Elder (Sambucus nigra)
- Medicinal uses
- Recipes & preparations
The elder tree is enshrined in mystery and lore. It is a truly magically-associated plant with a plethora of medicinal uses. The elder has been used traditionally for hundreds if not thousands of years and is has always been held in high esteem by those who know of its power. Many European people throughout history believed that this tree was inhabited by the 'Elder Mo'er' or mother. She was considered the spirit of the tree that provided much useful medicine and food and so needed respect. Within folklore it was also believed you would be gifted with the sight of the fairies if you stood under the elder at midnight at either midsummer or on St. John's day - if you try it, let us know what you find!
During the middle ages it was also believed that this goddess living inside the elder tree had the power to decide your luck, happiness and health, therefore elder wood could not be cut or burned. Doing so would release the goddess and she would take her fortune with her. This has an interesting storytelling link - it is in fact not good to burn elder as it releases noxious fumes due to the content of cyanogenic glycosides. This means food cooked over a campfire of elder will be bad to eat, and if you lived in a small house with smokey rooms and poor ventilation, this may have been the last thing you did - hence its move into a legend of bad luck.
Elder was held in such esteem by pagans that the Christians vilified its name with negative associations. It was thus said to be the tree on which Christ was crucified and Judas hung himself from.
The elder tree was held in such high esteem, that in 1644, a book detailing hundreds of recipes 'The anatomie of the elder' was published. Many of them are no longer in use, based on the strong purgative and emetic effects of the leaves and bark. However, though the use of these parts of the tree have been neglected, herbalist Stephen Buhner advocates their use (through careful processing and dosage) as effective anti-virals against colds and influenza and it is now look to having a revival in popularity.
Medicinal Uses of Elder
However, despite putting aside all these less favourable medicines, the elder is still a medicine cabinet in its own right. It provides a wealth of remedies throughout the year as its yearly cycle completes:
The leaves are some of the first of the trees to appear after winter and are used in ointments for bruising, sore muscles and chilblains. When applied topically, they appear to break down bruises and work as an anodyne or relaxant to relieve pain. They are not used internally, only externally due to their content of toxic cyanogenic glycosides including sambunigrin.
In the spring the elder supplies us with its flowers, these are high in flavonoids (especially rutin and isoquercitrin) which are used for their anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy effects, specifically working on the upper respiratory tract and sinuses. elderflower soothes inflamed tissues in the sinuses and dries up secretions and excess mucus. This makes elderflower a great remedy for sinusitis, colds and allergies.
Elderflower combined with nettle is an excellent remedy for hay fever (just in time for hay fever season!).
The infusion of flowers are also used as a febrifuge to bring down a fever.
Topically, an infusion or distilled water made from elderflower was used to make the skin fair and remove freckles and sun spots. We find it a really effective face wash for reducing redness and evening out skin tone. It is said to lighten skin, so those with darker skin should use with caution, and if you do use it let us know how it works!
In the autumn we are rewarded with the beautiful purple-black berries. These are high in flavonoids and anti-oxidants and also contain vitamin A and C. They work as a great anti-viral, helping protect the whole family form colds and flu in the winter months. They also act as an immune booster, keeping the immune system healthy and ready to fight off infection.
They can cause nausea in some people when raw so they are best used processed (such as cooking or tincturing) and removing the seeds.
It’s no coincidence that this plant offers us the actions we need most seasonally. Its nature’s way of keeping us healthy.
Leaves – Leaves appear in early spring and are best harvested in April before the flowers appear but can be harvested up until autumn. If using them to make an infused oil, pick the leaves on a dry and sunny day as excess moisture can turn the oil rancid.
Flowers - Do they smell of elderflower cordial? yes? Then they are probably elderflower. If not, they may be Rowan or some other flower. Harvest the flowers on a dry and sunny day (May-June) by clipping off the entire umbel. Pick them when they are in full bloom but before any begin to turn brown. Gather in a metal pot rather than a bag to preserve as much of the scented, yeast filled pollen as possible.
Berries – Pick in late summer, when ripe, juicy, soft to the touch and the whole cluster head is purple.
Leaves – allow the leaves to dry slightly before steeping in oil and roughly chop them or pound slightly to release the constituents from the cell walls. (External use only)
Flowers – Pick the flowers off of the stems (as the stems contain a toxic alkaloid which can cause stomach upsets) you can do this by hand or use the prongs of a fork. The flowers are easier to remove from the stalks when they are left to sit for a few hours before processing.
Berries – Remove from stalks in the same way as flowers. - a fork is your best friend here.
Leaves – Made into infused oil and balms for muscle aches and bruising.
Flowers – Fresh or dried for tea, made into cordial, champagne, distilled for external use, tincture for hay-fever, colds, antiviral.
Berries - Can be made into jams, syrups, vinegars and tinctures for antiviral properties for cold & 'flu or a tasty spread!
Recipes (click on link)