Elder – Sambucus nigra, Sambucus canadensis
As we cycle around again to this high solar and masculine time of the year of the Medicine Wheel in anticipation of Summer Solstice, I honor how Elder, connected deep to the essence of woman, is gathering the essence of man through capturing bits of sunlight into her flowers. Ultimately these swell with these bits of light and water and air and earth to create the round berries we cherish taking during the Winter as the sun recedes. These berries strengthen us to endure, to release, and to keep good boundaries as we wane into Winter and the great season of gratitude and release . Cycles and the support through them with feeding across the wheel happens all the time and is embodied in the medicine of Elder.
I've included here a Plant Profile of Elder as is given to my students at ElderMoon School. A profile is just that, and informational writing of my experience of Elder, with practical information I have learned from others and from the plant directly.
Parts Used Medicinally:
Leaves, flowers, berries, bark and some Herbalists have taken in the root but be careful with taking in only small amounts for severely acute illnesses only. The flowers are a prized edible for salads and fritter making, in ancient facial care formulas such as Queen of Hungary's Water, and for making liqueurs and are the base of St. Germain's liqueur made in France. This proves to be a magical, delicate and delicious addition to drinks of all kinds.
Contains: Scientists have isolated proteins that appear to protect our healthy cells from the invading actions of viruses by literally making a protein coating they cannot penetrate. Ongoing clinical trials continue for HIV, herpes and flu.
Medicinal Actions: Antimicrobial, febrifuge, antiviral, diaphoretic, expectorant, anti-inflammatory
Common Names: Black Elder, Common Elder, Pipe Tree, Bore Tree, Bour Tree
Habitat and Description:
Elder grows throughout North America and Europe and are quite abundant. Elders produce large clusters of small white or cream colored, delicately aromatic flowers in the late spring, and are followed by clusters of small red, dark purple or black berries. The shrubs can live over a hundred years. Gather the darker berries of black and dark purple; avoid red berry varieties which are more toxic. I stay with the S. canadensis which is more shrub-like and the European species of S. nigra which grows more as small tree. There are many hybridized varieties too but I seek the older known species for medicine making.
Elderberries grow best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil but will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Elderberry plants are generally free of pests, which makes them great for landscape plantings. However, the deer can and do devour them if Elder is in their usual grazing path here in Woodstock, NY. Harvest elderberries in late August through early September before the birds get them all. It is an ancient practice to consider negotiating with birds if you want berries and know howto enter such negotiations as they often strip the bushes while the berries are still green.
Elder took root in the center of one of my vegetable gardens years ago. I deeply honor this plant for healing. I love how the plants work with the insects, animals and particularly the birds in order to be mobile across the land. It makes gardening as an herbalist full of welcomed surprises. It's a different way of gardening and much easier! So Elder stayed there and we adjusted who and what grew around this beauty. She has edible flowers too that make their way into salads, garnishes, drinks of the muddled sort, and fritters!
Ancient Harvesting Practices:
Looking into past harvesting practices will easily uncover many a story about how Elder grows at energetic portals or doorways deep into the Earth and if she chooses to grow near you then she has agreed to be a guardian of your home and tribe. The roots are said to lead to other worlds and are connected to the Mother of us all - the Dark Mother and Goddess of Earth Magic - that reigns stronger during the Winter Solstice time. Her essence resides in the Elder and must be consulted with before harvest or removal of any part or whole plant. Great warnings of mishaps that can ensue if one does not ask abound. It is common practice to ask within the heart and be sure to self-reflect on greed or ulterior motives for this will be seen.
Spiritual and Energetic Medicine:
In pre-Christian times the ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life - birth, life, death and regeneration. This rhythm is reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon, the cycles of the season and naturally was also thought to govern the lives of women and men. Thus, in one of her aspects she was revered as a Goddess of the Underworld, who guarded over the souls of the dead. Green twigs of Elder were often placed into coffins or buried in graves to offer protection for the deceased on their journey to the other world. Elders were also planted on graves and in some places it was a custom for the driver of the hearse to carry a whip made of Elder wood to keep focused and safe while escorting the dead to their final resting place. Crowns were woven and worn of tender Elder branches and leaves at Samhain, near Halloween, to facilitate communion with our dead beloved ancestors who do return to visit and assist.
Elder Flower Essence helps one appreciate self and all beings by enhancing the ability to see the value in how things truly are. Elder removes the walls and ceilings of comfort and dissolves judgement and fixed ideas. Elder brings us deep within to our emotional blockages and helps us dissolve these as well. Past life recall as well as accessing blurred events of one's current life is enhanced when necessary for aiding understanding of where one is now and how healing can flow.
Elder flowers and berries are used in herbal medicine to treat colds and flu, coughs, constipation, hay fever, mouth ulcers, sore throats, tonsillitis, rheumatism, herpes, wounds, bruises, and muscle sprains. The berries are also made into syrups, jams, teas, vinegars, honeys, cordials, and wines. They are cherished by children and easy tasting as a syrup, though the natural dominant flavor is sour.
Taking elderberries into the body is widely accepted as a potent antiviral, though please do not take this in place of practicing the best healing art of convalescence. These expectations are too tall for nearly all medicine forms.
Elder flowers make an excellent cough remedy. The flowers are considered a powerful expectorant and make a useful addition to cough syrups as simple infusion with lemon and honey. They reduce phlegm, stimulate the circulatory system, promote sweating, increase urinary flow, and when applied topically, are anti-inflammatory.
Elder flowers are known to soften the skin and are often added to lotions and creams. They help heal chapped skin and are a good addition to hard working hand lotions. Elder flower water can be infused in the sun and moon to drink and bathe the body to rejuvenate the physical and spiritual self. Elder flowers are infused in olive oil or other oils and added to salves for the treatment of bruises, sprains, strains and open cuts and scrapes.
The infused flower oil makes an excellent lubricant for sexual play too; particularly during menopausal times when thinning and drying of the vaginal walls is a complaint. The first medicine for this is cultivating regular sexual pleasure and expression. Yes, this flower infused oil can enjoyed at any age too and sometimes I mix in a bit of coconut oil. I have also mixed it with Comfrey leaf for enhanced moistening and softening properties and Chamomile when sexual expression is hindered by old stories of sexual abuse. These are also infused oils and one may add some essential oils to enhance and direct the aroma and therapeutic actions.
Elder flowers and berries are a good remedy for feverish colds and flu. Gypsy Tea is an old recipe resurrected by Rosemary Gladstar of equal parts of Elder Flower, Catnip, Peppermint and Yarrow for wise fever management which is also so easy to drink for it's delicious! Mixing Elder flowers with Nettles and Red Clover and taken in as a daily tonic by infusion, strengthens the upper respiratory tract and can help ease hay fever and allergies if taken early in the year before pollen season arrives; do add local raw wildflower honey to this for is contains local pollen to help with desensitization of your immune system to your local plants.
Elderberries help rid the body of toxins by promoting sweating (diaphoretic) and urination (diuretic). It can be taken as a laxative in cases of stubborn constipation. Elderberry syrup is popular to take in the treatment of coughs and deep lung congestion. For added strength, I sometimes combine with Thyme into a delicious syrup. Percussion (drumming) over the lungs on the front and back of the body is an added help and wise ancient practice still utilized in critical care settings of the hospitals today. Elderberries are a rich source of vitamin A and C. The berries can be dried for use as a nutritious food. In days before oranges and other citrus fruits were commonly available, elderberries were made into wines and syrups and taken to prevent scurvy.
Elderberries are also juiced and applied as a hair dye to impart funky blues and purples to lighter colored hair.
Elder bark was sometimes given to promote vomiting historically. The bark is also a liver stimulant, hence the emetic properties, but in today’s herbal medicine practice it is rarely used for this purpose and has been replaced with ER visits for giving charcoal and nasogastric tubes to empty the stomach. Poison control centers are fantastic resources for how to get the poison out. Vomiting can sometimes do more harm. No matter how you look at it this is an unpleasant situation and the road one must endure should anyone be found in such a situation.
Elder leaves can be poulticed for wounds in emergency situations but should not be taken internally as infusions. Applying as a poultice is localized to a small area and poses no harm. When crushed and rubbed to the skin, they will keep insects away for up to an hour; many aromatics will too and I love Rosemary and Lavender for this too. Carole Guyette, in her book Sacred Plant Initiations, has an entire chapter dedicated to Elder plant dieting for deeper healing with Elder. She describes making a sacred anointing oil she calls ‘Green Oil’. It’s made by soaking fresh green chopped leaves in warm olive oil until is changes to a beautiful green color, about 4-6 hours. Strain, re-bottle and place on your altar for when needed in sacred ceremony and moments.
Elder wood is hard and close-grained. It is used for making skewers, toys, and quickly carved flutes once the pith is removed in younger shoots.
Remember too - the more flowers you harvest, the less berries you will get later in the summer so think of this as you plan your medicine harvesting. Elder returns every year so you need only enough to get to next year's harvest.
May you enjoy this Summer Solstice and seek the company of Elder in bloom or in whatever stage it is at. Even if only to seek the company of and sit near one of these ancient medicine keepers to enjoy the sunshine. Sip tea from her berries or flowers, warm or cool, and know I am too and am in celebration of this high holy time of the Sun. Blessings, Jen
Lemon (or Orange), Elder Flower & Honey Liqueur
Elder Flowers are the color of butter and smell sweet and just a bit spicy but delicate. Their beauty fades fast, however. You will need to pick them before noon, as the aroma fades once the afternoon sun hits the flowers. Time is quite important: You want to make this liqueur within an hour or two of picking the flowers to get the best effect. I fill my jar while picking and often make in the garden in order to encourage the essence forth in the moment of harvesting and making. This really could not be any easier!
ElderMoon School Herbal Classes
Are you ready to deepen your walk with the plants as medicine keepers and make this part of your primary healthcare for yourself and your family? Maybe you're longing to design your own apothecary with potent medicines for when needed? Maybe listening to the plants directly is a calling for you. Take a look at our on-going herbal classes.
There's a start anytime on-line course to get you started or begin the process of tightening the weave of who you are, right where you are with the medicine plants. In-Person courses start each May in Woodstock, NY. where we walk together for 13 Moons and learn how to find you own way of moving with the medicine plants as an Herbalist for yourself, family and loved ones. Full descriptions below.
Jennifer Costa, Herbalist, Teacher, BS, RN, CST, and Founder of ElderMoon School of Herbs & Earth Medicine