Elder: sambucus spp.
It’s no wonder that the elder is a plant steeped in mythology. Just looking at the big bushes, with their clouds of tiny white flowers dancing in the wind, or with the clusters of blue black berries dangling seductively at the end of each branch, you can tell that there is something magical about it. This is a plant that dances on the edge of different worlds. And it’s not just beautiful– it’s medicinal, and tasty too.
The flowers appear in the spring, and have a multitude of uses. They can be fried to make delicious fritters, cooked into cordials and fermented into sodas. Medicinally, they’re one of the best diaphoretics I’ve come across. When I have a flu bug, I’ll make a hot elder flower tea, usually with some yarrow and sage, and I’ll get into bed and sweat it out.
Come fall, the flowers give way to delicious black berries. The berries can be used in a multitude of ways. In jams and syrups, in wines and teas, in cakes and ice creams and desserts– I use them just like I would any other berry. Medicinally though, the elder berries are one of the most useful things you can possibly have around, and I recommend having some dried or prepared on hand in time for flu season.
According to herbalist Paul Bergner, elderberry disables an enzyme present in the flu virus that prevents it from being able to enter a cell. In other words, it stops the flu from getting into your body, thus preventing the spread of the virus. In clinical trials, taking elderberry has removed all flu symptoms within 2 days in 90% of participants. Patients who took the placebo took, on average, 6 days to recover*.
I use elder in almost all cases of colds, flus and fevers– I start taking elder elixir at the first sign of any kind of illness, and it usually nips it in the bud before I even have to take a rest. I’ll also use it for infections that involve blood– especially where there are blueish veins leading away from the site. I met a woman once who had this strange purple swollen lump on her elbow, with black veins leading away from it. She was really concerned that it was a staph infection, but tests at the hospital had come back negative. Doctors were stumped and courses of antibiotics hadn’t done anything to remove it. It was starting to hurt a lot. I sent her to get an echinacea tincture, and take a few drops a few times a day. I saw her the next day and the bump had cooled down to a light pinkish purple, the pain was gone, and it no longer looked like there was a demon trying to escape from her arm (that’s really what it looked like!). Over the next few days the condition got better, but still wouldn’t budge. I added elder, and it was completely gone within 24 hours. I’ve heard stories of it being used for snake bites and such as well, but please don’t quote me on that, as I haven’t had an opportunity to put it into practice yet.
1. Flu: Elder elixir with boneset, and a tea with elderberry, elderflower, yarrow and sage.
2. Colds with heat signs: Elder elixir, plus elder flower, yarrow and mint tea. Often I’ll use honeysuckle, peach or rose too, depending on what’s going on.
3. Colds with cold signs: Elder elixir, elder flower and ginger tea. Plus copious amounts of garlic.
4. Fevers: Elder elixir, boneset, elderflower and yarrow tea.
Obviously each condition is different, and so different herbs would be called for, but I’ve found that elder works consistently, on a wide range of symptoms.
1. As an elixir. Thanks to Kiva, this is my primary way of preparing it, and I always have some on hand– it’s by far the one formula that I use most often (along with my injury salve… guess that’s what happens when you associate with yogis and martial artists ), and it seems like I get a call every week from somebody who has run out and is starting to come down with something.
2. Dried, in tea. I keep a jar of both dried berries and flowers around at all times.
3. Cooked in a syrup. Elder syrups are really simple to make, have the benefit of being delicious, and they’re alcohol free for those who don’t want to, or can’t use alcohol. I find the elixir to be much more effective, but the syrups have been used effectively for hundreds of years.
1. Elder elixir:
Fill a mason jar with elder berries. If you have elder flowers on hand, you can add some of those. I often add rosehips, which are also abundant right now. Then fill the jar to cover the contents with half brandy and half honey. Screw the cap on tightly, and store in a cool dark place for 6 weeks, or as long as you want after that.
Dosage is better in small quantities as often as possible– so I’ll take half a teaspoon every hour, as opposed to a tablespoon twice a day.
2. Dried elder berries/ flowers:
Gather healthy looking berries and flowers. Lay out in a cool, dry place, until completely dried through. Store in an airtight container, out of direct sunlight.
3. Elder syrup:
In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 cup of elder berries (fresh or dried), and (optional) half a cup of elder flowers, and a quarter cup of rosehips. Add one cup of sugar, and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, and bottle. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 months.
Note: when harvesting the berries, it’s important to make sure that they are removed from the stems, as the stems can cause stomach upset. It’s also worth noting that a very small percentage of people get stomach upset from raw elderberries (cooked are fine).
Cautions and contraindications:
The red elder (sambucus rubra) is toxic. Please don’t use it unless you have experience using toxic herbs. It’s easy to spot because the berries are red, not blue-black, and the berries are usually ripe at different times to sambucus nigra, and all other species.
The leaves and bark have been used medicinally, but they are also toxic, can be strong cathartics and emetics, and in some instances have caused death. I’d recommend avoiding them entirely if you don’t have much experience with toxic herbs– the berries and flowers are completely harmless and are even safe enough for babies to take, so you can’t go wrong there.
* Paul Bergner. The Healing Power of Echinacea and Goldenseal, 1997.