Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)
Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa) caution with use of the fresh berries
The flowers of all species are interchangeable and safe for medicinal use. This also true of the berries. The exception is red elderberry in which the fruits are considered toxic.
Berries: antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, lung support.
Flowers: expectorant, diaphoretic, diuretic, alterative, soothing nervine, mild laxative, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, fevers, ear pain, sinus congestion, wounds, skin, kidney support, blood and lymph circulation.
Berries: sweet, cooling, slightly moist
Flowers: Sweet, cooling, drying.
Listen to your Elders
Elderberry is an important herbal ally for the winter months. Elderberry syrup has become synonymous with the cold & flu season, and it is effective for both. Sambucus is native to Europe, but is now widespread in much of the world. It has been used as a medicine for millennia. The Elder tree has been used by humans for tens of thousands of years, which we know from evidence found in Stone Age sites. The earliest recorded mention of using Elderberry as medicine dates back to 5 BC. in Egyptian texts on health, in which they describe using the berry for fever, aches, lung congestion, sore throat and digestive disorders. Hippocrates used Elderberry in the 5th century to treat upper respiratory maladies. Today, it is widely prescribed in Europe as a “winter tonic.”
Paul Bergner, herbalist and founder of NAIMH, describes Elderberry:
“The berries and flowers of the black elder (Sambucus nigra) have been a traditional blood purifier and flu remedy in British folk herbalism at least since the time of Roman rule there, often in the form of elderberry wine. The berries of the North American variety of the plant, Sambucus canadensis, were used identically by the Houma Indians of Louisiana. Other parts of the plant are potentially toxic, and have been used as laxative or to induce vomiting both in Europe and North America. Elder was an official medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 until 1905. Among its’ official uses was as an alterative, an old medical term for a blood purifier. The berries must be cooked. Recent research in Israel and Panama have shown that elderberry juice stimulates the immune system and also directly inhibits the influenza virus. Constituents in elder flowers and berries inactivate the influenza virus, halting its spread. Elder has been shown to be effective against eight different strains of the flu virus.”
Hand-made Elderberry flute
Native Americans have used it as a medicine and food source, and still do to this day. The berries have been used as a dye for clothing and basketry. Young branches are somewhat hollow, and the wood has been made into combs, flutes, whistles, arrow shafts, blow guns and syringes. Native Americans made "clapper sticks" from the split young hollow branches, that were used to make sounds during ceremonial singing and dancing. Its Latin name name comes from the Greek word 'sambuce', which was a wind instrument made from the wood of the Elder tree. In traditional cultures in Europe, the berries are gathered to make wine, jam, candies, pies and sauces. Elder flowers have been made into champagne, cordials, wine, sorbet, jam and fritters. A cordial made from elder flowers is popular in Northwestern Europe, having started during the Victorian age. However, elderflower cordial recipes can be traced to back to Roman times. St-Germain is the name of a modern version of elderflower liqueur that is made in France.
Elder is a wonderful plant ally. Both the flowers and the berries are used as medicine for similar purposes; helping support the body during upper respiratory ailments, colds, and influenza. The action of Elder can be seen in how it grows. The young branches are pithy and hollow, which relates to the tubes and hollow spaces in the body (lungs, pore of the skin, sinuses, blood vessels, kidneys, intestines). Elder prefers to grow in wet soil, and its affinity for water can be seen in its diuretic properties. The flowers and berries all grow from one point and branch outwards. This growth expression reveals how Elder stimulates this expansive, outward movement of fluids, which is seen in its ability to induce sweating, stimulate the flow of urine, clear mucous from the sinuses and lungs, and strengthen the blood vessels. The flowers and berries can be used separately or they can be combined to make a wonderful infusion, that will give you comprehensive support during an acute respiratory illness. Each has their specific uses as well, which are explored in detail below.
Elderflower has been used since antiquity as a diaphoretic and diuretic. It is a specific medicine for fevers with dry, hot skin. It is gentle enough to use in children. It can help help shorten the duration and severity of colds and flus. This is best taken as a tea or infusion.
Herbalist, Robin Rose Bennett has a wonderful description on how to use Elderflower for fevers:
"Elder blossom (infusion or tincture) is the first herb I reach for when there is fever. Remember that fever is not an illness but a healing response to an illness. If the fever is necessary for healing, elder won't bring it down, but it will regulate the fever mechanism, bringing it down when the time is right. It's one of my favorite plant medicines for upper-respiratory congestion, as it's so helpful in opening clogged sinuses."
Elderflower can also be used for sinusitis and seasonal allergy symptoms where there is nasal congestion, red/watery eyes, painful ears and headache. Elderflower has a cooling effect, helping to thin mucous membranes and encourage the release of fluids. They have anti-viral properties, and are useful in combating herpes simplex type 1 virus (responsible for cold sores).
Elderflower is a wonderful skin remedy as well. The dried flowers can be made into an infused oil, which can then be made into a salve to help with burns, rashes and other mild skin ailments. Elderflower is mildly astringent but also moistening, making it a wonderful remedy for softening the skin, calming inflammation, reducing wrinkles, minimizing the size of pores and balancing oily skin. It is especially useful for more mature skin as it ages. It contains flavonoids that increase circulation and oxygenation by nourishing the capillaries of the skin, and protects the skin cells from free radical damage.
The fruit of Sambucus nigra is more well known nowadays for it's immune enhancing properties. They must be cooked to eliminate compounds that cause gastrointestinal upset (nausea and vomiting). The berries are best taken as a tea or syrup, instead of tincture. The deep purplish black color of the berries indicates its high concentration proanthocyanidins, which are very powerful antioxidants that remove harmful free oxygen radicals from cells. Elderberry is specific for coughs and chest congestion from an upper respiratory infection that moves down into the lungs and becomes a lower respiratory infection. The concern with this is, if left untreated, a lower respiratory infection can lead to pneumonia. Elderberry has a similar action as elderflower where it thins mucous. The berries also have an expectorant action that helps keep the lungs from becoming overly congested. Its had an observed affects on the fluids of the body, helping them to flow more easily. This is evident in its mild diuretic and lymphatic properties.
Elderberry & COVID
The following statement is from Paul Bergner on Elderberry and COVID, “We do find more well-designed human clinical trials of the effects of Sambucus on respiratory infections in general. A meta-analysis of these trials in 2018 shows that Sambucus products significantly and consistently reduce the symptoms of influenza when taken at first onset (Hawkins et al) without adverse consequences. If Sambucus is indeed acting through enhancement of the respiratory immunity, we would expect similar benefits in COVID-19 infection, as with other viral respiratory infections.”
He also advises, “Elderberry syrup, a common brand name is Sambucol. Take it as it says on the label. Take a dose every 4 hours [if you think you have been exposed or are coming down with COVID]. There is currently some bad information going around that Elderberry is contraindicated in COVID, and this is false information circulated by some individuals without scientific training who misinterpreted some laboratory studies.”
Preparation & Dosage
Elderberry is safe for daily use in both children and adults. Take elderberry for illness only during waking hours. Never wake up a sick sleeping child to dispense herbs for an illness. Sleep alone is a more powerful immune stimulant than any herb.
Children: 1 tsp/day
Adults: 1 Tbsp/day
Acute (when you are sick):
Children: 1 teaspoon every 2 hours during illness
Adults: 1 Tablespoon every 2 hours during illness
Elderberry is safe for daily use in both children and adults. Do not consume raw or unripe berries. Elderberry syrup or tea in large amounts can cause nausea.
Elderberry has a length history of folklore and superstition from many different cultures. In England, some myths say that the elder tree wards off evil and protects from witches, and others state that witches congregate under the tree in the full moon. It was used in funerary customs where green branches were buried in the grave to protect the deceased from evil spirits and witches. Shakespeare refers to it as a symbol of grief. In Christianity, some believed the Cross was made from its wood, and it was thought to be the tree where Judas hung himself. This seems unlikely since Elder trees rarely reach a large enough size to be capable of either of these things. Yet, legend has it that the Elder tree once stood strong and tall, and after Christ was crucified on its wood it was cursed to bow its branches in shame, as depicted in a old poem:
'Bour tree - Bour tree: crooked rong
Never straight and never strong;
Ever bush and never tree
Since our Lord was nailed on thee.'
Unfortunately, these stories have created a superstitious fear around the Elder tree, which became associated with sorrow and death. Many believed that planting Elder trees near your home would bring death, which comes from the superstition that "he who sleeps under an Elder tree will never awake.” In Scotland, planting an Elder tree by your home was supposed to protect from lightning and witchcraft, and also attract fairies.
In Denmark, the Elder tree was associated with magic, and it was said that in each tree resides a spirit called the Elder Mother. They believed that if you cut an elder tree down or remove many of its branches, the "Elder Mother" spirit would be released and take her revenge on you. If you wish to cut the elder tree you must sing a rhyming song to appease the Elder Mother. This legend carried over to England and even today, people are superstitious about cutting down an Elder tree for fear of bad luck.
There is a beautiful story written by Hans Christian Andersen, The Elder Tree Mother. In this story a young boy gets sick after getting his feet wet and is given Elder tea by his mother. An old man comes to visit him while he is sick in bed and tells him the story of the Elder Tree Mother. It is a beautiful metaphor for the medicine of Elderflowers helping bring down a fever. (The full story can be read here.)
The Elder Tree Mother by Hans Christian Andersen
In Russia, Elder was believed to keeps away evil spirits, in Italy they believed its wood would kill serpents and keep away robbers, in Serbia a stick of Elder was used in wedding ceremonies to bring good luck. The Elder tree has even been referenced in our modern pop culture, in the final book of the Harry Potter series. In this book, the Elder Wand (made from the branch of an elder tree) is the most powerful wand in the wizarding world, and many wizards who employed its use would meet an untimely death. The book was nearly named "Harry Potter and the Elder Wand" before author J. K. Rowling decided on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Professor Dumbledore and the Elder wand
One of the best-known tales in England involving an Elder tree is the Legend of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. The Rollright Stones are a Neolithic stone circle complex that date back to the Bronze Age (~2500 BCE).
The following account is thought to be the most complete version of the tale; it was compiled by a British archaeologist named Sir Arthur Evans in 1895 who talked to local people about the legend of the stones.
Rollright Stones, England
According to legend, a king and his soldiers were marching through the countryside near Long Compton with the aim of conquering England. They encountered a witch disguised as old woman, who asked their intention and then challenged the king with these words: 'Seven long strides shalt thou take, and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.' Realizing that the village would certainly be visible from the edge of the hill the King strode forward shouting: 'Stick, stock, stone, As King of England I shall be known!' Taking seven strides forward the King was suddenly confronted by a long mound of earth rising up magically before him (the mound of earth which still stands next to the King Stone) and blocking his view of the valley below. The witch then said: 'As Long Compton thou canst not see / King of England thou shalt not be. / Rise up, stick, and stand still, stone, / For King of England thou shalt be none, / Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be / And I myself an eldern-tree.' And so the King and his army became the King Stone and King's Men stone circle and the witch became an elder tree. This tree, according to some reports, is still growing in the hedge, and if it is cut down, the stones will come back to life.
The Elder tree has more folklore and myth attached to it than any other European herb, showing its importance to many different cultures. The Medicine of the Elder tree is very much like that of a wise grandmother who lovingly nurses you back to health when you are sick. It truly is a plant medicine that deserves our respect and adoration.