Cover image of Elder the Pliny’s Book, Natural History
Cover image of Elder the Pliny’s Book, Natural History

By: Sasha de Beausset Aparicio

Even today, the elder plant is one of the most prominently used medicinal herbs around the world.1Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270. Before the boom of the pharmacological industry (that often undervalues the use of medicinal herbs even though many of the active ingredients were and are extracted from plants), people had to turn to herbalists and healers for cures to their woes.

If one attempts to research the historical uses of the elder plant, one will see that most texts point to the historical book Natural History by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naval commander who lived until 79 A.D.

This book is a gem for many reasons, as it is the single largest written text to have survived the Roman Empire. It aimed to cover all ancient knowledge of the natural world from a Roman perspective.  The topics covered in its 37 books included ethnography, zoology, botany, art, pharmacology, anthropology and precious stones.aIt is important to note that much of what Natural History by Pliny the Elder documented in terms of “other” human-like species that lived around the world was used by

Thanks to modern-day technology (thank you, internet!), the Natural History book is available in different translations and can be found with relative ease in a digital format.

This book mentions the Elder plant multiple times and gives us a good idea of the versatility with which it was used.

Of course, there are several different varieties of Elder trees, and we cannot know for sure which varieties to which Pliny the Elder was referring.  Even so, we can assume, based on descriptions and the ethnobotany of the European region, that he was most likely referring to Sambucus nigra L., also known as European Elder.3Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281.

Here are some of the uses of the Elder plant based on Pliny the Elder’s accounts:

For Pipes and Trumpets

Pliny the Elder writes:

The shepherds are verily persuaded, that the Elder tree growing in a by-place far out of the way, and from whence a man cannot hear a cock crop out of any town, makes more shrill pipes and louder trumpets than any other (pg. 834).

This use of the elder tree is likely due to its hollow stems, which, when whittled just right, produce whistles of different tones.

For Food

Pliny the Elder describes the berries resembling mulberries or other berries that grow on cynosbastos (rosehip berries) or eglantine (sweetbrier berries, known as globose) and as small and sweet (384).

What is interesting is that most herbalists recommend against eating uncooked berries, as they can cause significant nausea.4CDC. (1984) “Poisoning from Elderberry Juice – California”. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 33(13); 173-4. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000311.htm  

Pliny the Elder also refers to the use of elderberries in cooking: “If they are boiled in water they are good and wholesome to be eaten as other pot-herbs” (pg. 384).

As Medicine

This is perhaps one of the most fascinating uses for Elder because there are so many medicinal applications.4CDC. (1984) “Poisoning from Elderberry Juice – California”. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 33(13); 173-4. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000311.htm 5Duke, James. (2009). Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America. CRC Press. Pg. 606

According to Pliny the Elder’s book, when the flowers of the elder tree are soaked in honey and used as compresses on the eyes, they help relieve irritated and blood-shot eyes, and on the skin for a skin infection then known as Saint Anthony’s Fire (pg. 386). Saint Anthony’s Fire was a skin infection common in an age where poor hygienic conditions, infrequent clothing changes, rare handwashing, and overcrowded living facilities were common. The plague of the 16th century, with the acute skin condition, was called St. Anthony’s Fire, alluding to the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the burning sensation of the infection. Today, we know the ailment as ergotism.6Asensi, Victor; Asensi, José María (2016). “Saint Anthony’s Fire”. JAMA Dermotology. 152(7): 850. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/article-abstract/2533196

When the flowers were consumed in water, as a tea it helped to relieve a “weak stomach.”

As a Hair Dye

Pliny the Elder writes, “the Elder beareth certain black and small berries, full of a grosse and viscous humor, used especially to ide the hare of the head black” (pg. 385).

The black berries contain a dark pigment that can result in a semi-permanent dye of clothing and even hair.

In Closing

These are only some of the several ancient uses of Elder, and some of the oldest documented uses to which we have access. What is fascinating to see is how, in a time where people had to look to nature for almost all of the material goods that define human culture, the versatility of a plant like the Elder tree is revealed.

1 Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.
a It is important to note that much of what Natural History by Pliny the Elder documented in terms of “other” human-like species that lived around the world was used by other men as a justification for the need for European influence and colonization, which we now know had devastating effects.
3 Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281.
4 CDC. (1984) “Poisoning from Elderberry Juice – California”. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 33(13); 173-4. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000311.htm
5 Duke, James. (2009). Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America. CRC Press. Pg. 606
6 Asensi, Victor; Asensi, José María (2016). “Saint Anthony’s Fire”. JAMA Dermotology. 152(7): 850. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/article-abstract/2533196