By Ilana Sobo
How does a plant earn a position as esteemed as the queen of herbs when there are so many amazing botanicals to be found throughout the world? While there are many extraordinary healing friends in the plant kingdom, it is the elder who continues to enchant humans century after century. It can bring healing like no other herb when one needs potent immune support. Elder has a long and rich history of use throughout the world, so it is no surprise that the many benefits of elderberries are now being rediscovered, made use of, and studied. Elderberry is often used for its antioxidant activity, to support the heart, reduce inflammation, and improve vision. However, where elder particularly shines is its ability to boost and balance the immune system and quell coughs, colds, flu, and bacterial and viral infections.
Understandably, elder is quickly becoming one of the most famous herbal medicines of our time. Syrups, jams and medicinal wines of the berry often fly off the shelves as the winter season approaches. The bioflavonoids and other anthocyanins in the berry destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell and replicate. In fact, recent double blind studies show that those who took elderberry when they had they the flu recovered much quicker than those who received the placebo -- an average of 3 days, in fact. Pretty sweet huh. And you don’t even need a flu shot for such benefits. Elderberry syrup is super yummy. So let’s dig a bit into the lovely and amazing elder’s story.
Elder belongs to a family of flowering plants/shrubs in which many species are cultivated in different places throughout the world. You can generally find elder stands in moist places: along riverbanks, roadsides, and in moist woodland areas. They produce large clusters of small, lovely, and creamy white flowers that bloom in late spring to early summer. The flowers are then followed by clusters of berries that are black, purple-blue, or red in color. Sometimes the flowers and berries appear at the same time, which is rather extraordinary since both the flowers and berries can be used as healing allies and each have distinct and unique gifts.
History & Folklore
Revered for its exceptional healing gifts, there are many cultures that have worked with this amazing healing friend for many thousands of years. “Father of medicine” Hippocrates recognized elders’ gifts as early as 400AD. It was also popular with Native American tribes, as well as many people in Northern Africa, Asia and through Europe. Elder was often called the medicine chest of the country folk. The word Elder is derived from ellar or kindler, when the tubes formed from the branches were once upon a time used as pipes for kindling fires. The botanical name for the Elder, Sambucus, is from the Greek word Sambuca, which means wind instrument. Indeed, there was a pan pipe called the Sambuke, which was a musical instrument beloved by the Romans and Greeks. Some Native Americans tribes also used elderberry branches to make flutes, and the tree was sometimes called "the tree of music."
Much enchanted folklore surrounds this shrub, and it has long been considered a very sacred and especially magical plant. In fact, Elder was said to have powers so amazing she could protect a dwelling from storms, witches, and goblins. It was also said that she could gift one the power of seeing the future, and allow one to glimpse the faeries if you slept under her. The fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, “Little Elder Tree Mother,” is the tale of a little boy who has caught cold and is healed by the elder mother, who comes out of the pot of elder tea. It is a great example of the esteem and respect that was once bestowed upon the elder. According to Danish folklore, there is a female elf in the elder tree which leaves every midnight, strolls among the land and fields, and returns before morning.
Similar stories in other European folklore suggest that elder is an enchanted tree, perhaps a true portal to the faerie realm or an embodiment of a crone witch whom you must respect when harvesting from her or so that she won’t haunt you for the rest of your days. Each story told in folklore speaks to powerful magic, but could be more modernly defined as the need for humans to acknowledge the plant’s power and potent healing abilities. This suggests that people must learn to honor our mother nature who is full of love, kindness, and healing, and can be fierce when disrespected and treated with little value. But fear not. Elder’s healing gifts are truly kind and deep, and perhaps we just need to show her some love and respect. All plants are deserving of our respect, yes?
Illustration by Arthur Rackham from for Hans Anderson's story "The Little Elder Tree Mother"
Sambucus nigra, or Black elder, is the cultivar most often used for medicinal purposes. Rich in flavonoids, the berries are rich in antioxidants and capable of preventing cellular damage. These flavonoids also have special immune balancing, boosting, and antiviral effects. In addition, they have an anti-inflammatory effect on the respiratory system. When decocted into syrup, elderberry can help break up mucous and calm congestion and coughing. Chemicals in both the flowers and berries may also help diminish swelling in mucous membranes and thus help relieve nasal congestion and the pain associated with the pressure. Herbalists also use elderberry to soothe children's upset stomachs, earaches, and help bring peaceful sleep during a fever. Elderberries additionally have helpful diuretic and detoxifying properties. But that’s not all. Elderberries are full of amino acids and are a very wonderful source of vitamin A (17% daily needs), especially potent in vitamin C with 87 percent of our daily requirements, almost 13 percent of the daily value of iron (wow), as well as a good amount of potassium and vitamin B6.
The equally amazing elder flower is also anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, diuretic, an organ stimulant, and used for detoxification and lymphatic cleansing. Other traditional uses of elderberry flowers are as external antiseptic washes and poultices to treat wounds, and as an eye wash for eye inflammation and infections. Elder has been used for cosmetic purposes for centuries due to the reputation of the flower water to soften, tone, and restore the skin. The flowers can be steeped in oil to make a lotion that relaxes sore muscles and soothes burns and rashes.
Alas, there is no better herbalist to talk more about elder than the queen of herbalism herself, Rosemary Gladstar. I hope you enjoy this lovely and fun video. Rosemary’s luminous love for the plants is infectious. In case you do not know Rosemary, she is a truly wonderful, kind, and wise elder in the herbal world. She has contributed greatly to modern herbology and you can find many excellent books she has written at your local bookstore.
To sum up, Elder is indeed a powerful protector and wonderful herb to keep stocked in your medicine chest. The nutritional profile of the plant alone lets us know it is a tonic and helps build strength and increased vitality, regardless of whether you are ill or not. You might consider adding it to your diet, and there are many places to buy excellent elder products including the good folks at Evolver.
If you harvest from the wild, elder commands our respect just as any wild plant does. Overharvesting of wild medicinal plants like elder has become problematic throughout the world and we are all being called to become stewards of the sacred plants that grow amongst us. If you harvest from the wild, please take only what you need, or consider growing elder yourself and sharing your bounty with friends and family. As always, please make sure you can identify a wild plant 100%. You will find all kinds of recommendations for using different parts of elder, but for safety’s sake I would recommend only harvesting the berries and or flowers. The raw berries in some cultivars are toxic and one can become quite ill from ingesting. It is recommended to make use of the Sambucus Nigra (black elder) for healing and to cook the berries to produce a syrup, vinegar, or tonic. The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are very poisonous. Some doctors recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid eating elderberries all together.
Bless the elder tree and bless us all for the winter draws near. Stay warm and nourished and have fun making herbal medicines from our sacred elder and other plant friends. Wishing you excellent health and happiness today and every day.
Evidence-Based Proof Elderberry Syrup Is Better Than The Flu Shot
Dr Christopher’s page on Elder at Herballegacy.com
Ilana Sobo is a community herbalist, artist and Ayurvedic Practitioner in the NYC area. To find out more about her work or to contact please visit shaktibotanica.com.
All pictures (with the exception of Arthur Rackham's illustration) by Ilana Sobo