Whole books can be written about elder and indeed they have. The International Herb Association chose elder as the Herb of the Year in 2013 and compiled a book. You hear a lot about elderberries now - in the news, in social media and in commercials for syrup. But, does it live up to all the hype? The answer is a resounding Yes!
With in-person classes canceled this year I have decided to offer my herb of the month classes as a blog entry. I would love to hear your comments or answer any questions as a blog post is not a complete substitute for class offering discussion and samples.
The beautiful elder tree known by its Latin names of Sambucus nigra, S. Canadensis, S. Caerulea and S. ebulus is in the Adoxaceae (Muskroot) family. It was once listed in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae).
You hear much about her lovely berries but, her flowers and leaves also hold great healing properties as well. The flowers and berries have so many great uses that they are often treated as two separate plants. Rosalee De La Forêt and Emily Han in their book Wild Remedies gave each their own chapter. Likewise I am going to talk about each of them separately.
First the lovely, lacy flowers that are harvested in late spring when they are in full bloom. Be sure to leave plenty of blossoms for a fall berry harvest and so the tree and can thrive and reproduce. Their energetics are cooling and drying. They have the following actions: antioxidant, antiviral, diuretic, relaxing diaphoretic, relaxing nervine, expectorant, anti-allergenic, anti-catarrhal and antispasmodic. What does that all mean you ask?
First, the flowers tone the mucous linings of the nose and throat increasing the resistance to infection. They aid in chronic congestion, ear infections and allergies. For congestion a hot infusion (tea) can be prepared to relieve symptoms of asthma, bronchial congestion, bronchial spasms, chest infections and sinusitis. It works well combined with peppermint and yarrow for this. It can calm and soothe a cough. I combine equal parts of catnip, goldenrod and elderflower tincture as my decongestant formula. A dropper full in water every hour or three times a day at the onset of sinus congestion. This was suggested by Guido Masé in a class he gave for the Connecticut Herb Association. My family has great success with this.
Elderflower prepared as a hot infusion encourages sweating and urine production. This cools the body and helps with fevers. It also aids in the removal of waste in the body and can be beneficial for arthritis, gout and water retention.
A cold water infusion (think sun tea) was often part of a lady's toilet. The elder water was used to tone down freckles and to ease sunburn. Added to the bath it softens the skin and eases anxiety. The elderflower water with its astringent properties can be used in soothing skin inflammation and healing cuts, wounds and ulcers. Elderflower made into a cream or salve can help heal chapped skin, various skin eruptions, eczema, itchy skin and rashes.
Combined with calendula and chamomile as an infusion it can be used as a mouthwash for inflamed gums and mouth ulcers.
Taken as an infusion daily a month or two before hay fever season can help with symptoms.
Elderberry is energetically cooling and drying. It tastes sour.
Elderberry syrup has become all the buzz in the media with good reason. In studies conducted with elderberry extract it has been shown to prevent infection if taken before the onset or to lessen the duration if taken at the first sign of infection. Virologist, Madeleine Mumcuoglu an Israeli researcher showed in clinical trails that elderberry extract prevents the spread of the influenza virus from spreading throughout the respiratory tract and into the rest of the body. That 20% showed significant improvement in 24 hours, 70% within 48 hours and 90% were symptom free within 3 days while those taking a placebo did not show improvement for six days. ( Carol Little A Star Performer in Herbal Medicine)
Elderberries also aid the cardiovascular system. The anthocyanins found in the berries protect the heart. Research has shown that they may lower heart attack risk by relaxing the coronary arteries, thus increasing the blood supply and the nutrients to the heart, Long term use protects the cardiovascular system against damage caused by high cholesterol and by lipid oxidation (Youdim 2000). The berries are high in proanthocyanidins which are known to strengthen arteries, veins including varicose and spider, and capillaries. Deb Soule combines them with lyceum berries to stabilize the small capillaries in the eyes and assist with poor night vision and macular degeneration.
Both the flowers and the berries are mildly laxative.
The leaves are used topically for bruises, sprains, wounds and chilblains.
The flowers can be prepared as a cordial, tea, tincture, oil, cream or salve. The berries can be prepared as a tea, tincture, glycerite, oxymel, syrup, exlixer, or jam. They can also be used as a dye,
Elderberry Syrup Recipe
This is the recipe I've come to use over the years to add flavor and other health giving properties. All that is really needed is the elderberries, water and honey. Add to it as you like.
2 oz. dried elderberries
3 cardamom pods
1 tsp. ginger root
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 oz. rose hips
4 Cups water
1 cup honey
Combine the first six ingredients in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Cover it and turn the heat down to a low simmer and leave it for two to three hours or until it is reduced by half. Strain it. It will yield about 2 cups of liquid. Add this back to the pot and add 1 cup honey. Warm just until honey mixes in. Store in the refrigerator. This syrup can be used on pancakes or ice cream. It can be added to water, cocktails,iced tea or seltzer. Its uses are only limited by your imagination. It can be taken at the first sign of a tickle in the throat or not feeling yourself.
Do not use honey with children under the age of two. Organic cane sugar may be substituted.
Safety Considerations: avoid eating large amounts of the fresh berries, as seeds contain small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides, which can cause nausea and diarrhea. Freshly tinctured, cooked or dried berries are not toxic. Both the flower and berry are safe to use long term.
Disclaimer: The Content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: The Definitive Reference to 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments. New York: A Dorling Kindersley Book, 1996.
De La Forêt, Rosalee and Emily Han. Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. Carlsbad, California: Hay House, Inc. 2020.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism:The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2003.
O’ Brien, Karen editor. Elder: Herb of the Year 2013. Jacksonville, Florida: International Herb Association. 2012.
Soule, Deb. How to Move Like a Gardener. Rockport, Maine: Under the Willow Press, 2013.