Friday, October 30, 2009

Elder: "Your Mother Smells of Elderberries!" Is A Compliment


Of all the European herbs used for centuries by physicians and country folk alike, the Elder has more mythology associated with it than any other medicinal plant due to mysterious connection with the Otherworld. It was once known as the “medicine chest of the country people” because all parts of this small tree were used for various maladies. Although the leaves were once used externally for bruises and injuries while the inner bark was used as an emetic or a purgative, it was found that these parts of the Elder have some toxicity, so today it is mainly the flowers and the berries that are used in herbal medicine.

In European countries, the Black Elder grows to the height of a small tree, while in the US, the plant gets no bigger than a large shrub. The leaves are lance-shaped, finely toothed and grow in opposite pairs - five to seven leaflets to each branch. The whitish flowers appear in late spring in a dense, flat-topped cluster up to eight inches in diameter. From a distance the flowers have a sweet, creamy fragrance, but up close they become slightly fishy; flies pollinate the Elder more than bees.

In the late summer, the clusters of juicy, plump berries ripen to a dark purplish black, and hang heavy from the braches. You must be vigilant to harvest them before the birds do, but be sure to leave enough to share. The stems of most varieties also turn purple at this ripe stage, although some remain green. When processing the berries, it is helpful to run the tines of a fork through the berry clusters in order to remove as much of these stems as possible, for it is widely believed that the stems are mildly toxic.

The name Sambucus is derived from the instrument that was once made from the young stems of the plant- the pan pipes. The stems have a pithy core that can easily be hollowed out to create a tube; the older the plant gets, the more narrow the opening. These hollow tubes found other uses apart from the shrill and haunting whistle it produced as a musical instrument; they were also used as smoking pipes and as a device to blow through in order to encourage a fire to burn hotter. Perhaps this is where the name “Elder” came from, as the Old English word for fire was “aeld.”

Another possible root for the name comes from the Old English “eldo,” which means old age. The Elder is truly an elder of ecosystems; known as a “keystone” species, Sambucus helps to form healthy environments for a plant community to thrive. By interacting with mycelium in the soil and preparing the way for more diverse species to inhabit the developing ecosystem, the Elder is one of the first plants to arrive and will then “call in” other species that will coexist harmoniously within the group. It was once said among the folk people that, “Elder teaches the plants what to do and how to grow.” Truly, a wise elder, is this tree.

The tree has represented protection, stability and forgiveness, the wisdom and compassion that comes with age. The White Goddess, known as “Hildemoer” or the Lady Ellhorn, was the benevolent spirit associated with the Elder. She was the guardian of the Elder and bestowed great healing to the tree and the people who used the medicine. It was important to pay respect to the tree before gathering any parts; an offering or gift was made, or even the whispered reminder that one day this human body would be committed to the soil to nourish the Elders anew. An elder was frequently planted upon one’s grave, sometimes trimmed into the shape of a cross, to bring peace to the departed; if the Elder was productive, it indicated that the deceased was happy on the other side.

It was not uncommon to regularly leave gifts such as beer, milk and bread under an Elder tree to receive the protection of the house spirits in return. People planted Elders near their homes to ensure a ready supply of medicine and protection from disease and malevolent spirits. Leaves gathered on the last day of April were hung on doors and considered particularly potent majick against pestilence and evil. The leaves have a distinctively unpleasant odor that repels insects quite efficiently; hanging a bunch in the stables helped to reduce the numbers of pests. Shakespeare was referring to this quality when he coined the term, “the Stinking Elder.”

But even Shakespeare saw that the Elder was at least equal to the wisdom of the Greek god of medicine and the respect given the most famous of Roman physicians when he was disposed to pay homage to the diversity of Elder’s medicine, “What says my Aesculapius? My Galen? My heart of Elder?” The Elder, with its diverse, powerful properties was popular not only with home herbalists, but was also respected by Hippocrates, Plinius, Doiscorides, Gerard and Galen. Dr. Martin Blochwich, a famous physician of the seventeenth century and author of the well-known Anatomia Sambuci, or “Anatomy of the Elder” wrote, “What the more sober and learned Chymists have attributed to their manifold Mercury, Antimony, Vitriol, we may admit, admire and acknowledge in our Elder.”

The old ways were gradually lost with the rise of Christianity, and the benevolent spirits allied with the Elder morphed into fearsome entities associated with dark magic. Love and reverence for the Elder and her medicine was labeled as Paganism, herbalism re-branded as witchcraft, and although many tried to hold fast to their traditions of honor and respect for the spirits of the Earth, their beliefs were swallowed up by fear of damnation. Fairy tales often depicted the conflicts of superstitions against a backdrop of religion, and Elder trees were frequently representative of the gate to the Unknown.

The Elvin matriarch Hilda was said to live in the roots of the Elder and if one made a point to visit the tree at midnight on midsummer’s day, the procession of the Faerie King and his court would be visible. Care should be taken however, especially to stay awake, otherwise one might be swept into the Faerie realm, never to return. This was considered merely cautionary until the tide of religious fear washed over ancient beliefs. The legends of the beatific White Goddess of light, life and wisdom suddenly became frightening tales about a fanged witch who stole babies from Elder wood cribs-or at the very least, pinched them black and blue!

Newer folklore about the Elder emerged that aligned with biblical stories; Elder was purported to be the tree that Judas hanged himself on after betraying Jesus. It was also said that Christ was crucified upon a cross made of Elder wood, and as this ancient rhyme suggests, the tree was forever changed by the experience. “Ever bush and never tree, since our Lord was nailed on thee.”

Nonetheless, the Elder continued to be a mainstay for herbal medicine, was used for amulets of healing and protection as well as being valued for its use as a dye. The Romans once used the red variety of berries to color statues of Jupiter crimson during festivals to honor their powerful god. For textiles, the leaves and immature berries produce a green dye, the roots and bark create black dye and the berries make a lovely royal purple color. The appearance of these black berries indicated to the farmers that the time to sow the winter wheat had arrived.

The Elder has always been associated with transitional times and passages in life. The hollow tubes of the young Elder stems are a signature for plants that assist a shaman’s travel to the Otherworld, and when we are close to birth or death, the Elder is a safe and helpful remedy to have on hand. For the very old, Elderberry tonics can help open congested lungs and stimulate blood circulation as well as boost the immune system. Mild teas from the flowers or berries can help infants that appear bluish, indicating congestion and stagnation of fluids and oxygen. It has been suggested that Elder may even help in some cases to prevent SIDS in newborns.

Elder flowers can be eaten fresh if dipped in batter and fried like a pancake, but more often are dried and used as a medicinal tea. When the infusion is ingested cool, it is diuretic and helps to cleanse the kidneys by stimulating increased urine flow. Drunk hot, the tea is diaphoretic, generating a mild sweat that reduces fever; in the early stages of a pathogenic invasion, this action pushes pathogens back out of the body, effectively “curing” the common cold or flu. Taken this way, it is often combined with Yarrow flowers and Peppermint.

Elderberries have a stimulating and cooling effect on the blood and currently modern herbalists are utilizing the berries in formulas for anemia. Historically elder was used to treat and cure everything up to and including the Black Plague, while recent lab studies have indicated that Elderberry extract may help to neutralize the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. Syrups are helpful for flu symptoms including lung congestion and lowered immunity, and when combined with hot Elder flower tea, can bring down fever, calm the nerves and bring blessed relief.

If you are fortunate enough to have laid in a supply of dried elderberries this autumn, you can rehydrate them to make this delicious syrup. Fresh berries work just as well, and you’ll have no trouble getting your family to take their medicine when Elderberry syrup is on the spoon. Commercially made “Sambucol” syrup is available at most health food stores, but homemade is really so much better due to the locality of the fruit and the affection involved in the preparation of medicines for your loved ones.

A spoonful of this soothing elixir will help to calm coughs and loosen mucous, as well as improve immunity; brewing the berries with ginger rounds out its sweet flavor and adds another dimension to the healing properties. Experienced herbalists may wish to use a medicinal decoction in place of the cooking water to enhance the desired effect when making the syrup.

In a large stainless steel pot, cover berries completely with cool, pure water; if using dried berries, use a little more water and allow to soak overnight. (In the morning you may need to add a bit more water to make sure the berries are completely covered.) Bring to a boil over high heat, and as soon as boiling point is reached, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer berries for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour juice through a cheesecloth lined strainer into another heavy-bottomed steel pot. Squeeze out all the juice you can through the cheesecloth sieve and compost the mash. Cook over low heat, uncovered until juice is reduced by half. To this concentrated juice add raw honey to sweeten and cook until desired syrupy consistency. If less sweetener is used, you’ll need to keep this syrup refrigerated.

Dried Elderberries can sometimes be purchased at local health food stores, but if you can’t find them, begin scouting your neighborhood for the large shrubs. Be sure to leave enough flowers from your spring harvest to ensure a good crop of berries later in the year, and don’t forget to leave a gift in return for the compassionate spirit of the Elder Mother.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
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  1. Lovely, thanks so much for such an interesting and complete picture of this sacred tree (shrub) which I have planted in my backyard to be the center of a small permaculture "guild." I appreciate your research.

    Blessings, Vicki

  2. Vicki,
    Thank you so much.
    I have been admiring your work for years, so that means a lot to me.
    From My Heart,

  3. Hi Lisa, I love Elderberries and often make wine from them each Autumn. I never boil them, but add boiling water to the fresh berries to start things off, then leave them steeping in the fermentation mash for a week before straining off.

    Are any of the beneficial effects you described captured in this wine, or do you really need to boil them to get the best effect?

  4. although the medicinal effects are changed because it is now an alcoholic product, it is still beneficial... but for adults!!
    In Chinese Medicine, we understand that taking herbs in wine directs them to the Liver, so a small amount of your wine would help the Blood and congestion associated with Liver... very much like the benefits of red wine, except more specific to elderberries.
    Good question. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for the interesting (and fun) read.