Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month
The elderberry is a plant steeped in folklore as a highly venerated plant with wide healing properties. In some traditions, it was considered unthinkable to cut down an elderberry tree. All sorts of tales and superstitions grew up around this medicinal plant. It can be found in the mythology of Scandinavia, Germany, Wales and England. It was a plant that was reputed to hold powers for both good and evil.
While there are some twenty-five species of elderberries, the three that we will be most concerned with as herbs are Sambucus nigra (also known as common elder or European elder), S. candensus (also known as sweet elder or eastern American elder) and S. caerulea (also known as blueberry elder or western blue elder). Sambucus ebulus (dwarf elder) was also once used medi-cinally, but seems no longer to be. I will concentrate my discussion on the common and sweet elders, primarily.
Sambucus candensus, native to our area, is a bush that grows to about twelve feet high. Its western and European cousins are small trees, reaching thirty feet. All three elders are hardy in zone 5. The leaves are serrated, opposite and pinnately compound. When crushed, the leaves smell pungent (as in “rank,” “foxy,” “stinking”) and can be used as an insect repellant. There are now a number of cultivars with variegated leaves (green and cream or green and yellow) and leaves of different colors (golden, chocolate, or golden with serrated leaves) which make them of great interest as landscaping specimens, alone or in groupings. The stems are pithy and easily hollowed out. In the past, they were used to make spiles to tap sugar maple trees, as well as syringes, toy blowguns and whistles. Flowers, which bloom mid-summer, are small, creamy-white, star-shaped and scented, and are arranged in a large flat head. (The chocolate-leaved cultivar has light pink flowers.) The berries are dark purple to black (or blue in the case of the western species) and ripen in the fall (late August/September) if the birds don’t get them first!
Since elderberries are prone to suckering, they are better left to large gardens. They are not plants for small spaces, although one source said they could be easily pruned to size for smaller settings. I suspect the cultivars may sucker less vigorously than the natives. With pruning, you risk losing flowers and fruit, since flowering occurs on old wood. Elderberries will grow in full sun but also do well in dappled shade. The golden-leaved varieties actually need afternoon shade or they become sun-scorched. Elderberries prefer moist soils, but tolerate dry soils. They are not otherwise particular about soil type. The richer and moister the soil, the more they will sucker. They are fairly care-free. They don’t need pruning, though a hard pruning will encourage vigorous growth. They can be propagated from suckers quite easily. Cuttings can also be taken from either tip (spring) or hardwood (winter). They can also be grown from seed sown in the spring. The only pest problem is associated with cultivars of S. nigra. In hot weather, aphids and spider mites may become a problem. They can be sprayed with water or insecticidal soap.
All parts of the plant (leaves, bark, root, flowers and berries) have been used medicinally. However, the leaves, bark and root contain cyanogenic glucosides which release cyanide, as well as a cathartic (laxative) and should not be used, despite their history of past use. The leaves, stems, bark and roots are all purgatives and, if taken internally, will cause severe diarrhea. For years, children used elder whistles and blowguns. And for years children got sick from putting them in their mouths. Now we understand why. Perhaps this is why elderberry because associated with both good and evil in folklore. It had healing properties, but it also could do harm if used unwisely.
Today, medicinal uses are largely restricted to the flowers and berries, and they are used primarily for the treatment of coughs, colds and flu. The herb’s primary action is that it causes sweating and increases bronchial secretions. An infusion of the flowers, whether fresh or dried, taken as a tea produces sweating that helps reduce fever. It is claimed that if taken with other herbs for some months before hay fever season, it can reduce the severity of the attacks. Hot compresses of mashed flowers were used in times past for hemorrhoid relief. Dried elder-flower water was used traditionally for sores, blisters, hemorrhoids, rheumatism and arthritis. A salve made from mashed flowers and lard was used by veterinarians to keep flies and fleas away from animals. (Ladies also used this as a face cream!) The tea is a mild laxative and is said to be a blood purifier.
The berries are rich in vitamins C and A. Israeli research has shown promise for elder-berry extract in treating flu. The berries have been used for rheumatism, rheumatic gout, scro-fula, syphilis and a skin infection called erysiipelas. They are a diaphoretic (induce sweating), mildly laxative, a gentle purgative, a diuretic and are “cooling.” At one time it was believed that port wine adulterated with elderberry wine was a useful treatment for rheumatism.
In the past, the bark was used for inflammations and epilepsy and as a laxative. It was also used as a purgative, emetic and diuretic. Bark tea was used for toothaches, colds, and to clear the lungs of phlegm during pneumonia. The leaves were made into a poultice for headaches, bruises, sprains, fractures, muscle spasms and to stop bleeding. They could be made into an ointment to soothe various skin complaints. A tea was made from young leaves and used as a diuretic. The leaves also are a laxative. A leaf-flower decoction was used in open wounds to ward off maggots. Roots were used for lymphatic and kidney ailments, fractures and muscle spasms. Sambucus ebulus has been used homeopathically for dropsy. It is a mild diuretic. The bark and flowers are a purgative. The berries are as well, but are dangerously purgative. Let me emphasize my earlier point by saying: DO NOT INGEST the leaves, bark, or roots of Sam-bucus ebulus. Consider them poisonous.
In the kitchen, the flower and berries of the elder can be used in a variety of ways. Both can be made into wines. Likewise, there are recipes for both elder-flower and elderberry jellies and jams. The berries can also be made into cordials, syrups, chutney or pies. They are also used as the flavoring for the liqueur Sambuca. Elder-flowers can be dipped into batter and be made into fritters. The flowers can be added to drinks and fruit dishes. They can also be dried and used as tea, either by themselves or in blends. The flowers can be harvested when all the flowers on the flower head have bloomed. A word of caution on the berries: Use only fully ripe berries and eat only cooked berries. Also eat only the berries of S. canadensis, S. nigra, or S. caerulea. Never eat red-berried varieties such as S. pubens or S. racemosa. They are either poison-ous or very bitter.
In the world of cosmetics, the use of elder-flower dates back to the time of ancient Egypt. For centuries, elder-flower water has been used as a soothing wash or skin toner. It has been used to relieve sunburn and it was at one time thought to help against such womanly distresses as freckles. Elder-flowers have been used in under-eye gel and lotion preparations. They are a nice addition to bath water as well.
Elderberry can also be used as a dye plant. The berries can give a blue, blue-gray or violet color, depending on the mordant used with them. The leaves produce a soft or deep yellow or a green dye and the bark and root produce a gray or black dye.
Thanks to Carolyn Vance for this report on elderberry, which she had pre-pared to give at our December meeting. Her sources were Herb Companion Dec. 98-Jan. 99, Fine Gardening Feb. 98, Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, The Rodale Herb Book, The Herbal Grove by Mary Forsell, The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier, PDR for Herbal Medicines first edition, A Grower’s Guide to Herbs byGeoffrey Burnie and John Fenton-Smith, Guide to Indian Herbs by Raymond Stark, The Wild Berry Book by Katie Letcher Lyle, The Great Lakes Berry Book by Bob Krumm and The Herb Book by Arabella Boxer and Philippa Back.
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