If ever the soul of a plant has been fought for, it is elder. An important herb through the ages, it has been described as a whole medicine-chest in one plant. Less used now than formerly, its flowers remain a wonderful fever remedy and delicious in drinks or desserts. The berries work against flu and colds, and help relieve coughs. The leaves, as an ointment, are good for bruises.
Caprifoliaceae Honeysuckle family
Description: A shrub or small tree, with fragrant clusters of creamy white flowers in summer, followed by black berries in fall.
Habitat: Hedgerows, riverbanks, woods, and waste ground.
Distribution: Native to Europe, introduced to North America.
Related species: American black elder is now considered a sub-species (Sambucus nigra spp.canadensis), as is blue elder (S. nigra spp. caerulea). They can be used interchangeably with black elder, but the raw fruit may be more likely to cause stomach upset in some people. The North American red-berried elder (S. racemosa) has been used medicinally but the berries are more likely to cause digestive upsets (especially the seeds of raw berries).
Parts used: Flowers and berries; leaves externally.
Few plants are as steeped in folklore, legend and superstition as the elder. Its hollow stem was said to have been used by Prometheus to bring fire to man from the gods, and the Saxon aeld ("fire") may have given elder its name. The same empty stem was a readymade flute, and the species name sambucus was chosen by Linnaeus for a flute made of elder.
Elder was faerie and pagan. If you were in the company of the tree on Midsummer night you would see the Faery King ride by. Another version of our name "elder' was from Hylde Moer, the elder or earth mother - when an elder planted itself in your garden it meant the mother had chosen to protect your house from lightning and your cattle from harm. You must never cut down an elder or burn it, because the mother was present, without asking her leave.
So entrenched was the cult of the elder mother that the Church vilified elder with its most powerful negative associations: Christ was said to have been crucified on an elder tree and Judas to have hanged himself on one.
And if that seemed to stretch credulity, judging by the tree's weak branches, there was something else: God had cursed elder by making its once large black berries small and its straight branches twisted. Such sanctioned hostility was borne out in a verse on elder quoted by Robert Chambers in his Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1847):
Bour-tree, bour-tree, cookit rung, Never straight, and never strong, Ever bush and never tree Since our Lord was nailed t'ye.
Its rank smell has always been held against elder. The leaves were once sold as a fly repellent, and it was bad luck to have the flowers indoors. A rhyme went:
Hawthorn blooms and elder flowers Fill the house with evil powers.
(opposite) Elder flowering in the English Lincolnshire Wolds in late June
If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, berries &c. were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countrey-men could ail, for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wound.
What says my Aesculapius? my Galen? my heart of Elder?
- Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor, II.3.1126.
The plant was redolent of sex and death, the greatest taboos, yet a Puritan like John Evelyn could see beyond this to its medicinal virtues: "though the leaves are somewhat rank of smell and so not commendable in sallet, they are of the most sovereign virtue." An extract of the berries would "assist longaevity" and was "a kind of catholicon against all infirmities whatsoever ... every part of the tree being useful."
The battle for control of elder has always swung like this. It was a tree of life, yet a devil's tree; it was needed, hence a good herb in the monastery garden; it was feared, so it was a witch's plant.
Yet survive it has, in town and country alike, on any patch of waste ground. Of all the wild plants in this book elderflower is the one harvested for commercial use, for cordials and other drinks.
Elderflower drinks are also widely made at home, and drug stores often run out of citric acid during the elderflower season!
Strangely, the berries are often ignored as food these days, but they make a lovely wine and are delicious cooked with apples (and were once widely used to adulterate wine and true ports).
Elder blossom is one of the best herbs for encouraging sweating to break a fever, when drunk as a hot tea, as Julie recalls:
"I was visiting my parents once in Namibia when my mother came down with a slight fever. I had seen an elder blooming in a nearby park, so dosed her with a tea of the fresh flowers before tucking her in bed. The elder worked so well that she became drenched in sweat and thought she had malaria. But a blood test was clear."
The flower tea "clears the channels" in the body, promoting elimination via the skin and the urinary tract, and supporting the circulation. Elderflowers cut congestion and inflammations of the upper respiratory tract, and break up catarrh. They reduce the symptoms of hayfever, often used with nettle tops.
Elderflower products are also used internally and externally to help clean the skin. A distilled water of the flowers made an eyewash in the 1600s, helped remove freckles and spots, and was used to cool sunburn; it will still work today.
Elderberries are well known for reducing the length and severity of colds and flu, and can be used to help prevent infection. They are an excellent winter standby.
Cautions: Do not eat the leaves. Some books say elderberries are toxic and shouldn't be eaten raw. This refers to the seeds of the red-berried elders, and does not appear to be true for black elder, though some people may suffer from digestive upsets. Elderberries can cause diarrhea if eaten raw in large quantity, but as a food they are more usually cooked. In a tincture or glycerite the seeds are strained out.
Warm half a pint extra virgin olive oil in a small pan and add a couple of handfuls of chopped elder leaves. Simmer gently until the leaves are crisp, then strain. Return the oil to the pan. Melt 1 oz beeswax in the oil, then pour into ointment jars. Leave to cool and set before putting the lids on and labeling. Use for bruises, sprains, and chilblains.
Pick elderflowers on a dry sunny day, choosing those that smell lemony and fresh. In damp weather or in shady places the flowers can have an unpleasant smell. Pick the whole head of flowers. If you are drying them for tea, spread the heads on brown paper to dry, and then use a fork to strip the blossoms off the stems.
This can be made with fresh flowers, but as their season is relatively short, the dried flowers are usually used.
Use 1 heaped teaspoonful of dried flowers per cupful of boiling water. Cover and allow to infuse for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain and drink hot and frequently for the early stages of a cold or fever, to promote sweating. For this, it combines well with equal parts of yarrow and mint. For hayfever, use in combination with nettle leaves.
Drink cold for its diuretic effect and for menopausal hot flashes, or use as a face wash.
ELDER LEAF Ointment
ELDERFLOWER Hot tea
• promotes sweating
• promotes urination
• fluid retention
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