The Wild Medicines Herb Fact File No.1 Elder
The common Elderberry bush is one of the most significant trees in the Underworld, and legend has it that it serves as a doorway to the Underworld, or magical fairy realm and it’s hollow stems have long been associated with this shamanic journey.
It grows wild all over southern Britain and Europe, on meadows, down land, in hedgerows, light forests and on the sides or railway lines. It has light grey bark, with bendy branches and in May the bushy, shrub like tree erupts into white, fluffy, umbel shaped flowers that smell sort of sweet but heady. The flowers turn into tiny, dark purple berries in autumn, before the tree loses it’s leaves for winter. The Elderflower is one of the most prominent plants used in herbal medicine and is wrapped in European folklore and picking the plant was considered a fatal mistake, if an offering was not made. Later, it was tabooed to cut an Elder down, or burn it’s wood – and that lasted well into this century. The flowers were used in wish-fulfillment spells.
The Elderberry is cocooned in mythology and ancient folklore. Thought to take it’s name from the Anglo Saxon word ‘Aeld’ meaning fire, as it’s hollow stems are perfect to get fires going. The Elder is associated with the German word Holunder, which refers to the ancient vegetarian Goddess of the Underworld, Hylder Moer, who guarded over the souls of the dead and the tree’s gifts were thought to be her blessings. In Denmark this goddess presided over the realm of the fairies, and it was thought that if you hid in the Elder bushes at the Summer Solstice, one would see the fairies on the way to their mid summer feasts. The sight of the fairies may have been due to the plant’s slightly psychoactive properties, which can alter the mind and senses and may contribute to the many mysterious traditions surrounding this rather strange smelling, small tree.
As Christianity rose and tree worship was prosecuted, the sacred Elderberry tree became associated with Jesus and it is told that the cross of Jesus was made of Elder wood, and Elder leaves were pinned to doors to disappoint ‘the charms of witches, demons and evil spirits’.
Elder has been used in folk medicine since the days of ancient Rome when Hippocrates recommended it to encourage vomiting and purging. Many medieval herbalists believed Elderberry to be ‘nature’s cure-all’, with all parts of the plant used. Elderberry roots were used as a diuretic while the leaves were used to make ointments for treating bruises, sprains and wounds. A tea made from the flowers was considered a wonderful spring tonic, good for purifying the blood, and a cure for mucous membrane inflammations, colds and coughs. These days the flowers and berries, rather than the root are used in herbal medicine.
Medicinally, Elder was the medicine chest of the country people and many of its medicinal uses are still widely employed by modern herbalists today. Every single part of the plant has a medicinal use, from the cure of the common cold, to treating toothache and the plague. Used to make a syrup, tincture, oil, ointment, spirit, water, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, sugar, decoction and bath. However, in the old days the healing powers of a plant were not diagnosed due to the chemical properties of the Elder, but the subtle energy of the plant contributed to it’s magical healing operations.
The modern Herbalist still values Elderberry as one of the most useful. The leaves can be collected in Spring and used externally as an anti-inflammatory or internally as a diuretic and expectorant. Ointments are made for treating chilblains, sprains and bruises or nervous headaches. The flowers contain flavonoids and are used widely for a variety of symptoms caused by inflammation and congestion. A hot infusion of fresh flowers induces fever and calms inflamed lungs. Added to a bath they create a gentle remedy for itchy skin and irritated nervous problems. The flowers are also used by herbalists today as a hay fever remedy, as Elderflower is thought to strengthen the mucus membranes of the respiratory tract, increasing resistance to allergens. Drinking Elderflower tea in early spring can help reduce symptoms of hay fever later in the year. Cold infusions soothe inflamed, tired eyes.
In American herbalism the berries were used as a blood tonic for anemia, and the inner bark to break up congealed blood. The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and can be made into a syrup to keep away colds. They are packed full of Vitamin C and support the immune system, can help rheumatism, gout and soothe inflamed sore throats. They oxygenate the blood flow around the body, stimulating the kidneys, remove stagnation and bring toxins to the surface.
Matthew Wood suggests that the one indication that the use of Elder is required would be a puffy, mottled skin, with a look of fullness with a reddish-blue tinge. The would also be visible on the legs, thighs and forearms. He suggests it is a wonderful remedy for the young and also for old age, although the bark is poisonous and should only be used when dried and kept for several months.
Elder has also been long used to support the digestive tract – it’s gentle nerve relaxing properties act as soothing relief to the digestive tissues and it useful in cases of colic, bloating and gas. It also increases acidity, aiding secretion which enhances digestion.
It is considered a good idea to plant an Elder in the corner of your herb garden as the small repels insects, it is also thought that the hollow stems serve as a plant spirit.
Recipe for Elderflower Cordial:
Take about 20 flower heads, picked in full bloom, or some just a little before and place them in a jug of about 1 litre of water. Allow to infuse over night in the fridge, with the zest of a couple of lemons. The next morning sieve into a saucepan and add 8-12 teaspoons of sugar, depending on your taste, and the juice of the 2 lemons and an orange. Allow to simmer for a few minutes for the sugar to dissolve then pour into suitable, sterilised bottles with an airtight lid.
Mix with water, lemonade or soda water and plenty of ice for a delicious and refreshing Elderflower summer drink. Make a jug when you have guests and add a few rose petals, or some mint to the jug for decoration and flavor.
How to make Elderflower Tea:
Place 1 large teaspoon of dried Elder flower, or a handful of fresh flowers into a large cup or mug and pour over boiling water. Cover for at least 20 minutes to allow all the properties to be released into the water, and then sip. Be sure to have 2-3 cups a day in early summer to help prevent hay fever. Local honey can be added to increase the in take of local pollen to build up resistance to allergies.
Do not take elder if you are pregnant and never use the root as it can be poisonous.
ALWAYS SEEK MEDICAL ADVICE FROM A QUALIFIED HERBALIST BEFORE USING ANY PLANTS AS MEDICINES.
The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood