Elder (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis, S. Cerulea)
Grandmother Elder, healing Elda Mor, powerful wise healer, magickal tree of the faeries…There is so much lore and history surrounding this sacred healing plant. Not only that, but many scientific studies on the antiviral properties of elderberry have come out as well. There are even entire books written about elder-all of these reasons are why I consider it an essential plant to include in my herbal repertoire.
The flowers and the berries are mainly what’s used. Other than making musical instruments out of the wood, and a healing salve made from the leaves-those parts of the plant are generally considered toxic and should not be taken internally. This monograph will be about the flowers and berries.
Sambucus nigra (black elder): native to Europe, found in some parts of North America and Asia. More of a tree.
S. canadensis: found in North America, 5-12 ft high shrub, grows in low, damp areas.
S. cerulea (blue elder): more common in the Pacific Northwest, usually on the eastern side of the mountains.
S. racemosa (red elder): commonly found growing at higher elevations, where aspens grow. RED ELDERBERRIES ARE TOXIC AND SHOULD NOT BE EATEN OR USED FOR MEDICINE!!!!!
There are plenty of other species of Elder, but those I listed seem to be the most common ones found in the US and discussed among herbalists. Below are just a few of the most common ways Elder is used in both flower and berry form.
Harvest the white lacy blossoms as they bloom, in June or July. Take no more than ¼ of them-so the rest can develop into the berries! The flowers are high in vitamin C. They can be dried for tea or made into a tincture.
ACTIONS: decongestant, astringent, demulcent, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, inflammation modulating.
FEVER: Elder flowers are the main flu and fever remedy used in European folk medicine throughout history. The hot tea promotes perspiration, relaxes tension, and promotes a sense of peacefulness. It’s especially useful when someone is hot and irritable, and when there is congestion in the upper respiratory tract. If a person has a fever and is frustrated and tense, red, has muscle pain and/or difficulty sleeping, try some elderflower tea. An old folk remedy uses equal parts of elder flowers, yarrow flowers, and peppermint leaf. I like to add in rose hips for extra vitamin C and nourishment, and if I’m giving it to a child, maybe some lemon balm as well for taste and extra antiviral action.
SKIN CONDITIONS: Elder flowers are an excellent skin nourisher, and are wonderful to add into beauty products and cosmetics. They can also be made into a salve for eczema, burns, cuts, wounds, etc.
Harvest the berries at peak of ripeness (usually September-ish) and remember to save some for the wildlife, although if you wait too long, they will not save any for you! So as soon as they are ready, make the time to harvest right away. Elderberries are extremely high in vitamin C. Do not eat them raw, as they can cause varying degrees of stomach upset, ranging from mild to severe, depending on how sensitive you are and how many you’ve eaten. To be safe, cook them before eating. And DO NOT EAT RED ELDERBERRIES AT ALL-RAW OR COOKED! Black or blue cooked elderberries can go into pies, and there are all manner of creative elderberry recipes out there. My favorite way to use them is in a syrup-either by themselves or mixed with other herbs. They can also be tinctured or made into exquisite tasting elixirs.
ACTIONS: antioxidant, antiviral, immune stimulant & tonic, inflammation modulating.
COLD & FLU: So yes, a cold is a relatively minor illness, and a flu can be serious. The thing they have in common are that they are both respiratory route viral infections. There has been much research on elderberry in vivo and in vitro that consistently shows it to directly kill and prevent replication of multiple strains of influenza. To use elderberry for cold or flu, I like to use either the syrup or tincture. The key to success is EARLY and OFTEN. Begin taking elderberry syrup as soon as you feel something coming on-and then continue taking it every waking hour. I like to do 1-2 tablespoons of syrup or 2-3 dropperfuls tincture every hour or 2. In addition I would drink a cup of elderflower tea every 2 hours if feverish. It’s also important to get plenty of rest to allow your body to do the work of fighting the illness. If I do end up getting a full blown cold or flu, I keep taking it throughout. As I start to get better, I slowly taper down my dose. For a daily winter season maintenance dose, I like to take 1-3 tablespoons daily, more if others around me are sick or if I’m feeling rundown.
Elderberry Syrup is my very favorite way to take elderberries. I start taking a tablespoon of it 1-3 times a day during the cold and flu season to give my immune system an extra antiviral boost-and because it TASTES SO GOOD! I also like to add it to smoothies, yogurt, pancakes, and ice cream. Then if I ever do feel like I’m coming down with something, I take it early and often, as described in the paragraph above. To get some of the best tasting Elderberry Syrup around, click here. It is also available as part of this Cold Season Immunity Care Package. Another great tasting product containing Elderberry is my brand new Autumn Oxymel Tonic. Try it for a daily immunity and liver nourishing savory treat. Available in 2 sizes by itself or as part of this very special Fall Celebration Gift Set. Visit the shop for more wellness items and deliciousness.
CONTRAINDICATIONS: As stated earlier, do not eat raw elderberries (steeped in a tea or tincture is fine), do not use raw or cooked red elderberries, and do not take the leaves or the bark internally. There are no known herb-drug interactions.
I hope you get to enjoy a relationship with this wise healing plant. Whether you go out and harvest it yourself or buy it, make sure to stock up on some elder flowers and berries to have on hand during the cold and flu season.
REFERENCES: Edwards, Gail-Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs, 1st edition; Bennet, Robin Rose-‘My Beloved Elder’ article in Plant Healer Magazine, featured in Materia Medica Compilation (compiled by Jesse Wolf Hardin); Popham, Sage-Materia Medica Monthly Issue #38-Elder;Shmurak, Susannah-Everything Elderberry-How to Forage, Cultivate, and Cook with this Amazing Natural Remedy