The first herb to initiate me into the secret world of magic and herbal medicine 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 behind the garden house, near the bayou of the lake. There, growing elegantly amidst wild grasses was an old Elder tree. Before my grandfather even told me what this herb is used for traditionally in his native home of Germany, I was in love. I was in love with the slender bark, soft leaves, and deep black berries. This was the first time I was consciously aware of a plant communicating to me. I knew, just knew exactly what my grandfather was going 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 it’s 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.
It turns out he’s right – about Elder being protective against colds. This study from 2009 states, “that flavonoids from the elderberry extract bind to H1N1 virions and, when bound, block the ability of the viruses to infect host cells.” Not only have I experienced the antiviral action of this herb personally, but I’ve seen the benefits of Elderberry shorten the duration of infections like the common cold or influenza, and observed the protective benefits of regularly consuming it when everyone else seems to be sick. If I’m committed to taking Elderberry extract when I have a cold, it can only last three days. Yes, you read that correctly – three days! I’ve experienced this year after year. And if I take this herb at the first sign of a cold or other acute illness – it can stop it in it’s tracks.
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, tightening and 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 generally run down individual (adult or child) who get cold after cold, suffer from chronic runny noses, and may even have colds turn to bronchitis. And ALLERGIES! Think about this berry for seasonal allergies. If your allergies begin in March, consider starting to consume this herb regularly at least six weeks prior. Combined with nettle, the two herbs together can significantly reduce – or in some cases I’ve seen even eliminate – seasonal allergies.
I use elderberry extracts for the treatment and prevention of ear infections (taken orally, not administered in the ear) and herpes. 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 act as anti-inflammatories, reducing swelling, pain, and general discomfort. Flavonoids also tighten tone, and strengthen blood vessels and capillaries. The beauty of elderberry is that they are not an immune stimulant, it’s a modulator, which make this plant such a gem for those with auto-immune diseases (Lupus, HIV, Rheumatoid Arthritis etc) as these individuals cannot take immune stimulants.
Elderberries can be used as teas, tincture, elixir, in cough syrup, and as 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. If you want to try your hand at making a cough syrup, check out my recipe here.
Preparation time: Less than five minutes
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 your jar. Mix 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 and err on the conservative side of sweets, so I tend to add less honey. I encourage you to tweak 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. 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.
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. If in doubt, reach out.
For a wonderfully comprehensive essay on Elder medicine, read this article written by Rosalee de la Foret of Methow Valley herbs.
Enjoy the gift of this amazing tree – and please feel free to share what you do with elderberries in the comments below.