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Native 'Elder' Plant Enchants WNC With Flavor -- And Fairies

Herb and flower farmer Isabelle Barron stands in front of a row of elderflowers, at Patchwork Urban Farm's plot on Hillside St.
Cass Herrington
BPR News
Herb and flower farmer Isabelle Barron stands in front of a row of elderflowers, at Patchwork Urban Farm's plot on Hillside St.

A plant that grows wild in Western North Carolina is having a moment.

Elderflower, “or elder,” as it’s often called, is being infused in cocktails, preserved in jams -- and it was even baked into Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding cake.

BPR set out what all the hype is about.

On a small backyard farm in Asheville, Isabelle Barron steps barefoot past rows of sunflowers and dahlias -- to show off a shady patch of dark green plants along a picket fence.

“There’s a secret little forest of elderflowers over there,” Barron points to a row of hardy shrubs towering over the small plot.

Dotted among the dark green leaves, are sprays of dainty white flowers. Later in the season, those blossoms, if unharvested, produce elderberries. Barron grows elderflower and elderberries for Patchwork Urban Farm’s market. She says she’s noticing a peak in interest in Elder, that grows wild here in Western Carolina.

“I’ve had orders from bakeries to a kombucha maker, Public interest is rising, and I’ve been surprised by it,” Barron said. “I felt like I never saw them, and now I see that they’re everywhere.”

She says in addition to the subtle floral taste that goes well in everything from cordials to kombucha, the plant is steeped in myth and folklore. Take one legend from England:

“If you lay underneath an elderflower tree on midsummer’s eve, which was the summer solstice, fairies will take you away,” Barron said.

If fairies haven’t dragged you away, elder trees are pretty easy to grow. It’s a hermaphrodite, both male and female. And to propagate, you can just pluck off a branch and stick it in the soil. You can find it flourishing on the side of the highway or out on a hike in the woods. Yet despite its relative ease, some food and beverage suppliers struggle to get their hands on it.

Noble Cider in Asheville recently launched a spritzer -- essentially a bubbly cider with a lower alcohol content -- and elderflower is the star ingredient.

“It’s something that isn’t harvested in huge quantities, but I think that’s changing as it becomes more popular,” company co-founder Lief Stevens said.

Currently, the cidery uses dried elderflower. It’s not local, but Stevens says, he’s hopeful that elder’s growing popularity will spur local growers to ramp up cultivation.

“We look for interesting flavors around us and I want to use as much local things in my products as I can,” Stevens said.

The elderflower in the spritzer gives it a botanical flavor, kind of like chamomile. But historically, the plant has served as more than a culinary ingredient.

For the native Cherokee, the elder plant has served several medicinal purposes.

“The bark was used, it’s got a little toxin in it, but it was used for intestinal worms, especially for pinworms in children,” David Cozzo, project director for the Revitalization of Cherokee Resources, said.

Part of his work entails preserving and educating the public about how the Cherokee people used native plants, to include elderberry. Sometimes, that work means bringing forgotten traditions back to the Cherokee. Cuozzo is not a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

“And knowing that even a lot of the research I did is none of my business,” Cozzo said. “There are people who still know things and there are a lot of people who have been removed from that.”

He says increased investment in Cherokee, largely driven by the casinos, has led to a resurgence in cultural pride.

“So a lot of people who didn’t grow up with a lot of traditions, now can say, ‘well, what does it mean to be Cherokee?,’” Cozzo said.

Similarly, he says, that search for identity is playing out in the Appalachian region. For instance, at a recent herb festival in Asheville....

“Half the stands there now have a section with elderberry in it,” Cozzo said. “It’s like the people you see around Asheville, they’re are interested in connecting. I think that’s true here too, that’s true in Cherokee.”

Cozzo says the fever for elder and other wild plants is not new. It’s a return to what humans have been doing for centuries -- connecting to their surroundings and communities.