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Sambucus canadensis; S. nigra

Elder are most often found in low, wet areas, usually in moderate to large numbers.  They exist as something between a bush (usually) and a small tree (on occasion).  The leaves are compound, having five to nine leaflets, and can be distinguished before flowering by a narrow groove that runs along the top of the leafstem. In the summer, they become quite showy, putting forth numerous white umbels of flowers, which ripen to blue-black berry clusters in the fall.  Both the flowers and ripe berries offer excellent medicinal virtues. There is also a red berried Elder, which looks very similar but flowers early in the spring and bears its fruit in early summer.  Red Elder berries are considered "toxic", and should not be used (at least unless the nature of their purported toxicity is understood).

The folklore surrounding Elder is without end, and (alas) too extensive to give proper attention here.  Suffice to say, Elder is steeped in myth, and is among the most revered of herbs; being considered a guardian and gatekeeper to the virtues of all other growing things.  To enter this gateway and learn the deeper virtues of the plants, one must approach Elder (oft called the hylde-moer or “Elder Mother”) with humility, gratitude and respect.  Maude Greive’s Modern Herbal and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers delve much more deeply into the lore of the Elder, and are worth looking into to gain a deeper insight into its mythical medicine.

The dried flowers of Elder are one of the oldest and most reliable diaphoretics for use in treating colds, flus & fevers.  Elder is a relaxant diaphoretic; which is to say that it encourages perspiration and the release of heat by relaxing tension and resistance in the periphery of the body.  It also helps mildly to expectorate phlegm from the lungs & breathways, and so are indicated in fevers accompanied by stuffy sinus or lung congestion.  Elderflowers are ever-so-slightly sedative, and help to instill a bit of “ease” that makes getting through a fever a bit more bearable.  They make for a rather tasty tea (which, for the uses mentioned above, should be drunk hot), and being that Elder is safe even for small children, this makes it a far more user friendly option for sick kids than, say, hot Yarrow tea.

After the tea cools, it loses much of its diaphoretic properties and acts more as a diuretic and alterative.  A weak tea of Elderflowers, or the distilled flower water, can be used as a rather pleasing skin toner, in much the same way as Witch Hazel extract, though it is not so astringent.  It can also be used for treating eye inflammations by straining it well and adding 1/4th teaspoon salt per cup and using as an eyewash.  Hot compresses of Elderflower tea have been used to ease the pain of enflamed swellings, hemorrhoids, and headaches.

By mid to late summer, the flowers have ripened to purple-black berries, weighing the branches down under their weight.  These, indeed, can be quite abundant, and can be used to make wine, jelly, jam, or an equally virtuous syrup for treating whatever manifestation of winter-woe has befallen you.  The berries, taken in some hot preparation are mildly diaphoretic, but not nearly so much as the blossoms, though they as well are an excellent aid in combating illness.  Herbalist Paul Bergner points out that Elderberry preparations not only stimulate immune activity, but also directly inhibit the influenza virus by disarming the virus of its ability to invade healthy cells and multiply there.  This is especially noteworthy because although the influenza virus mutates every year, its means of penetrating cells (and using them to make copies of itself) remains largely the same.  So while flu shots need to be created each and every year, Elderberry will acts effectively throughout these mutations.

A few years ago my friend Nelle gave me my first bottle of Elderberry syrup, which has a flavor that can only be described as exquisite.  I've been an Elderberry disciple ever since.  Start by mashing and simmering ripe Elderberries over very low heat until they’re a slushy-mushy mess.  You might add a bit of water so as not to initially burn them; just enough to coat the bottom of your pot.  Strain the berries through a sieve or some such device to separate the juice from the solids, then measure how much juice you have, and add that much honey to the juice (more or less equal parts) back into a clean pot.  Add a pinch of cinnamon, clove or ginger (my friend Andrea turned me on to using Calamus in place of Ginger... nice) and a dash or two of lemon or lime juice.  Heat long enough to mix the honey and extract the spices, then strain out the mix again and your done.  To ensure the syrup doesn’t spoil, it may be wise to add enough alcohol to make the syrup 20% (for example, if you had eight ounces of syrup, you’d want 2 ounces of alcohol).  I usually don't do this, though.  This should be taken liberally (and it tastes so good you’ll want to take it liberally) at the onset of any cold or flu.  Paul Bergner likes to mix his Elderberry Syrup with Boneset tincture.  I've mixed it up more than a few times with hot cocoa (to a delicious end).

While the leaves, bark and roots of Elder have been used (and lauded by the likes of Dr. Christopher and Jethro Kloss), they are strong cathartics and purgatives, and are really a bit harsh on the body.  I don’t use them, and wouldn’t recommend them to anyone either.  The inner bark, though, is said to make an excellent salve for burns, and an intriguing recipe I found in an old colonial herbal by John Sauer included the inner bark of Elder and fresh Ivy leaves, infused in butter.  This would be a fun salve to make, though it would warrant an explicit label… its not what you’d want to spread on your toast…

But what if it’s burnt toast?

Sorry… just couldn’t resist…

jim mcdonald

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