Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Elder: Sambucus canadensis

This is a post I wrote for my other blog, The Zahn Zone, last winter. It is almost time to harvest Elderberries in Minnesota (in September) and it may be even closer for you, so I thought I'd post it on this site for your "reading pleasure".

Reprinted from February 2, 2008:

George has been sick with a terrible cold this week. Due to having no voice, he actually missed three days of school, a record for him. Last night as he lay in bed, keeping us both awake with his coughing, I thought of my elderberry cordial. Fortunately, he was thinking the same thing as he went downstairs at about 12:30 a.m. to drink some. It definitely calmed his cough and we both slept better after that. (Okay, it also helped that he slept on the couch for the next four hours…he did say his cough calmed down, though.)

Elder (Sambucus canadensis here in N. America; S. nigra in Europe) is my favorite herbal remedy, and one of my favorite plants ever. The Elder tree or bush grows wild all over Minnesota, on our farmlands near damp places, along roadsides and on the edges of woods. I’ve also seen it near my in-laws’ place on the Ware River in the Tidewater region of Virginia--a damp, low place very different from Minnesota but still providing the conditions just right for wild Elder.

You can buy Elder bushes at the nursery, too, and they’ll grow well in most yards. I have planted two (for pollination you need at least two) in the corner of my front yard, on our city lot, and they’re growing beautifully. My herb teacher, Matthew Wood, in his Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, writes that “planting an elder in the corner of an herb garden is considered to be beneficial to the medicinal plants growing there because the Elder serves as a sort of tutelary spirit to the herbs”. So of course, I decided to plant a couple near my garden!
I have two favorite things I love about Elder: one, it is steeped in legend and lore, something that thrills me in general and two, it is hands-down the best remedy for coughs, colds, flus, fevers, digestive upsets, colic, and more.

Matt Wood writes: “In northern Europe the Elder was associated with a powerful female being called the Elder Mother…It was considered a potentially fatal mistake to pick the plant without making an offering. The most common practice was to ask for some of the plant in exchange for notifying the Elder Mother that one‘s body would eventually be returned to the earth. In England, Elder wood crosses were placed on the new grave in hopes that it would bring the departed person peace.” (ibid.)

Elder was considered a door to the Underworld. It is featured in many fairy tales. “When Christianity appeared, Elder came to be associated with Jesus…After his crucifixion, Jesus went down into the Underworld to free the souls of the dead…The Elder, as tree-doorway to that realm was a natural addition when the story of Jesus reached Europe.” (ibid.)

Elder branches are tubular and tubular plants suggest open communication, even with other worlds. I always think of Elder as a “tubular remedy”, meaning it clears out the tubes of the body whether respiratory, digestive, circulatory, etc.

One of my Elder bushes in flower, in mid-July.
Everything is a bit late this year (2008) so their
flowering and berrying may be later than usual.

Elder flower tea is my first line of defense when we have a fever. The flowers made into a tea are good for sweating out a fever, and when I’ve drunk it I’ve experienced instant relief and a shortened duration to my fever. I can actually feel my skin “sweating” a bit, and tingling. I’ve had similar luck giving it to my kids. One teaspoon of dried flowers to one cup of boiling water, covered and steeped ten minutes, strained then sweetened with honey, is really tasty too. If my daughter will drink it, anyone can! You can buy dried flowers at any co-op or herb shop, which is what I do because I prefer to let my elder flowers turn into berries on my still-small plants.
Here is my Elder today, August 4. The berries are still green. In a month or so they'll be blackish-purple and drooping luxuriously from their branches. The flowers and berries form an "umbrel-type" flower, like an umbrella. Note the reddish-purple stems. When the berries are ripe, the umbrel part will just "pop off" the larger stem/branch at your touch.

The berries are super-nutritious. They’re not very sweet when fresh, but you can dry them for a sweeter flavor and put them in your cereal all winter. You can also make jam, chutney or cordial with them. I make an herbal tincture of them steeped with brandy or vodka for six weeks, then give my family members a dropper-full at the first sign of any illness. Some people take the a dropper-full of tincture every day during the winter. You can certainly buy the tincture at a health food store, too, and use that. I recommend everyone keep some Elderberry tincture in their home; it is more useful and better than the popular Echinacea, as I was taught by my herb teachers, and in my own experience as an herbalist. When the bird flu hits, this is one remedy you’ll want to use!

My husband in particular loves the Elderberry Cordial I made a couple of years ago. He’ll drink a shot glass full at night whenever he has a cold or flu. Here is the recipe:

4 c. fresh elderberries
2 c. sugar
1 t. lemon zest
2 T. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 c. water
3 c. 100 proof vodka (I think I used 80 proof)

Crush elderberries and sugar together in a bowl. Let stand for about an hour. Add lemon zest and lemon juice. Transfer to clean 2-quart container and add water and vodka. Cover and let stand in a cool dark place for one month, shaking occasionally.

Use a fine-mesh strainer to strain out the solids. Discard into your compost (and please do compost any herbal “waste”; find a way to return it to the earth and the plant will be happier to help you out). Transfer liqueur to a clean container. Cover and age for at least one month before serving. Yields about 1½ quarts.

This recipe came from my teacher, Lise Wolff, RH AHG, who got it from Cordials From Your Kitchen by P. Vargas and R. Gulling.

There are many other recipes out there using Elderberry. You can make an Elderberry Syrup which would be better for your children. Herbalists like Rosemary Gladstar have wonderful recipes for this.

I am so grateful to the Elder Mother plant for her contributions to my family’s health. If you’re interested in natural, herbal remedies, I can’t recommend this plant highly enough. Find some in the wild if you’re lucky, or plant your own as I have. And always give thanks for nature’s gifts!


Christy said...

I can't tell you how much I'm loving this blog! I've been wanting to get into making herbal remedies for years but it seems so overwhelming. Your blog makes it seem much easier as you are slowly introducing us to herbs. I will definitely be putting elder into my herb garden after we move.

Anonymous said...

i might just use the next someone gets sick.

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Jess said...

Sorry, I just had to do it ;) I LOVE your herbal blog page. I think this is indeed a lost art and should be applauded!!! You have been nominated on my site...again ;) Love your blog, love you!!!

Anonymous said...


I just wanted to say a big thank you! I've been reading along and making something each time you put up a new post: I now have yarrow oil, plantain oil, and elderberry tincture in the works. I'm eager for the next one, but I'm glad you're going slowly enough that I can keep up! :-) Lise

LisaZ said...

Thanks for your comments! Lise, you're right that I'm going slow. I'll explain in a post...

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! A neighbor has elderberries and has offered to let me collect the berries. I think I will try your cordial recipe!


Anonymous said...

is your elderberry "super duper tonic" your tincture of elderberries steeped in brandy or vodka?

thanking you in advance,

LisaZ said...

Susie, yes you can just steep elderberries in brandy or vodka (80proof or higher alcohol). Steep 6 weeks and then decant, squeezing out the berries through cheesecloth to get all their good juice. Compost the berry "matter" and use anywhere from 2-10 drops of the tincture, 2x a day when needed or during cold/flu season.

You could also try the elderberry cordial as an alternative to tincture. My husband loves to drink a shot of that at night when he's got a cold.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so very Lisa for getting back to me so quickly. I'll be buying either brandy or vodka tonight to start this as my berries are ready and waiting. Do you by any chance make an elixir/cough syrup?

Enjoy today,

LisaZ said...

Susie, I have not yet made an elderberry syrup. However, I'll post an easy recipe in the next day or two. You could also google it. It should just involve some strong elderberry "tea" and sweetener such as honey, cooked down till syrup-y and stored in the fridge. I have herbalist friends who love this stuff--just haven't felt the need to make some for myself yet since I just give my family tincture when we need it. Tincture tastes good too. More later!

Anonymous said...

hi, some of what i've read says use only s.nigra. do you know about that? thanks