Plant Profile: For the Love Of Mother Elder (Sambucus spp.)

Tantalizing Tidbits:

  • Elderberry juice was used to make the purple ink stamp on meat packages (remember how it would run when it got wet?) through the mid-1990s.

  • Elder is located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere in temperate & sub-tropical zones.

  • Elder features prominently in European folklore. Fairytales, superstitions, magic and warnings were designed to protect the Elder tree since it was viewed as a plant that could cure anything.
  • Elder, Hawthorn and Wild Rose were the wild shrubs in the traditional hedgerows of Europe countrysides. These plants are important food sources for animals and birds and all three provide powerful herbal medicine.
  • Sambucol is a patented Israeli drug made with black elderberry (S. nigra) and is one of the best selling commercial medicines for colds and flu in Europe.
  • The name elder originates from the Anglo-Saxon word, Aeld, which meant fire. Once the pith was removed, the hollowed twigs and sticks were used as bellows to blow air into the center of a fire.

Botanical name: Sambucus nigra (European) S. canadensis (North American elder); S. cerulea (Western Blue Elder)
Common name: Elder, The Elder Mother
Family: Adoxaceae (formerly Caprifoliaceae)

Elder shrub.jpg

The American Elder is a shrubby and thicket-forming tree that can grow to 30 feet tall, elderberry often prefers moist soils and seems to enjoy disturbed soil. Wildlife loves it! Over 50 species of songbirds, upland game birds and small mammals enjoy its fruit, twigs and cover/shade offered by the large umbrella-like canopy.  There are a variety of ornamental cultivars that suit a suburban landscape.

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FLOWERS: Tiny, cream white 5 petal flowers arranged in flat clusters bloom in abundance in late spring, early summer. Some shrubs will continue to bloom throughout the summer. Highly aromatic!  They are pollinated by flies but many insects enjoy the nectar.

Small green berries form from the flowers, gradually turning bluish purple and ripening during late July - September.

Small green berries form from the flowers, gradually turning bluish purple and ripening during late July - September.

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FRUIT - Western species form a whitish bloom on berries.  The bloom is created by wild yeast and I use it as a indicator that the berries are ready to harvest.
 

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LEAVES – The sword shaped leaves are pinnately divided with opposite leaflets.  A brewed tea of the leaves can be used on garden plants to deter aphids and caterpillars and some people claim it will repel rodents attacking fruits or plants. 

elder bark.jpg

BARK & BRANCHES – The bark of young branches is reddish in its first year. Fruits form on first year branches.  The branches have a pithy center that can be removed and the hollow branch can be made into a whistle or simple flute, hence the Latin name sambuca, which was an ancient Greek flute.  The branches break easily; North American Elder is not a tree or shrub for climbing!  


ETHNOBOTANICAL USES

Elderflowers as Medicine

Nicknamed the "medicine chest of the country people," Elder has a long history of medicinal use in Europe. The flowers can be steeped in a tea (often combined with peppermint & yarrow) and served to those who have fever but are not sweating.  Flowers are considered a relaxing diaphoretic and are infused as teas that will induce a mild sweat when fever is present. They work to open up the capillaries, helping to release the heat from the body in the action of sweating. Elder flowers are used in topical applications (washes & salves) to help with red and inflamed skin.  

You can make a sweet elixir with the flowers - lots of sugar and flowers steeped in vodka and water. Or you can go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of St. Germain, an elderflower liquor and enjoy its unique floral taste.

Elderberries as Medicine

Elderberries are well known for making wine, but historically, the berries were used medicinally for pain and inflammation. Several years ago I read an herbalist's article on Elderberry and she quoted Matthew Wood, a US herbalist.  He wrote this simple statement: "Elderberry juice or wine has long been used as a remedy for neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, and sciatica. Several European doctors tested elderberry juice and confirmed these traditional uses in clinical trials (Richard Lucas, 1982, 194)."

Interestingly, I suffered from frequent bouts of both sciatica (searing nerve pain on the back of the legs) and trigeminal neuralgia (searing jabs of pain along the trigeminal nerve that encircles the cranium). I began to drink daily doses of elderberry elixir and my nerve pain attacks have been greatly reduced over the years. Of course, this is purely anecdotal but I am a believer.

Elderberry As An Anti-Viral

Another personal experience with elderberry medicine is using EB tincture to slow down an upper respiratory viral invasion in my body.  I seldom get ill but the few times I woke with a sore throat, congestion and an aching body, I immediately began hourly doses of elderberry tincture.  On each occasion, my symptoms were reduced and though the virus lingered for a day or two, I have yet to have a long-term viral upper respiratory illness. 

Modern research supports the use of elderberries as an effective anti-viral medicine and have been used specifically to combat the influenza virus by inhibiting the virus' ability to replicate itself in cells.  While it is not a cure for the flu, if taken at the first signs of viral infection (scratchy/sore throat, fever, body aches), it has been shown to reduce the amount time sick. For a more thorough description of the medicinal properties of elder, you can check out the website of clinical herbalist, Rosalee de Foret.

Elder in the Kitchen

Elderberries have been used in cooking and baking for centuries. In the kitchen, elderflowers can be fried as fritters. There are many recipes on the web using fresh, frozen or dried elderberries for fruit leather, pie, cobbler, jellies, chutneys, syrups, sauces and vinegars. Several herbalists juice the berries and freeze in ice cube trays, to be used in recipes throughout the winter months.  Elderberries can also be dried and stored in glass containers.

Nutritional Values of Elderberries

Like most berries, the elderberry is rich in nutrients:

B vitamins (except vitamin B12) - Vitamin A - Vitamin C

Calcium - Phosphorus - Iron - Magnesium - Potassium - Zinc

Flavonoids & anthocyanins (antioxidants)

Dry the berries in a dehydrator then store in a glass jar.  I dry 1/2 gallon and use them primarily in tea blends.

Dry the berries in a dehydrator then store in a glass jar.  I dry 1/2 gallon and use them primarily in tea blends.

Western Blue Elders are typically covered with a glaucous bloom caused by wild yeasts. Botanists recognize that we all share our outdoor space with wild yeasts and fermenters rejoice in their presence.  I am a newbie to fermenting but this year am trying the Wild Soda recipe from the gorgeous blog, Gather Victoria.

CAUTION: Avoid eating raw or unripe (green) berries OR the red berries of S. racemosa as they can be toxic.
 

Elder as a Dye

The bark, leaves and berries are used as a dye producing a range of colors depending on the fiber and the mordant. Indigenous people use the twigs and berries to create a black dye for basketry materials.  Used alone, the berries will offer various tones of purple on wool.

Dye pots are deceiving: this effort looks like it may result in a light pink-purple color. But when I rinsed and dried the wool yarn, the color was a muddy-tan-ever-so hint of purple. The beauty of natural dyes is i can simply re-dye the wool.

Dye pots are deceiving: this effort looks like it may result in a light pink-purple color. But when I rinsed and dried the wool yarn, the color was a muddy-tan-ever-so hint of purple. The beauty of natural dyes is i can simply re-dye the wool.

Elder for Wildlife

In my rural area, I am surrounded by clearcuts. One of the first native plants to appear on these harshly disturbed soils is elderberry.  I have an abundance of elderberry shrubs to pick from but I am careful to look around the trees for evidence of bears. Black bears  love elderberries almost as much as I do!   Evidence of bears in the area include broken tree limbs, (now absent of berries) and the occasional pile of seedy bear shit. Fortunately, I can just move on to another shrub. 

Elder shrubs are often found lining riparian areas like streams and rivers.  Their roots help to stabilize the soil, their umbrella like canopy provide shade, creating cool pockets of water for fish to rest in.

Many species benefit from elder and the USDA offers a list from research done in 1951: 

“Game birds, squirrels and other rodents, and several kinds of browsers also feed on the fruit or foliage of elderberry. Bears love to eat the elderberry fruits while deer, elk, and moose browse on the stems and foliage. The elderberries are important sources of summer food for many kinds of songbirds. For example, the western bluebird, indigo bunting, common house finch, red-shafted flicker, ash- throated flycatcher, black-headed grosbeak, scrub jay, Stellar jay, ruby-crowned kinglet, mockingbird, red-breasted nuthatch, Bullock’s oriole, hooded oriole, song sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, western tanager, California thrasher, russet-backed thrush, brown towhee, Audubon warbler, cedar waxwing, Lewis and Nuttall's woodpecker, wren-tit, grouse, pheasant, and pigeons all eat elderberries (Martin et al. 1951).

Not much has changed in 60 years; if you procrastinate picking berries you will likely find berryless twigs when you do show up to harvest - evidence that birds love elderberries, too!

Bird eaten EB.jpg

Harvesting & Processing Elderflowers & Berries

FLOWERS - Collect flowers in late spring just as the flowers are beginning to open. The flowers are delicate so I use several brown paper bags and gently drop them into the bag, creating only one layer. Do not press down on them.  Lots of little critters hang out in the flowers so keep them in the bag for a few hours with the top open but in the shade to let the critters escape.

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You can leave them in the bag to dry or transfer them onto screens or newspaper in one single layer, out of direct sun. Do not remove them from the peduncle (stalk that holds the flower) until after they are dry which could take several days.  Once dry, remove the tiny flowers and store in a glass jar away from light & heat.

BERRIES - Harvest only the bluest (most ripe) berries or if your berries have a full whitish bloom. Leave them on the peduncle until ready to de-stem.

Elderberries are easy to harvest but processing takes time. Harvest only what you can process quickly.  And remember to leave plenty for the birds.  I harvest only what I can reach.

Elderberries are easy to harvest but processing takes time. Harvest only what you can process quickly.  And remember to leave plenty for the birds.  I harvest only what I can reach.

 

CAUTION:  DO NOT EAT RAW BERRIES AS THEY WILL GIVE YOU AN UPSET STOMACH.

Process berries ASAP. They will lose some of their medicinal properties if left to sit for days.

De-stemming is time consuming but necessary. The stems and bark contain cyanogenic glycoside and alkaloids that can produce stomach upset, diarrhea, vomiting and potentially coma in those who ingest them. Skin irritation may occur from touching elderberry in susceptible individuals.

De-stemming takes time but I use it as a meditative action or an opportunity to watch a good movie.  I can collect 4-5 lbs. in about 10-15 minutes but will need 2 hours to de-stem!

There are different ways to process large amounts of elderberries:

If you can’t de-stem within one day of harvesting, trim the bunches and put them into freezer bags and freeze. This preserves their medicinal properties and some people think they are easier to de-stem while frozen. The trick is to pull out small sections of berries at a time to de-stem; once they begin to thaw (and that happens fast) - it gets messy!

Gather several pairs of hands, sit outside and de-stem while visiting. Or watching the sunset, or watching a movie (my favorite).

You can dry the berries in a dehydrator (racks must have very small holes or place a needlepoint plastic mesh to keep the berries from falling through).

Drying elderberries.jpg

If you live in a dry and hot climate, you can dry naturally: line a cookie sheet with waxed paper and fill the tray with de-stemmed berries.   Set outside (away from birds and mammals) to dry. This may take several days.

Make elderberry juice by lightly simmering for about 10-15 minutes in a small amount of water, smash berries while simmering and then strain through cheesecloth or a clean t-shirt. Freeze the juice in containers and ice cube trays.

The best way to work with elderberries is to gather a co-forager or two and plan a day of elderberry gathering, processing and using the fresh berries to make some of the recipes listed below. Add some herbal tea, or last year's elderberry wine, good conversation and I call that a great day!

What can I make with elderberries?

Ok...You have a bag, a basket or maybe a five gallon bucket of elderberries and several hours to make magic with them.  Where to start? Making herbal medicine is fun and easy but more importantly, it will be ready to use when needed.  

Put in a movie and spend 2 hours de-stemming 4-5 lbs. of berries. Rinse them lightly and strain.

Make a quart or two of Elderberry Elixir (I make 3-4 gallons each year). Dry several cups for Elderberry Syrup and Elderberry Vinegar.  Make a pint or two of Elderberry Tincture.

If you only have a few pounds and want to use it primarily for medicinal purposes, make one pint of tincture and 1 quart of elixir for the adults and dry a quart or so of berries for child-friendly syrup.

Elderberry Tincture

Folk Method:  Lightly fill Mason jar of fresh, de-stemmed elderberries, mash a few times with a large spoon and add 180% proof grain alcohol (if available in your state) to completely cover.  You can use 90% proof vodka or brandy if you prefer.  Seal with lid, LABEL /DATE and store in a cabinet for at least 6 weeks. You can strain the berries, (pressing down or squeezing out as much liquid as possible) or leave them in.  Tinctures last for years if stored in cabinet. Avoid direct light.

DOSAGE: At the first signs of influenza or cold, take 1/2 - 1 tsp. every couple hours until cold/flu symptoms recede or disappear. NOTE: Herbal medicine is most effective when you allow your body to rest when ill. Rest is the key to the success of both your immune system's actions and the medicinal powers of elderberry to overcome the virus.

Elderberry Honey

Lightly fill jar with smashed berries (w/juices), add raw honey. Infuse for a month, strain berries or leave them in.  Eat a spoonful for sore throat, use as a tea sweetener or use as a sweetener inteas and baking.

Elderberry Syrup

This syrup is less medicinal than the elixir or tincture but it is suitable for children and those who do not drink alcohol.  And it is delicious on a pancakes, waffles, ice cream or in smoothies!

Simmer 2 cups of fresh berries or 1 cup of dried berries with 2 cups of water. If you have dried elderflowers, you could add a 1/2 cup to the syrup. Add a cinnamon stick and few slices of ginger.

Remove from heat and allow to cool enough to handle.  Cut a large square of cheesecloth or old, clean white t-shirt (now reserved for herbal medicine-making) and place over colander that is seated on top of a bowl.  Pour all of the berry mixture onto the cheesecloth and twist the bag as tight as possible, until every last drop of juice is squeezed from the berries. 

Measure the juice and add it back it back to a clean pot. Add an equal portion of honey or to taste and warm until blended. Do not overheat the honey, and avoid using cane sugar.

Bottle and store in fridge for up to 6 weeks.  

Dosage: At the first sign of symptoms, give 1 tsp hourly to children over the age of 1.

Elder Cold Care Tea

Medicinal, tasty and beautiful tea

Medicinal, tasty and beautiful tea

1 part each of dried elder flowers, dried yarrow flowers, dried peppermint

1/2 part each of dried elderberries and 1/2 part of dried rosehips 

Combine and store in jar.  Drink several cups each day when a virus has invaded.

Elderberry Elixir

I saved my favorite for last.  Simply put, I adore elderberry elixir and drink a small cordial glass on most mornings - strictly for medicinal purposes, of course!  Using brandy, I make 3-4 gallons each year and play around with different spices and herbs for flavor and potency.

Folk Method: Lightly fill a Mason jar 3/4 full of fresh de-stemmed berries. Add additional spices and herbs* if desired. You can add honey to coat the berries but I have begun adding the honey after steeping and straining. Then add brandy, vodka or whiskey to completely cover the berries. Stir and seal with lid.  Store in pantry for 6 weeks, turning upside down now and then. Strain, add honey to taste if you haven't already and re-bottle.

Adding additional herbs and spices can increase the medicinal potency and create some unusual flavored elixirs. Avoid adding ground herbs/spices. They are difficult to strain out of the elixir. I also add several slices of lemon or oranges for a bit of zest.

* Spices: freshly grated ginger (or dried but not ground), cinnamon sticks or chips, cardamon

* Herbs: cacao nibs, fresh or dried rosehips (high in vitamin C, I always add one cup of dried rosehips to a gallon), licorice root

Use: take 1 Tbsp (or a wee bit more) each day during winter months to support immune system. Take tincture dosage for illness. Add to cocktails for fun...I mean medicine!

I always list the ingredients I use in case I want to recreate a particular taste.

I always list the ingredients I use in case I want to recreate a particular taste.

Elder in Folklore & Storytelling

I am a big fan of storytelling, folklore and fairytales (I once did a 30 page academic paper on the political intentions of French fairytales and female salons- really!). Plants have some of the most amazing histories and folklore because humans have used and valued them for millennia.  Often these odd declarations, incantations and myths were designed to protect a plant that was highly revered. The folklore that surrounds Elder truly demonstrates this.  I end this profile with a collection of the folklore associated with Elder:

Legend has it that Judas Iscariot was hung from gallows made of elder and that the cross on which Christ died was of the same wood. Therefore, it was never used in the construction of such things as baby cradles.

In England, elders were frequently planted near cottages to protect the residents from lightning and from witches; elder branches were nailed over barns and stables, often in the form of a cross, to ward off evil influences; and the drivers of hearses carried whips of elder wood as a protection against spirits and death, while branches of elder were buried in graves to protect the dead themselves from evil spirits.

In Russia, the peasants believed that the elder was proof against bad spirits, and the Serbs carried a piece of elder at weddings for good luck. It was thought that a child beaten with an elder twig would be dwarfed, and that the tree was narcotic and dangerous to sleep under. Another belief was that an elder tree would only flourish near a house in which happy people lived.

In Bohemia, a spell recited before an elder tree was believed to cure fever. In many parts of England, knots made from elder twigs were carried as charms against rheumatism. Bad luck will surely come your way if your burn green elder. In parts of England, it was believed that doing so would invite theDevil to enter your house through the chimney. Elder wood will cause a fire in the fireplace to die out if placed upon it. You must apologize three times to an elder when pruning it or cutting it down, otherwise bad luck will befall you.

A wound caused by an elder bush was thought to be fatal. Furniture made of elder wood is unlucky and elder sticks brought into the house will cause illness in the family and misfortune. On the other hand it offers protection against all forms of evil, saddle sores and lightning.

The leaves repel hexes and curses when they are gathered on the last day of April and worn or carried as a charm. To see elder in a dream is an omen of sickness in the near future. It was once believed that if a person was baptized and his eyes anointed with green juice of its inner bark, that person could recognize witches whenever he saw them. Elderberries gathered on St. John’s Night, were part of a mystic rite to make a person invisible.

Information from A Modern Herbal by M. Grieves as Cited from Herbalpedia at herbworld.com

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