Dried elderberries ready to be steeped
Dried elderberries ready to be steeped

By: Sasha de Beausset Aparicio

Elder is wonderfully versatile in its use for human food, culture, and medicine. Its use has been documented to more than two-thousand years ago, though it is likely to have been used for much longer.

Many herbalists have documented the growing use of the Elder tree in Europe, parts of Asia, and in North America (1, 3). Much available historical documentation refers to the Sambuscus nigra L. variety, known commonly as European elder or Black elder, but Canadian elder (Sambuscus canadiensis L.), Scarlet elder (Sambucus racemosa L.) Dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus L.) are all varieties that have documented health applications.1Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281. 2Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164.

Additionally, a variety of elder is also commonly used in Latin America – known as the Peruvian elderberry or sauco, among many other indigenous names (Sambucus peruviana).

Each of these varieties merit their own description, in the very least, so in this short article, we will focus only on the use of the Sambuscus nigra and canadensis varieties of Elder, since they are often used interchangeably, as described in James A. Duke’s Handbook for Medicinal Herbs, Andrew Lockie’s Encyclopedia of Homeopathy, David Allen’s Medicinal Plants in Fold Tradition: And Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Guide.1Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281. 2Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164. 3Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.

Background

Stuber, Kurt. Sambuscus nigra flores. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Stuber, Kurt. Sambuscus nigra flores. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Black elder has been used for thousands of years, and its medicinal uses are best documented in Europe. The tree itself was strongly linked to folklore where magical powers were attributed to the tree, though we now know that parts of the plant have genuine therapeutic effects.2Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164. 3Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270. In Britain and Ireland, the black elder is rivaled by only a handful of herbs in its diversity and prominence of use.3Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.

Common Historical Uses

Colds and Respiratory Troubles

The boiled flowers and liquid from the berries were taken as a remedy for colds and coughs. The tea from the boiled flowers induced sweating, which was seen as an effective response to dry fevers.3Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270. 4USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf

Current uses in homeopathic medicine are indicated for people with asthma, respiratory problems, hoarseness, and mucus. It can be administrated as a liquid solution of the chopped flowers and leaves steeped in alcohol and rubbed gently on the chest or back.2Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164.

These medicinal uses are attributed to the analgesic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and expectorant effects of the elderflowers and berries.1Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281. The elderberry flowers contain the antioxidant flavonoids and rutin which help to boost immune function, together with the vitamin C contained in berries.

For colds and respiratory uses, 2 teaspoons of the flowers can be drunk in a cup of water several times of day, or 2-5g of dry flowers as a tea three times a day.1Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281.

Stomach Troubles

Lefterov, Edel Anton. Sambuscus Berries. 19 August 2007. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Lefterov, Edel Anton. Sambuscus Berries. 19 August 2007. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The flowers are the mildest part of the plant, and have been prepared as a tea to treat indigestion and diarrhea; some homeopaths still recommend elderflowers for this use.2Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164. Scientific studies attribute this use to tannins, powerful plant compounds, which are found in the flower.4USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf

The leaves and berries have laxative properties, which is why tea from the leaves or elderberry juice is helpful for people who are suffering from constipation.4USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf

Skin Ailments

Records from Britain and Ireland demonstrate the use of compresses or pastes made from the flowers or leaves for scalds, burns, sores, skins, and stings. The cooling or alleviating effect of compresses is likely due to the anti-inflammatory, analgesic and properties of the elder plant.1Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281. 3Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.

When tea from the flower is applied to the face, it can help to tone and soften the skin.4USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf

In Closing

The medicinal uses of the elderberries, elderflowers, and elder leaves are many. However, in this short article I have mentioned only those that are better documented. Note that only the purple and black berries are safe to eat; the red berries from a different variety of elder are known to be toxic.4USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf With the rise of western pharmacology, much of the ancient knowledge our human ancestors had about the use and application of medicinal plants has been pushed out and started to disappear. Luckily, herbalists, botanists, anthropologists, and homeopaths are beginning to recapture the knowledge of the use and application of medicinal herbs and berries, including the diverse uses of the elder plant.

1 Duke, James. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. (2002). CRC Press. 2nd. Ed. Pg 261, 267-68, 281.
2 Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164.
3 Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.
4 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf