Latin: Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra
(NOT S. racemosa- poisonous!)
Common names: elder, elderberry, black elder
berry- cool, dry
flower- hot (secondary-cool), dry
berry- nutritive, antiviral, immunomodulator
flower- stimulating diaphoretic, antiviral
Taste: berry- sweet, sour. flower- sweet, sour, slightly acrid.
Degree of action: 2nd & 3rd
Tissue states: berry- irritation, constriction, atrophy. flower- irritation, constriction, depression.
Key uses: shortening length and severity of flu, fever
History and folklore: Among the ancient Celts, Germanic, and Norse peoples, elder was considered a “medicine chest” plant, because it is suited to remedy a wide array of afflictions. It was common to find at least one elder in the garden of every home for this reason. Elder was so well respected as a medicine plant, that it earned a place in the folklore of many cultures. The Celts made flutes of elder wood to communicate with souls of the dead, and believed that all the spirits of the forest dwelled in the wood. The spirit of the wise woman who is said to inhabit the elder is an emissary from the underworld, ushering humans and elves alike into and out of fairy realms and dreamworlds. The Danes believed that whoever stood under the protective veil of her boughs on Midsummer’s Eve would be granted a visit from the king of the fae folk. Famous Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, spun a beautiful tale of the Elder Tree Mother. The Elder Mother (Hylde Mor, Frau Holle) commanded such a profound respect, that none would dare gather her gifts without first seeking permission from the dryad herself, which she gave by way of her silence. The Pennsylvania Dutch believe that an elder planted by the main entrance of a home offers protection from malicious spirits. Folk medicine also documents elderflower to be a remedy for diabetes. Native Americans valued Sambucus for treating fevers and rheumatism. It was (and should still be) common practice to make offering to the Elder Mother in gratitude for her lush and abundant medicine.
Clinical uses: The berries make one of the most delicious immune tonics, gentle and safe enough for children and the elderly. Elderberries are commonly used as an antiviral and for immune support in the treatment of flus and other respiratory infections, either at the onset to prevent the virus from taking hold, or to shorten the length of an infection. Double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have shown that elderberry given at the onset of an infection reduced and often eliminated symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches, and nasal congestion. Elderberries have been proven effective against 8 different strains of influenza, including H1N1. This is due to the berries’ high content of flavonoids (anthocyanins) and their ability to keep a virus from replicating. The juice of the berries is also used to build the blood in cases of anemia. Matthew Wood uses it to “open all the tubes of the body”, and refers to its hollow stems as the signature for this use.
The fresh flowers are a stimulating diaphoretic (taken hot), used to bring blood to the surface and stimulate a sweat in people with poor peripheral circulation, and to help sweat out a fever.
The leaves, although not used as frequently as the berries and flowers, also have their place in medicine. Freshly bruised leaves are used as a poultice to disperse the heat of boils and clear bruises. A decoction of the leaves sprayed in the garden can dispel and kill aphids.
Internally, the bark is known to be semi-toxic and a strong purgative. Culpeper stated that the bark scraped up was an emetic, bark scraped down is cathartic. However, the Pennsylvania Dutch fry the green inner bark in animal fat for a healing salve.
Studies: Quite often, “cold and flu” get lumped together. Despite their symptom overlap, they are caused by different viruses. In relation to the common cold (of which rhinovirus is the most common culprit), there are no clinical studies to prove the effectiveness of Sambucus. However, the German Commission E reports that constituents of Sambucus have provided relief for symptoms of colds, fevers, and catarrh. From a scientific standpoint, claims of elderberry’s effect on the common cold are considered to be purely anecdotal, traditional use notwithstanding.
A randomized, placebo-controlled study shows that a standardized preparation, Sambucol (30%-38% elderberry), shortens the length of influenza A in a dose of 15ml, 4x/day.
The vast majority of studies done with elderberry use standardized extracts with other ingredients (such as echinacea or zinc). Not many studies exist on the efficacy of non-commercial, unadulterated elderberry extracts on flu viruses. This 2012 in vitro and in vivo study using mice shows pure elderberry juice to inhibit replication and adhesion of the influenza A virus, and is the first report on the bioactivity of elderberry by itself. The study concludes that pure elderberry juice stimulates immune response, thereby preventing infection of the influenza A virus in mice.
A 2006 in vitro study on the anti-inflammatory actions of elderflower prepared as an infusion in cases of periodontitis:
This 2000 in vitro study explores the possibility of elderflower being used as an adjunct treatment for type 2 diabetes. The results of this study conclude that elderflower stimulates glucose metabolism in muscle cells and insulin secretion by the
Chemical constituents: The anti-inflammatory action of elderberry are due to its
flavonoids (anthocyanins, quercetins), and their ability to prohibit viruses from replicating. The flowers are rich in phenolic compounds and have an antioxidant effect.
Warnings and contraindications: The seeds contain a compound that can cause upset stomach, but is destroyed when cooked. The bark is semi-toxic, and can prove to be too powerful an emetic to be safe for clinical use.
Dosages: For a stimulating diaphoretic tea, infuse 3-4 grams fresh or dried flowers in 150ml hot water, sipped several times throughout the day.
The berries are most often prepared as a syrup and taken 1-2 TB at a time, several times throughout the day at the onset of a cold or flu for a duration of 3 days.
A simple elderberry syrup recipe:
*With a grateful heart, gather fully ripe umbels of berries and clean them from the stems
*Wash berries in a colander and put them in a large pot
*Add enough water so they just float up off the bottom of the pot
*Cook the berries until they’re heated through and start to pop
*Let berries cool and strain through a flour sack towel or jelly bag, squeezing every bit of juice out (return the skins and seeds to the Earth, not in the trash!)
*Add an equal amount of honey to the juice, and store your syrup in the fridge in a tightly lidded jar. It will keep for months.
*Optional- add the juice back to the pot (before you add the honey) and simmer with warming herbs like cloves, cinnamon, ginger, or cardamom.