Sambucus nigra Canadensis is a black berried deciduous, shrubby tree that seems to grow everywhere in the world! They grow wild in Montana, in moist areas, especially along rivers and streams. Elder has serrated leaflets, usually five to a group, opposite of one another. There are ornamental varieties as well. The flowers are in an umbel, creamy white, are muscatel-scented; used to flavor sweet and savory dishes and elderflower water for eye and skin lotions. The berries add flavor, color and vitamin C to jams, pies, and the famous elderberry syrup for colds. Leaves, stems, and roots are also useful medicinally. The pithy stems can be hollowed out and used for pipes and pop guns.
Shakespeare mentions Elder as the Judas Tree (from which he hung himself) in Loves Labour Lost, reaffirmed by herbalist Gerard. Another old tradition is that the Cross of Calvary was made of it. Because of these old Anglo traditions, the Elder became the emblem of sorrow and death. Many country folk in Europe will not cut an elder. It was believed to drive away evil spirits by the Russians, and Serbs use Elder in their wedding ceremonies to bring good luck. It is heralded by many poets and herbalists throughout literary history.
With the many medicinal uses of Elder, I can see why these beliefs are held. Each part of the plant is used for different purposes. Mrs. M. Grieve goes into great detail on the uses and constituents in A Modern Herbal, but here I will discuss the Elderberry and Elderflower.
Elderberry is one of the most effective herbs for preventing and treating upper respiratory infections, constipation, and fever. The ripe berries are rich in vitamins A and C. Harvest in the fall. It stimulates the immune system. Compounds in elderberry protect against at least eight strains of human flu virus. A clinical trial of elderberry found that it cured 90 percent of flu infections within 72 hours, usually taking six days for recovery. For this purpose, the patented herbal medicine “Sambucol” or a cooked elderberry syrup is preferred. Large doses of uncooked berries can cause digestive problems.
To make a syrup, make a decoction by heating 3 cups of cold water with 1 ounce of dried elderberry, or 2 ounces of fresh elderberry. Place the herbs in a stainless steel or glass saucepan and add cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for up to one hour, until the volume has been reduced by one-third. Strain through a sieve, filter paper, or cloth. Add 1 cup of honey and stir constantly until dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool and pour into a dark glass bottle. Seal with a cork stopper and store in the refrigerator.
Elderflowers are used to reduce phlegm and encourage sweating. Useful for colds, flu and hay fever; they are made into a tea and flavored with honey. A gentle laxative and expectorant, it induces perspiration. The tea can be used as a mouthwash/gargle for mouth ulcers, sore throats, and tonsillitis. It can be used as an eyewash when cool, and in a cream for chapped skin and sores. The tea may be combined with peppermint and yarrow for flu and hay fever.
Elderflower water, in our great grandmother’s day, was used for clearing the complexion of freckles and sunburn and maintaining a smooth complexion. It was often mixed with glycerin and borax for blemishes and moisturizing. Elderflower water is also used in the bath, aiding in cases of irritability of the skin and nerves.
Elderflower water is made by pressing an ounce of the dried flowers in a glass or stainless steel container, covered with 2 quarts boiling water and an ounce of Everclear or vodka. Allow it to thoroughly cool, then strain through a paper or cloth filter. Refrigerate for long life. Use it in a spray bottle as an astringent after cleansing your face.
We are fortunate to have such a beautiful, as well as medicinal, plant growing around us!
Herbs, Eyewitness Handbrook, Lesley Bremness, DK Books, 1994
The Complete Medicinal Herbal, Penelope Ody, DK Books, 1993
A Modern Herbal, Mrs. M. Grieve, Dover, 1971
Prescription for Herbal Healing, Phyllis Balch, Avery, 2002
Sunset Western Garden Book, Sunset Publishing Corp. 2001
Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 3: 268. Courtesy of Kentucky Native Plant Society.
Robert H. Mohlenbrock. USDA SCS. 1989. Midwest wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. Midwest National Technical Center, Lincoln, NE. Courtesy of USDA NRCS Wetland Science Institute
Herbal medicine and teas, as a method of healing, are not recognized in the USA. Lynn Cochrane makes no health claims. Any herbal or tea information is not intended to treat, diagnose, or prescribe in any way, and is for informational purposes only. She does not take responsibility for your experience using them. She trusts that you will consult a licensed healthcare professional when appropriate, especially pregnant women, nursing mothers, anyone over 60 years of age, anyone under 12 years of age, or anyone with a serious medical condition.