A year with Elder

This must be the most truthful publicity slogan ever: “Elderberry is underestimated”

“Getting to know all these different plant species, where do I start?” It’s a question I am asked quite often. Mostly my answer is “Well, just start with one. Choose a common plant that grows near you. A plant with lots of useful possibilities. And spend a year in its company.”

One of the plants that is such an ideal ally, is the Elder. Grows nearly everywhere, houses a whole world of folklore and legends (complete books are written about the tales of the Elder), it is as suitable as food as it is as fabric colour. On top of that, it provides ideal material to make toys with, and good medicine to boost your health. This is a plant that invites us to smell, taste, touch… and a living example of how different plant parts may contain completely different substances, each to be harvested at their own time of the year.

Every now and then, it’s good to take your own advice. So I decided at the end of last winter, when the first green Elder leaves were showing “Oh yes, the Elder, I would love to spend a whole year in her company again”. Because it’s never right to think that you know a plant entirely, even though you can’t count the bottles of elderberry syrup you’ve made anymore, or the amount of elderflower pancakes.
And yes, last year was another epiphany for me.

A couple of weeks ago, when it was snowing (quite early here for the time of the year), I had to smile… apparently someone was shaking the feather blanket of the Elder Lady! I couldn’t resist telling the whole tale once again. A quick glance to the shelves in the kitchen told me it had been a fruitful elder year. A whole range of elder preparations smiled at me. Tinctured flowers, dried flowers for tea, syrups of berries and blossom, berry marmelade, elder leaf oil and salve, klakkebuizen (no idea what the English word for that is; but the hollow twigs can be used to shoot chewed paper at a target – mostly the victim is a teacher :-), pieces of elder-coloured fabric, elder flutes (in Flemish there is the wonderful word ‘Flierefluiter’, meaning someone who plays an elder flute, or someone who doesn’t worry about a thing in the world…)

Small wind flute made from elder wood

And the dreaming had started… About the elder blossoms, picked in a lovely permaculture garden in Friesland. About the harvest of the berries, with the company of a special friend, and how the songs to celebrate the berries just flew out of our mouth and heart… The flutes we tried to make, near the water, one trial after another and another trial, until we got a bit of unexpected professional help, which resulted in a flute that imitates bird sounds so well, that even the cats were confused.

But most of all: how I got pregnant, and very aware of it right away, at the time the elder berries were ripening, and how our twins will be born once the elder blossom spreads her magical scent in the air… Yes, this year with Lady Elder was certainly a fruitful one…

Published in: on December 29, 2008 at 9:22 am  Comments (3)  

Ground elder – beating it by eating it!

ground elder, stinging nettle and dandelion - edible amsterdam dasarts 2008

Photo: Ground elder, stinging nettle and dandelion – Edible Amsterdam Dasarts 2008

Harvesting herbs and flowers, making ointments, enjoying the outdoors, and so much other fun things to do at this time of the year. More fun than sustaining a intimate relationship with the computer, so yes, it has been a bit quiet here. Also, I have been travelling around in Belgium and Holland like a nomad, to teach herbal classes. And all of this topless (laptopless that is, for anyone imagining other things 🙂 ).

But last Saturday, as I was exchanging some experiences about ground elder with other herbalists, one
of them exclaimed ‘But why don’t you write about that in your blog?!’ So here it goes…

Ground Elder was once intoduced here by the Romans, to supply their soldiers with fresh vegetables along the roadside. Of course they used a plant that knows how to survive in all circumstances, one that cannot be conquered. A vegetable that invented the slogan ‘all you can eat’.

The Romans continued their travels, but ground elder stayed. To invade all possible places in the countryside, forest and city: in lawns, under trees, in hedges.
This made the herb famous and well known by different names: rampant champion, gardener’s sadness. Bishop’s Weed (as this plant was used by monks to treat gout). Jack-jump-about. Or the poetic the expanding green hell. In other words: hard to exterminate. Even pesticide manufacturers risk a nervous breakdown, dealing with ground elder.

I know I’m risking my credibility here, but: I seem to have eaten so much of it in the parental garden over the past few years, that it disappeared.

Feel free to reread that sentence.

Yes, indeed, ground elder. Gone. Only by preparing and eating it, in vegetable pies, soups, salades, mashed potatoes, pancakes, bread, pesto,… Not one milligram of poison was needed, on the contrary: I was nourished by all the good things that it has to offer: vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium, carotene (especially when eaten young).

It’s very versatile, the young tender leaves are delicious eaten raw, the older leaves can be cooked and have a parsley-like taste.

I know other gardeners would start an extatic dance of joy, but I am not so sure if there’s a reason to be so happy about this. Even more: I miss my trusted ground elder. I hope I can re-introduce it. What could be easier than a vegetable of which you can continually harvest without having to worry about diseases or special plant needs? Those Romans weren’t so stupid after all…

And as it turns out, I am not the only one: Goethe was also an enthousiastic ground elder collector. His collection of weeds can still be admired in the Goethe museum in Weimar.

Dandelion Festival

~ A veritable army of weed killers and tools has been employed to get rid of this lawn ‘spoiler’, but have you ever seen a field made a glorious sheet of gold by millions of dandelions? ~

Adrienne Crowhurst (1972)

Published in: on April 28, 2008 at 8:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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Love foods

What could be more fun than preparing a workshop on aphrodisiacs?

My two loyal guides, Isabel Allende’s “Aphrodite” and Laura Esquivel’s “Como Agua Para Chocolate” not only fed my love for Latin american writers. These two ladies master the art of combining the love and food. Truly poetical, and witty. But never vulgar.

As a teaser: Allende’s carrot soup of 1001 night, advised to Arabs to be enabled to make love from dusk till dawn…

2 large winter carrots

2 cups vegetable stock or 1 ½ cup stock and ½ cup orange juice

1 clove

1 stick of cinnamin

a small piece of ginger

1 sniff of cardemom

1 sniff of nutmeg


1 teaspoon honey

4 tablespoons cream

Chop the carrots and boil them in the stock with the spices added.

(I find it easy to chop the spices a bit and then put them in a tea ball and add that to the stock. This makes it easier to remove them afterwards).

Let simmer until the carrots are tender.

Turn off the fire.

Remove the spices, add honey and cream, and blend it all with a mixer.

Enjoy this soup in good company 🙂


Published in: on February 15, 2008 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Invented just a moment ago, and approved by my guests: Glühria!

It’s a kind of mixture between traditional Glühwein and fruity sangria.

– So yes, you can also call it Sangriwein, if you prefer 🙂 –

A warming drink in the heart of winter with a hint of summer dreams.


What do we need?

½ l water (that’s about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons cranberries

1 (cooking) pear or (cooking) apple, diced

2 organic oranges, diced (with peel)

4 cloves

1 stick of cinnamon

1 liter red wine (that’s about 4 cups)

150 g cane sugar (that’s about 2/3 of a cup – or more or less, depending on how sweet you want it)



Bring the water with the fruit and spices to a boil, and let infuse for 45 minutes.
Add the sugar and wine and let stand on the fire for a while (not boiling).

Pour through a strainer and serve in small glasses with a slice of orange. Use a stick of cinnamon to stirr.

An alcohol free variation can be made by replacing the wine by red grape juice or blueberry juice (or a mixture of both). Generally these call for less sugar.

Very tasty with a splash of left over elderberry syrup too…

Published in: on December 31, 2007 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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