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Herbal Connections: Sonya Patel Ellis

Sonya Patel Ellis is a nature writer, editor and artist exploring connections between plants, people and the botanical world, including in-depth forays into the history of herbs, botany, gardening, birds and botanical art. She is the author of Collins Botanical Bible (William Collins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (British Library Publications, 2020), The Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and The Modern Gardener (William Collins, 2022).

Ahead of her herb-pressing workshops and stall at Herbival on Sunday 6 June,  Sonya shows us how to connect with nature and the seasons by learning how to nourish, heal and style with herbs, from pressing flowers to lashings of elderflower cordial:

‘It has been said, with some truth, that our English summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe’, wrote Mrs M. Grieve in the iconic and seminal A Modern Herbal in 1931. I used this quote to introduce an entry on the elder (Sambucus nigra) in my book The Heritage Herbal (British Library Publications, 2020), which came out in spring last year just before the first lockdown.

It was the strangest spring that most of us have ever lived through, and one so hot the elderflowers appeared to come early. We were blessed with a premature summer but only had one hour a day to spend outside our homes. One of the ways I tried to make that count was to forage for herbs with my children. Collecting elderflowers and making lashings of elderflower cordial, with which to make ice-lollies, cold drinks and cocktails, was a way to stay sane. I have always felt a connection to nature but this felt even deeper.

This year the elderflowers are later by a couple of weeks but as the weather hopefully starts to improve, no less of a harbinger of summer. Despite the time lapse from one year to the next, collecting baskets of these creamy-white fragrant blossoms is an annual ritual that not only bequeaths the promise of delicious drinks, it also binds us to shared traditions where herbs and herbals were once as vital as finding a route out of the pandemic today.

These connections – within nature, between plants and people and in reference to our past, present and future – are endlessly fascinating to me, and a theme I continuously explore through my books, articles, workshops and exhibitions. Writing The Heritage Herbal involved researching the history of herbals from the very first botanical texts to the growing library of herb-inspired volumes available today. It still gives me shivers when I think of some of the original texts and books I was lucky enough to hold from within the archives of the British Library.

While we only had room to present 35 heritage herbs within the book – beautifully illustrated by cuts from Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal (1737–39), there are many more that have stood the test of time in the same way, as plants that can heal, nourish or style. Many of their key, often intuited properties have been proven by modern science, which is incredible when you stop and really think about it, a sign that nature really does bind plants and humans together.

In homage to traditional wisdom, the book also includes over a hundred herbal-inspired recipes, remedies and crafting ideas relevant to the modern day. This includes a recipe for Elderflower Cordial, a traditional summer drink that can be traced back to Roman times and is perfect for al fresco gatherings, something we are all more familiar today. Although the flower-heads used for this recipe need to be as free from the stalk and leaves as possible due to the toxic cyanide-inducing glycoside that resides within these parts, I like to gather a couple of extra long stems of flowers and foliage to put in my herbarium press.

Pressing these flowers, as with any plant, is one of the best ways I know to look closer, to really stop and peer at the form of the leaves, the flowers and the overall silhouette. To consider how the plant has evolved and what that means for its visitors, from pollinators to cordial-thirsty humans. When plants have been in the press for a few weeks, its time for the ‘big reveal’, which never fails to excite me.

I like to press specimens naturalistically, as they would appear in the wild and with herbaria in mind, but sometimes the finished result is delightfully unexpected. A petal may have fallen one way or another or a fruit or seedpod I hadn’t noticed before becomes the focal point. Other specimens reveal the foliage to be the outstanding feature, the shape, edging or veining becoming clearer somehow. While flowers can appear more diaphanous, fade or keep their colour. Overall, there is always a feeling of ephemerality, of lifecycles and the seasons.

Pressing herbs makes this all the more poignant especially in a time when we are all looking for ways to heal our bodies or our minds, to connect with nature and each other. I made a cyanotype (sun print) of the last elderflower pressing that I made. It’s in a frame on my studio wall. An uplifting reminder of my annual blossom harvesting ritual, the power of herbs and the summer that is hopefully now just around the corner. May it be filled with elderflower cordial and all the joy that it brings.

Recipe: Elderflower Cordial

This traditional summer drink can be traced back to Roman times and is perfect for al fresco gatherings or weddings. Harvest elderflowers on a warm morning in midsummer from a non-polluted spot and selecting blossoms that have just opened. Keep flowers upright to preserve the fragrant pollen and store in a warm place to help bring out the perfume.

Makes 2 x 500ml (17½fl oz) bottles
15 elderflower heads
2 lemons (unwaxed)
1kg (5 cups) caster sugar
30g (1oz) citric acid

1. Wash the elderflowers thoroughly and remove as much of the green stem as possible. Zest the lemons, then peel and finely slice the fruit.
2. Place the sugar and 1 litre (1 quart) of water in a large pan and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the lemon zest and citric acid and stir again. Remove from the heat.
3. Place the elderflowers in a bowl, add the lemon slices and submerge with the syrup. Cover with a cloth and leave for 24 hours.
4. Strain the liquid through muslin into a large jug. Then funnel into two sterilised airtight 500ml (17½fl oz) bottles. Store in a cool dark place for 2 months, opened in the fridge for 4 weeks, or freeze in ice-cube
trays. Dilute with sparkling or still water or use in cocktails or desserts.

Other uses

  • Fry washed elderflowers (stalks removed) in a light tempura batter served with blossom honey or sugar and cinnamon – an ideal party canapé.
  • Make a beautiful blue cyanotype artwork by laying lacy elderflower blooms and leaves over sun-sensitive paper.

Sonya will be hosting Herb Pressing Workshops at Herbival on Sunday 6 June: find out more and book

All attendees of the workshop get a signed copy of The Heritage Herbal and a seperate notebook with blotting paper to press in as part of their ticket.

Herbival is a new one-day festival taking place at the Garden Museum on Sunday 6 June: book tickets

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