Elder is a plant of the edges. A sentinal, a guardian, growing where the woods meet the fields, where the land meets the water. A gate keeper of the turning points in the year.
Where I live, the elder tree is one of the first to send out new leaves. In late winter, at Imbolc, the buds begin to form, and this is when I know the seasons are about to change. Soon the deep snows that have settled in the mountains will melt away, replaced by soft green moss and cool rivers of water.
In June, elder gives us big umbels of creamy white flowers to mark the arrival of Midsummer and the longest day of the year, the knife edge when energy and light begin to ebb and we start the slow return to quiet darkness.
As we move into late summer, the elderflowers have turned into juicy black berries, the umbels drooping and heavy with fruit. This marks to me the time of harvest, the last deep breath before the energy of the plants returns to the ground and they begin their winter dreaming. The berries, used for thousands of years to ward off the illnesses of winter, signal to us that the time has come to prepare for darker, colder nights.
The elder tree has been recognized as a powerful being and source of medicine for thousands of years, and the folklore surrounding it is rich in many cultures. My ancestors, the Celts and peoples of Europe, believed that elder was a gate keeper between this world and the Otherworld, and that it was inhabited by powerful spirits. It was even said that the witches of Ireland made their brooms from elder twigs and branches. In Scotland they say that standing beneath an elder tree on Samhain will allow you to see into the fairy world.
The Elder Mother, spirit of the elder tree, was to be respected and asked for permission before any harvest of her leaves, wood, flowers or berries. If respected, the Elder Mother offered powerful protection. It was considered a blessing to have elder growing outside your door, and a branch on the lintel of a house was said to protect its inhabitants.
The Elder Mother offered special protection to children, who were highly valued and cared for in the Druid tradition. This makes a lot of sense to me, as elder is one of those herbal medicines that's safe for small children - the flowers can even be given to infants without harm - and is one of our most effective remedies for childhood fevers.
The medicinal history of elder goes back at least as far as the folklore - all parts of the tree have been used for medicine, but here I'll just focus on the flowers and berries, as they are the easiest and safest to work with.
There are two species of black elder here where I live, and I use them interchangeably: Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra.
The flowers of elder are cooling and have traditionally been used to help with ailments of the respiratory system as well as to support the body as it fights off colds and flus.
A hot tea of elderflowers can help to bring down a fever by opening up the capillaries and pores of the skin, allowing a person to "sweat out" the excess heat from a fever. Peppermint and yarrow are typically added to this brew to enhance it's effects (and flavor!).
Topically, elderflowers are soothing to the skin, help to clear up discoloration and fight signs of aging, and are slightly astringent.
Elderberries are probably the most well-known part of the elder tree - they've risen quickly in popularity over the past few years.
I see more elderberry flavored and fortified foods and drinks all the time. It's safe to say they've become mainstream, and for good reason - elderberries are effective at fighting off colds, flus, and inflammation.
But how, and why, do they work so well?
Essentially, the berries contain chemical constituents that help prevent viruses from getting into our cells, and therefore replicating. This is why preliminary clinical trials have shown that elderberry may speed recovery from illness, shortening a cold or flu by days. It's also why many herbalists recommend taking a little spoonful of elderberry syrup daily during cold and flu season, and upping that dosage if you begin to feel ill or have been exposed to someone who's sick. Prevention is the best medicine, and I think having a little elder in your system is a nice way to stack the odds in your favor when there's a virus going around.
Energetically, the berries are cooling and sour-sweet. Aside from being an excellent ally for fighting off viral illnesses, they're very soothing and cooling to the digestive system and can also help to bring down inflammation throughout the body.
How to Work with Elder
Though elder is a food-medicine, there are a few things to know before you go a-harvesting.
The berries, leaves and wood of the elder tree are all mildly toxic.
Now before you get freaked out and decide to never try harvesting elder, it's important to realize that toxic is not the same as poisonous. Some people are perfectly fine if they eat the fresh berries, others may get an upset stomach. If you ate a ton...well, that might not be the best idea. The leaves and wood are a little more more toxic and should only be worked with if you're an experienced herbalist and really know what you're doing.
So, let's just stick to the flowers and berries, shall we?
To harvest elderflowers, make sure you harvest them on a dry day, and be sure to separate them from the stems. You should be able to shake/rub them off pretty easily. One trick is to use a fork, and sort of just comb them off. If a tiny bit of stem gets in with everything, it's ok.
The best way to dry them is simply to let them sit out on a fine mesh screen. Even a clean linen or paper towel will do, as long they're getting proper airflow.
When working with the berries, there are a few ways to process them to make sure they lose their toxicity. You can:
- cook them
- dry them
Simple! Cooking and drying eliminates the toxins in the berries, rendering them totally safe. Tincturing them fresh in alcohol seems to be ok too, and though I have to admit I've never done it, many herbalists I know do this and have never had an issue.
To dry the berries, lay them out on a screen or clean surface with proper airflow just like you would the flowers. Give them a turn now and then to make sure they aren't sticking to he screen and that they're drying out evenly.
Now that we know all this cool stuff about elder and how to harvest and process it, how do we bring it into our kitchens and work with it to keep ourselves well?
A classic is to cook the berries down into a sweet syrup that you can sip on daily. Here is a basic recipe I use. It's all right if you don't have all the ingredients, and it's ok to add other herbs, too - experiment and see what you like! In the past I've added rose hips, elecampane roots, licorice roots...there are so many possibilities and ways to fine-tune things to suit your needs.
2 cups water
1/2 cup elderberries
1 tbsp grated or thinly sliced fresh ginger
1 tsp whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2-3 star anise pods
1 tbsp orange peel
1 cup honey
1. Add the water, elderberries, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, anise, and orange peel to a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half.
2. Strain the liquid and mix in the honey until dissolved. Bottle and keep in the fridge for up to a few weeks. If you'd like it to last longer, you can either can it in a water bath (boil ten minutes in sterilized jars), or add 1/4 brandy or other alcohol. Take 1 tbsp a day for immune support, and 3-4 tbsp a day when you are ill or feel a sickness coming on.
If you're not a fan of syrup, or haven't had time to make it, you can simply brew the berries into a tasty tea. While there's no hard and fast rule about what ratio of berries to water you can use; my advice is to start with a tablespoon in a cup of hot water and steep for about 15-20 minutes. Depending on the age and potency of your berries, you might want to add more or less the next time. Just make sure you've got a brew that tastes nice and strong.
To make an elderberry tincture, I usually follow the folk method; fill a jar about halfway with dried berries and cover with good quality alcohol, the higher the proof the better. Cap and let sit for 6 weeks, shaking occasionally, before straining and bottling.
As for elderflowers, they make a wonderful tea on their own or mixed with other herbs. I've also seen them used in baking to flavor muffins and breads, though I have yet to try that myself! Topically, they can be used as a wash for irritated skin, or infused in oil to make a cream or salve.
How to Grow Elder
I may be biased, but I think elder is one of the most wonderful things to have growing around you. Aside from the medicinal properties, it's just a beautiful plant to look at. I love how it forms beautiful natural archways, and it's one of the first things to leaf out in spring. It also grows quickly, so it's a great choice if you want to add shade to an area of your land or fill in a space.
Generally elder likes to be in the sun, but I have a few growing near me that are doing just fine even in full shade. As I mentioned earlier, I think elder is a guardian, and planting some around your house creates a wonderful protective energy.
Elder is very easy to grow from cuttings, so if you have a healthy one growing near you, you may be able to snip a portion and bring it home with you. Alternatively, you can usually find elder at native plant nurseries.
If your elder doesn't bloom for the first few seasons, don't be discouraged - it can sometimes take a few years before they start producing those big beautiful tufts of white flowers, but it's worth the wait.
Have you worked with elder before? Have any good recipes or interesting folklore to share? Drop a comment and let me know!
Green blessings always,
References: Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year. Destiny Books, 1995.
DOI: 10.1177/147323000403200205Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections
All the information shared here is strictly for educational purposes and is not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose any disease. Always do your own research and consult a doctor before starting a herbal regimen.