The first herb that captured my imagination and my taste buds was the Elder tree (Sambucus nigra). I was twelve years old, and it was the first summer at my grandparents new home in rural Ontario. My grandfather called me out to the backyard to meet him near the bayou of the lake. There, growing elegantly amidst wild grasses was an old Elder tree. Before my grandfather even told me this was a medicinal herb used traditionally in his native home of Germany, I was in love. I was in love with the slender bark, soft leaves, and deep purple-black berries. In its presence, I grew quiet and felt myself drift into what I now know is plant communion consciousness. This was the first time I was was aware of a plant communicating with me. I knew the essence of what my grandfather was about to share: "Traditionally, the flowers are used to cool a fever and the aches of arthritis" he said. "The berries make the most delicious cough syrup, it fills up that empty place inside that makes you vulnerable to sickness: it'll stop a cold in its tracks if you take it when you're tired. Just don't cut the tree down, or the Hydemoder will come and get you." The Hydemoder is a Fairy that is said to live in the wood of this tree, some say preparing to guide the beloved dead to the other side of the veil.
Elder is indeed protective against colds. This study from 2009 states, "flavonoids from the elderberry bind to the H1N1 virus and, when bound, block the ability of the viruses to infect host cells."
In clinical practice, I've consistently seen the benefits of Elderberry shorten the duration of infections like the common cold or influenza, and observed the protective benefits. The emergency room nurses in my practice report that if they take Elderberry syrup regularly they don't get their usual 2-3 colds a season. And notably, for the public health workers in my practice who do get sick, they all credit Elderberry for reducing the duration and severity of illness.
This kind of feedback is consistent among populations who take Elderberry extracts regularly, not just those in my clinic.
An old German name for the Elder tree is Holunder, which is said to refer to the ancient Earth Goddess called by the same name. Tree worship was common all over Europe, and the Elder tree was said to be sacred to the people and their Gods. The Fairy that lived within her bark was said to be the protectress of the tree, and cutting the Elder down would anger Her. Planting an Elder near one's home was considered protective as the Fairy would watch over those who planted the tree. Plus, the home dwellers could benefit from the medicine of the tree's flowers and berries, gathering them to quell a fever, ease arthritic pain, respiratory illnesses, fatigue from prolonged sickness, and increase overall resistance if immunity was compromised. Here are some Elderberries that my grandmother harvested and mailed to me last summer from the very same Elder tree I met over two decades ago. When I opened the package, I was deeply moved. I love that she knew the significance of this tree for me. Here they are:
The berries are sour, astringent and slightly sweet. Astringent herbs dry up mucous membranes, toning tissue.
Elderberry extract can reduce sinus congestion and swelling of the nasal passages. This is a helpful herb for those who suffer from recurrent sinus infections, and those for whom every cold turns into a prolonged, annoying, unrelenting upper respiratory infection.
It's one of my all time favourite herbs for the rundown individual (adult or child) who gets cold after cold, suffers from chronic runny noses, and may have colds turn to bronchitis.
This is an important herb for seasonal allergies too. Begin taking this herb daily six weeks prior to the start of your allergy season. Combined with Nettle, these two herbs together can significantly reduce - or in some cases I've seen even eliminate - seasonal allergies.
I also use Elderberry extracts for the treatment and prevention of ear infections (taken orally, not administered in the ear) and herpes virus. I use it to support children's immune systems at the onset of chicken pox and respiratory illness. While I haven't used it for eye health in my clinic, Elderberry is reputed to strengthen the eyes. This seems logical given how the berries are rich in flavonoids.
Flavonoids have an anti-inflammatory action, reducing swelling, pain, and general discomfort. Flavonoids also strengthen blood vessels and capillaries. The beauty of Elderberry is that it is not an immune stimulant, but rather a modulator, which make this plant safe for those with auto-immune diseases (these individuals must avoid immune stimulants).
Elderberries can be used in teas, tincture, elixir, cough syrup, and made into an oxymel (see recipe below). An oxymel is a mixture of herbs soaked in a combination of honey and vinegar. This is a great alternative for adults or children who want to avoid alcohol. The added benefit of preparing an oxymel is it makes for a great method of delivery for those who forget to take tinctures or who find teas to much a hassle - just pour the oxymel all over everything you eat! It's delicious, easy to assemble, and relatively inexpensive to make.
I love Oxymel's because they are so quick to make. The vinegar and honey act as solvents, extracting important vitamins, minerals and plant compounds. Both apple cider vinegar and honey are medicinal all on their own. Apple cider vinegar is a naturally fermented product. The good bacteria working their magic on the elderberries.
apple cider vinegar
1 litre or 1 pint canning jar with a lid
wax paper to line the lid of the jar
Place one cup of elderberries into a wide-mouthed jar.
Warm (but don't cook) 2 cups of vinegar to 1 cup of honey until well combined.
Pour over the elderberries.
Mix, and taste it.
If it tastes too sour for your liking then add more honey by the half cup.
Some people even prefer equal parts honey to vinegar. I like sour things so I tend to add less honey. Adjust the ratio to your personal preference.
Place the piece of wax paper over the opening of the jar to avoid contact between the metal ring of the canning jar and the vinegar (otherwise it’ll rust). Fasten the lid.
Shake vigorously. Label. Let it sit in a dark cupboard or tucked on the kitchen counter for a minimum of 10 days. Shake daily.
The oxymel is ready to use within 10 days though some like to let it macerate for a full month. When it is finished, strain, bottle, label, and enjoy. Oxymels do not need to be refrigerated although you can store it in the fridge for a longer life. Either way, ideally consume within one year.
Use your Elderberry oxymel daily by the Tablespoon for a wellness shot, in a base of salad dressings or added to water (it's great with soda water!)
The beauty of herbal medicine is it's delicious, as well as nutritious.
DOSAGE: For prevention and health maintenance adults take 2-4 TBSP daily and children take 2-4 tsp daily. At the first onset of illness, or during illness, adults take 2TBSP every two hours, and children over 4 take 2tsp every two hours until relief. Always consider consulting with a qualified practitioner if you are unsure of safety or dosage. Children under 2 years old are required to avoid honey. If in doubt, reach out to a qualified health practitioner.
Enjoy the gift of this amazing tree - and please feel free to share what you do with elderberries in the comments below. Share your recipes and your traditions!
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