell vaguely resembles a brain, surrounded by the protective cover of the cranium. The ancients took this likeness to mean that the nut must be good for the brain.  (according to the doctrine of signatures). Scientists have confirmed that walnuts are indeed beneficial for the brain. This is due to their nutrient content, and especially the omega-3 fatty acids (of which walnuts are a rich source). Omega-3 fatty acids support the body when it comes to dealing with stress and is said to help alleviate depression. (see https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/omega-3-fatty-acids-for-mood-disorders-2018080314414)

Native Americans have used various parts of the tree, not just for food, but also as medicine. The leaves and root bark was used in anti-parasitic preparations and to treat skin diseases. The root bark is very astringent and makes a good anti-inflammatory wash that can be applied to herpes, eczema, and scrofula. Taken internally, it stops diarrhea, stays the flux, and dries up the flow of milk in nursing mothers.

Dyeing

The leaves repel insects and can be used as an ad hoc insecticide. The hulls, husks, leaves, and bark are all used as vegetable dyes to yield various colors ranging from yellow to dark brown or black.

Paints

The oil is drying and can be used in oil paints as an alternative to Linseed oil. Recently, powdered shells have been incorporated into new types of ‘designer paints’ to produce interesting textures or in-floor paints, to produce an anti-skidding effect.

walnuts

Recipes

Pickled Walnuts

If you want to pickle walnuts, you have to pick them while they are still green and hanging in the tree. They have to be in an unripe state so that the inner shell is still soft and hasn’t turned woody yet. Typically, they should be picked in June.

Prepare a brine: 6oz salt to 1 quart of water.

With the help of a long needle poke the walnuts all over (don’t remove the green hulls) and cover with the brine. Steep for about 1 week.

Drain, and repeat: cover with fresh brine for another week.

Drain again. Spread the walnuts on a tray and let the sun dry them. Turn them from time to time.

When the walnuts are dry and have turned black, fill them into pickling jars. (Kilner jars, mason jars))

Prepare a spiced vinegar with:

  • 1oz mixed peppercorns
  • 1oz allspice
  • ¾ inch ginger root (fresh)

Add some dried chilies or coriander seeds, if you like. Lightly crush the spices and place them into a muslin bag. Simmer the bag in the malt vinegar for 10 minutes. Then let the vinegar cool down before removing the spices. Pour the vinegar over the walnuts and make sure the liquid covers them. Close the jar tightly. Macerate for 6 – 8 weeks before tasting them.

Stuffing

Walnuts make an excellent stuffing for mushroom, marrows, or puff pastry parcels.

Ingredients:

  • 12 medium-size mushrooms caps
  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tbs. butter
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 tbs. coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 5 ounces frozen spinach, thoroughly defrosted and squeezed to remove most of the liquid
  • 1 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 oz Gruyere cheese, crumbled
  • 2 tbs minced fresh dill
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg to taste

Method:

Preheat oven to 400° F. Clean the mushrooms and remove the stems.  In a small skillet, heat the olive oil and butter. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, cover and sauté until soft.

Add walnuts and cook for another minute. Add the spinach and stir continuously for about 5 minutes. Take off the heat and cool slightly. Stir in cheeses, dill, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, to taste.

In an oven-proof pan arrange the mushrooms, cavity side up. Plop a wallop of the spinach/walnut mixture into each mushroom cap and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the filling turns brown and the mushrooms are thoroughly heated.

Walnut Liqueur

In Italy and France, walnut liqueur is considered a regional specialty. ‘Nocino’ in Italian –  although there are many versions of the ‘original’ recipe. The idea is simple: macerate green, unripe walnuts in a blend of clear alcohol, (e.g. grain alcohol), and syrup.

Method

In June, when the Walnuts are still green and soft inside (traditionally on St. John’s Day=Midsummer), pick your nuts straight from the tree. Wash and quarter the nuts.

Remember to wear gloves!

Fill a large jar with the nuts and add some spices, such as a couple of cinnamon sticks and a few cloves and perhaps a vanilla bean. Chop up an organic, untreated lemon (or orange, if you prefer) and add to the mixture. Pour in about 1 ½ pound of sugar and cover with 3 liters of grain alcohol. Close the lid tightly and steep for about 6 weeks. Keep in a warm dark place.

Test the liquid and adjust to suit your taste. Strain through filter paper and bottle. Store in a cool place.

Green Walnuts preserved in Syrup – from Mrs. Grieves – A Modern Herbal

‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose;

lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night;

then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain;

then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d:

then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (skimming them) till they be tender;

then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close.

When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’

– (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

Walnuts are incredibly versatile – even if they are not the star ingredient, they never fail to give a dish a refining note. I sprinkle them on salads or use them instead of pine nuts in a pesto blend. They are also fabulous in desserts and cakes.

Caution:

People who are allergic to nuts should stay away from walnuts and all products derived from them or containing them. Likewise, people who are scared of calories should treat this nut with respect. However, replacing some of your normal dietary fat with walnut oil can be a very wise choice as walnut oil has an excellent nutritional profile and can help to fight free radicals while lowering cholesterol levels. Walnuts are a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Always wear gloves when handling walnuts – especially as long as they are still green. And leave some for the wildlife – it is an important source of food to carry them through the winter.

wildlife

Foraging: Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)

Foraging: Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa)

Nothing quite conjures up the magical atmosphere of autumn as the warm, sweet scent of roasted chestnuts. It immediately invokes images of bonfires and harvest feasts. When the days are getting shorter and there is that crisp little nip in the air, when the leaves turn bright in color and spread a thick carpet on the ground, when the earth smells musky and moist from the rain, the chestnut season is upon us.

Description

Sweet Chestnuts, which must not be confused with Horse Chestnuts, belong to the family of the Fagaceae, the Beech-Family, which comprises several genera and numerous species of trees with edible nuts, such as acorns and beechnuts.

They are at home in the temperate zone and shun excessively cold and wet regions. In Europe, their range extends as far north as southern England, but they are most comfortable in a Mediterranean climate, where they form quite extensive natural stands.

The North American native species (Castanea dentata) has largely been replaced by the Chinese species, which was imported in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, the imported trees were infected with a virulent blight that spread rampantly and wiped out almost the entire population of native Chestnut trees.

Sweet Chestnuts grow into beautiful tall trees, with elegant large, but slender leaves, with serrated margins. The leaves develop before the flowers appear in June. They form long golden-yellow catkins reminiscent of arboreal fireworks. The nuts develop in early autumn. They are protected by a very prickly outer shell (cortex). When the cortex splits it reveals two or three nutlets that are shaped like pixie-hats, with a pointed tip and tiny tuft of white hair. In natural stands, only one of the nuts develops fully.

Sweet Chestnut Flowers

Commercial Chestnuts are derived from a cultivated variety, in which the underdeveloped nutlets are missing altogether. The bulk of the commercial crop is grown in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, where chestnuts still play an important part in the traditional cuisine.

Foraging

If you are lucky enough to have a Chestnut tree in your neighborhood, the temptation to collect the very first nuts that fall to the ground in September is almost irresistible. But the early nuts are not yet fully ripe and are usually not worth the bother. It is better to wait for another couple of weeks. By October, the nuts are plump. The outer, bristly coats should be cracked open. Now it’s time to get busy, otherwise, the forest folk, the squirrels, and wild boar will beat you to it. The shells are really prickly, so thick rubber gloves come in handy. The easiest way to remove the cortex is by gently stepping on the nuts and rolling them around on the ground underfoot until the outer shell comes off by itself. Check the nuts for little holes. That would indicate that the worms are already feasting. Worms tend to be more of a problem after heavy rains or when the nuts have been lying on the ground for too long.

The most tedious part of the Chestnut harvest is not the collection, but the shelling. A fibrous membrane adheres to each nutlet beneath the shell. It clings to every crevice and cleft.

peeled chestnuts

There are several methods to remove this membrane, and the method of choice depends on how you intend to use the nuts.

But, regardless, the first step is to remove the outer husk. Cut a little cross on the bottom surface (of each nut. Without this precaution, they explode violently when being roasted. But even if you boil them, cutting the outer shell makes the process of shelling them and removing the membrane much easier.

To preserve Chestnuts for long-term storage you still need to shell them and to remove the inner membrane. Afterward, you can dry them quickly in the oven or dehydrator, to avoid mold. Once dehydrated, they need to be soaked in water prior to use. In France, a traditional method of curing the nuts was to spread them on the floor of a harvest hut and to smoke them for a period of time. Smoked nuts could be stored for up to a year.

Pan/Oven Method

Cut a cross on the flat side of each nut and place them in a heavy skillet. Add about half a teaspoon of butter per cup of chestnuts and roast at medium heat until the butter is melted. Put the pan in the oven at 475°F. After 10 – 15 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and take off the shells with a small sharp paring knife. It is a tedious process, but if done correctly, the inner skins will adhere to the outer shells, thus making the shelling process much easier.

Chestnuts are a wonderful, very nutritious wild food. Unlike most nuts, they are rich in both carbohydrates and proteins but contain very little fat and no cholesterol. This distinct composition has earned them their nicknames ‘l’arbre a pain’ in French, meaning ‘bread tree’ or the English equivalent, ‘the grain that grows on trees’. Their flavor and consistency are unique in that it lends itself very well to both sweet and savory dishes. A favorite is chestnut stuffing, but they can also be used in soups, nut loaves, cookies or desserts, or they can be ground into nut flour.

Recipes

 

Roasted Chestnuts

A simple and delicious way to enjoy Chestnuts is to simply roast them, either in the oven or on an open fire. In southern Europe, special chestnut roasting pans are used for this purpose, though they are not strictly necessary. They are basically frying pans that have holes on the bottom. But it is just as simple to roast the chestnuts in a regular pan. The important thing to remember is to make an incision on the bottom of each nut so that they don’t explode. Place in a pan and roast over a medium flame for about 15 min. The flavor is completely transformed by the process. Even if you intend to use them for other dishes, such as soups or stuffing, roasting them prior to any further processing is highly recommended. They also taste great straight from the pan or can be served with blue cheese and wine.

sweet chestnut roasting

Stuffing

Minced chestnuts are excellent as stuffing for birds, such as pheasants or goose. Roast onions and garlic, add boiled and minced chestnuts and rice along with chopped celery sticks and apples. Stir an egg into the mixture and season to taste, e.g. salt, thyme, sage, rosemary, mugwort. Add wholemeal flour, oats or wholemeal breadcrumbs until the mixture has the right consistency, neither too dry, nor too wet. Judge the amounts by the size of the bird.

Chestnut Loaf

The above-described stuffing can also be adjusted to make a nice chestnut loaf. The chestnuts can be mixed with other nuts, e.g. peanuts or walnuts. Mix roughly half and half nuts and rice, add grated or finely chopped vegetables, e.g. zucchinis, mushrooms, onions, and garlic either sautéed or raw, add an egg and flour until everything sticks together nicely. Season to taste. Fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and a touch of sage are nice. Grease a bread pan and fill with the mixtures. Bake in the oven at about 375 degrees until a crust forms on the top and the dough no longer sticks when pricked with a wooden stick. Serve with steamed vegetables and mushroom sauce.

Glazed Chestnuts And Winter Vegetables

  • 2 large kumera (sweet potato)
  • 4 large parsnips
  • 4 small red onions, quartered
  • 12 whole garlic cloves, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 ½ cups peeled/blanched chestnuts
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper

Cut kumara into large chunks. Cut parsnip in half lengthwise. Combine all ingredients in a baking dish; bake, uncovered in a hot oven (220°C) about 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and browned lightly. Turn gently halfway through cooking. Serves 6 to 8.

Curried Chestnut Soup

  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1 apple, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup roasted chestnuts, minced
  • vegetable seasoning
  • ½ pint milk
  • ½ vegetable stock
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Curry powder
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Chilies to taste

Sauté the onions and carrots until the onions are soft. Add zucchini and apple. Continue to sauté and stir. Add mushrooms. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of vegetable seasoning and a teaspoon of curry powder and a pinch of cinnamon into the vegetables and continue to stir. Add one pint of water. Bring to the boil and add the roasted and minced chestnuts. Stir continuously so as to avoid any of the ingredients sticking to the bottom. Press the garlic into the soup. Add 1/2 pint of vegetable stock and 1/2 pint of milk and simmer until all the vegetables are cooked. Season to taste with extra salt, coriander, cumin, and chilies. Adjust liquid level so the soup is creamy but not too thick. A tiny touch of honey can blend the flavors perfectly.

Baked Apples With Chestnut Stuffing

Roast the chestnuts as described above, shell and mince. Mix with raisins, sultanas, oats, and honey. Core the apples and fill the hole with the stuffing. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven until the apples are soft. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Chestnut Mousse

Chestnuts combined with cocoa and amaretto make a perfect ending for a festive dinner.

  • 2 pounds of Chestnuts, peeled and cooked
  • 12 Tbs. of sugar or honey or to taste
  • 4 Tbs. of cocoa
  • 4 Tbs. of amaretto
  • 16 ounces whipping cream

Shell and peel chestnuts as described above. Boil until tender. Drain and add sugar or honey, cocoa, and Amaretto. Blend in a food processor until smooth. Beat whipping cream until stiff. Fold into the chestnut puree. Divide among dessert glasses. Chill. Decorate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Serves 10.

The mousse can also be used as a cake filling. Beware: it is very rich!

Sweet Chestnut-Cocoa Mousse

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

The Elder tree – medicine cabinet of the country people

This much loved, bushy tree is a common sight throughout Britain (especially in southern England) as well as in most parts of central and southern Europe. Its multiple stems branch frequently, giving it a somewhat sprawling appearance. The light grey bark is fissured and covered with many lenticels (breathing pores). The branches are bendy and contain a core of very light, almost cork-like pith, which can easily be removed. Generations of children have taken advantage of this property, making pipes and pop-guns from hollowed-out twigs. The pinnate leaves have opposite, ovate leaflets with serrated margins and one larger terminal leaflet. The flowers appear in May, forming big umbel-shaped bunches of tiny 5-petaled, cream-colored star-shaped flowers. They exude a heavy, sweet, slightly intoxicating scent, especially at dusk. By the end of the summer they develop into drooping bunches of small purple-black berries that are extremely popular with the birds.

HABITAT:

As a nitrogen loving plant Elder commonly grows near farms and homesteads and thrives near organic waste disposal sites. Elder is often grown as a hedgerow bush, since it takes very fast, bends into shape easily and grows quite profusely, hence its reputation as an ‘instant hedge’. It is not fussy about soil type or pH level and will grow wherever it gets enough light.

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

SYNONYMS:

Pipe tree, Ellhorn, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Eller, Holler, Hylder, Hylantree, Holunder (German), Sureau (French)

The name ‘Elder’ probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’, for ‘fire’, which starts to make sense when we look at another old name for Elder, ‘Ellhorn’. This name derives from the use of hollowed Elder branches as blow furnaces.

Old names, like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word ‘Holunder’ all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess known in Denmark as ‘Hylde Moer’. In the old days, Elder was considered sacred to this Goddess. Elders were often thought a little spooky. They were believed to be inhabited by a ‘tree dryad’, a kind of tree spirit that represents the soul of the tree, or even an aspect of the Goddess herself. If treated well and respectfully the dryad appeared as a most benevolent spirit that blesses and protects those who care for it. Elders often grow close to human habitations and since they never get struck by lightning, they were thought to protect the homestead against this danger as well. There has long been a widespread taboo against cutting down Elder trees or burning any of their wood. It was thought that the dryad would take revenge and punish the offender with bad luck – or, toothache (Romania). According to ancient folk beliefs, toothaches are seen as ‘supernatural’ and understood as a form of divine punishment. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an Elder tree or to take any part of it, was to use it for medicine, or as a protective charm. To this end, the dryad was asked reverently and asked for permission.

With the head bared and arms folded, the following was recited:

‘Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.’

With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree worship the sacred Elder tree became a witches tree and the old stories were reframed to suit the narrative of the new religion. In Christian mythology, Elder was portrayed as a tree of sorrow, because Judas was said to have hung himself from the branches of an Elder tree and this is supposed to be the reason for its stooped appearance and bendy branches: never again should anyone commit suicide with the help of an Elder tree. And to make matters worse, the cross upon which the Savior was crucified was said to have been fashioned from Elder wood. Such a disgrace the Elder tree could not bear and so it has never again been able to grow upright and tall as other trees do.

Nevertheless, some of the older beliefs have lived on and country folk continued to use Elder for protection of house and barn. They pinned the leaves above the doors to ward off evil witches, daemons, and other nefarious influences.

During the Middle Ages such folk magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious customs evolved as pre-Christian and Christian believes got muddled and merged. But without the proper context of the ancient beliefs they turned into superstitions, For example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed if one was to cut the inner pith of the twigs to make flat disks. These were dipped in lamp oil and set alight to float them in a glass of water. However, the magic trick only worked on Christmas Eve.

Conversely, one could also use the Elder to enlist the devil for one’s own purposes. On the January 6th (Bertha Night), when the devil is said to go about ‘with special virulence’, one could try to obtain some of his ‘Mystic Fernseed’, which was believed transfer the strength of 30 or 40 men, to the keeper, protect furniture from woodworm, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothaches. To obtain this magic substance, one must cast a magic circle for protection, the boundary of which one must not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection was offered by carrying some Elderberries that had been gathered on St. John’s night. But since Elderberries are not ripe at this time of the year this practice appears a little spurious. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with a magic wand made of Elder wood.

Elderflowers

Elderflowers

Note: In the old religion the 12 nights of Christmas were regarded as the turning point of the year when the battle between light and darkness culminates and the Sun is reborn. They correspond to the 12 days of midsummer, at the summer solstice, which in the Christian calendar is celebrated on St John’s Day. These periods were the most important time in the ancient pre-Christian ritual calendar. It was said that at these times the veils between the worlds are thin and spirits come and go easily between the spheres of existence. It is for this reason that superstitious practices involving clairvoyance and fortune-telling were often practiced at these times.

Elder’s reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be ubiquitous and can be found from Russia to Romania and from Sicily to Scotland. A less common custom comes from Serbia, where Elder twigs used during nuptial rites, were believed to bestow good luck to the newly-weds. More recently, in Victorian Britain, it was thought that a couple who shared a glass of Elder-infused Ale would marry within a year.

The ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life, from the cradle to the grave. However, she was also believed to bestow the power of regeneration and ultimately, of rebirth. Her rhythms were reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon and the cycles of the seasons. As above, so below, as within, so without. Naturally, her rhythms were also applied to the human life-span. Thus, the Goddess of life is also the Goddess of the Underworld, who protects and regenerates the souls of the departed. At funerals, green Elder twigs were often placed into the coffin for protection on the journey to the Otherworld. Christian and pre-Christian beliefs often merged into compounded folk customs with elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for example, Elders were planted on graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. When the tree starts to flower, the soul was believed to be happy.

An interesting custom from Romania illustrates the Goddess’s power of regeneration. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig. The pig’s inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and an Elder-tree was believed to sprout from its grave in the following year. Easter/ Spring Equinox is the time of regeneration, the time when the Earth-Goddess awakens the land and blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (as an emblem of self-sacrificing motherhood and the principle of nurture) and Elder trees were deemed sacred to this ancient Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.

In Denmark, Hylde-Moer, as the Goddess was known, presided over the fairy realm. Fairies are creatures of the Otherworld, but from time to time, especially at the summer solstice, they venture into our world. To watch them on their way to their Midsummer night’s feast, one could hide out in a grove of Elder trees. (Drinking ample quantities of freshly made Elderflower champagne whilst hiding in the bushes might enhance the experience).

Elderberries

The Elder tree has often been described as the medicine chest of the country folk. But even today modern herbalists employ many of its medicinal uses. In 1644 a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of the Elder was translated from Latin to English: on 230 pages the author sings its praises. The book was so popular that it ran through several editions in both its English and Latin versions. According to the author, every single part of the plant was deemed medicinally useful. It even references an edible fungus known as ‘Judas Ear’ (alluding to the above-mentioned myth), which grows on Elder trees. It should come as no surprise that its medicinal powers were said to be effective for quinsy, sore throat, and strangulation (!).

Judas-Ear

Judas-Ear fungus

 

The elder itself was considered a panacea capable to relieve almost any ailment, ‘from toothache to the plague’. It seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that could be produced from its various parts: ‘a rob or syrup, a tincture, a compound mixture, an oil, or ointment, a distillation, and a distilled flower water, a liniment, an extract, a salt, or a conserve, a vinegar, an oxymel, a sugar, a decoction, a bath additive, a cataplasm, and a powder’, made from one, several, or all parts of the plant. However, in the old days, it wasn’t just the biochemical activity that was considered medicinally active. The plant’s subtle energy also played an important role, especially in the many folk healing practices that were based on sympathetic magic.

Rheumatism, for example, could be treated with a charm or amulet that was made by tying several knots into a young Elder-twig. This charm had to be kept close to the body to unfold its power. Elder was also believed to cure warts: the wart was to be rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which was not carelessly discarded, but buried in mud, where it was left to rot. Other, more forms of ‘transfer magic’ were also common. The imagination at the root of such practices was that trees in particular are much stronger and resistant than the feeble human body. They were thought capable of absorbing and thereby to neutralize the evil energies that were thought responsible for the disease. Many trees were used similarly, depending on the symptoms of the disease and the availability of various species of trees.

CONTEMPORARY MEDICINAL USES

Elderflowers and berries are still used modern herbal medicine but since heroic medicine went out of fashion, the use of other parts, such as the leaves or inner bark, has been discontinued.

PARTS USED:

Flowersdried or fresh

Berries: best preserved as cordial, syrup or wine

CAUTION:

The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are extremely poisonous and can cause death if ingested.

Native Americans value a close relative of Sambucus nigra known as ‘American Elder’ (Sambucus canadensis), with very similar medicinal properties. Many of its reported uses closely resemble those of S. nigra in the Old World.

elder flower

FLOWERS

HARVEST TIMES: Early summer

CONSTITUENTS: Triterpenes, fixed oil containing free acids, alkenes, flavonoids

ACTIONS: Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant

INDICATIONS:

Elderflowers have long been used as a treatment for various inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion is given for cough, colds and flu, asthma, and hay-fever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce the fever, which makes it useful in the treatment of infectious diseases such as measles, and scarlet fever. Externally, an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing effect, to soothe irritable nerves, and to relieve itchy skin. Cooled, the infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore, itchy and inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with the flowers, dipped in hot water, and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.

elderberries

BERRIES

HARVEST TIMES: late summer, early autumn

CONSTITUENTS: Viburnic acid, odorous oil, tyrosin, inverted sugar, tannin, vitamin C and P and B2

ACTIONS: Aperient, diuretic, source of nutrients and vitamins

INDICATIONS:

The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and are best used as a tonic to ward off winter ailments, which boost the immune system. Vitamin B2  in particular is indicated as effective in the treatment of pneumonia. Elderberries are a valuable alterative remedy that can be used to combat rheumatic conditions. They also soothe sore nerves and help to improve poor circulation.

GENERAL USES

Hedging:

Elder is a familiar hedge plant. The bendy branches can easily be trimmed and laid, thus creating effective protection against wind and erosion.  Such a hedge also makes a wonderful wildlife habitat, especially for birds, who love the berries. Country lore testifies to the popularity of Elder as a hedging plant. An old proverb praises its durability:

‘An Elder stake and a blackthorn ‘ether will make a hedge to last forever.’

Tool-making:

Whilst the branches are bendy and flexible, the heartwood and rootstock are extremely strong and have been used for making handles, stakes, fences, combs, and even instruments. According to country lore, a stake of Elder wood driven into the ground will last longer than an iron stake of the same size. ‘The Latin name of the plant, ‘sambuca’ refers not to the high-octane alcoholic drink of the same name (although this too is a product derived from Elder) but to an ancient musical instrument that resembled a harp. It is likely that Elder wood was once used to make these instruments.

Insect and vermin repellent:

Cattle appreciate the presence of Elder in their pasture and seem to instinctively recognize its insect repellent properties. Cows often rub themselves on the stem and branches and stay in its shade to discourage insects. In the past, when fieldwork was still done with the aid of horses, it was a common practice to fixate some Elder leaves to the harness to ward off flies just as fieldworkers fixed the slightly bruised leaves to their hats for the same effect. A decoction of the leaves can be also be used as an insect repellent. The smell of the leaves has been likened to that of mice nests. Mrs. Grieves (A modern herbal) mentions their use for repelling mice and moles.

Young Elder shoots are thought to be effective against blight. A recipe including Elder leaves, iron and copper sulfate, soft soap, nicotine, methylated spirit and slaked lime has been used for this purpose, although organic gardeners just use a decoction made from the young shoots as an insecticide to combat aphids and small caterpillars.

Cosmetics:

In Victorian times, distilled Elderflower water was a highly valued emollient lotion. It was said to cleanse the skin, keeping it young and free of freckles and blemishes. Hard to find, nowadays, but there has been a revival of interest in Elder products and Elderflower water is once again produced commercially.

Dyes:

The bark, leaves, and berries can all be used for dyeing. The bark yields a black dye, a decoction of the leaves with alum produces a green, whilst the berries with alum, dye purple or, if salt is added to the mix, produce a lilac color.

Fodder:

Not all domestic animals are keen on Elder as forage. Sheep and cows don’t seem to mind it, but horses and goats have no taste for it. Sheep suffering from foot-rot are said to deliberately seek out Elder trees for self-medication. Wild birds love the berries, but chickens do not take to them.

Culinary uses:

The best-known culinary uses of Elderflowers and berries are the many delicious drinks that can be made from them. Numerous recipes for country wines, syrups and cordials have never lost their appeal and are still widely used in country areas in Britain and Europe. Such drinks are not simply delicious but are also medicinally valuable.

Elderflower Fritters

The flower heads, dipped in batter and deep-fried, make delicious fritters and can be served with maple syrup and lemon juice.

Hedgerow Jam

The black, fully ripe berries can be made into a delicious hedgerow jam, but the green, unripe berries are poisonous and should be avoided. Even the ripe, fresh berries retain some of this poison, which it is recommended that the berries are not eaten fresh off the bush. They should be heated to 100°C prior to consumption.

elderflower-fritters

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