Common Name: Elder
Botanical Name: Sambucus nigra spp.
Energetics: Cool, dry
Taste: Flower – Acrid, sweet . Berry – Sour, sweet, acrid, bitter
The Prequel: Faery Tales & Findings
In the beginning, in even the coldest forests of the North, grew a tree with so much power that her flowers could cure blindness and the healers of many peoples held her in the highest regard. A tree so sacred that her limbs couldn’t be gathered without permission and her body was never to be burned. In this tree was the conception of goddesses and stories. Her name is Hylde Mor, and she guards our forests still.
On one level it’s difficult to remember the first plant that piqued my interest in the herbs and healing, there were so many moments and plants that brought me to this place of dedication, adoration and communication with the plants — and on another, I remember the moment perfectly.
Much of my earliest reading was based in mythic fiction such as the Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis, George McDonald and Jane Yolen. There were also those worn clothbound books of fairy tales inherited from my mom and her siblings. The many, if vague, references to people healing with plants always triggered a great feeling of longing and familiarity.
I always had an affinity for the haunted, for tales fraught with mystery and the touch of the fae. Not Victorian cherubs bearing too perfect garden flowers, but rather the winsome, wild and edgy creatures that permeate the edges of the oldest forests. And the recesses of every child’s imagination.
The myriad variations on the myth of Hylde Mor, the Elder Mother, filled me with a great wistfulness. Her gentle healing ways combined with her demanding fierceness made her just the person I’d been looking for. At six, I began scouring books looking for more references to her curative powers and fairytale history. These stories are well told in recent herbal records, as can be found on this blog as well as in the books, blogs and classes of my fellow herbalists.
Next, came looking for the Elder herself. This quest became a constant wherever I lived, through all of our endless moving. At every new place, I scouted out the nearest incarnations of the Elder Mother. I was far too worshipful and tentative to actually try gathering any of her bounty back then, but her medicine was still strong for me. I loved the protective crowding of her limbs, and the enchanted veil of her flowers drooping over me, and then carpeting the ground. And whenever anyone showed up to a church meeting or pot luck dinner with a jar of Elderberry preserves or syrup it would very likely disappear into my pocket as I sneaked out the backdoor to enjoy my magical treasure in the tip top of a nearby tree. I also managed to indulge in a few too many pieces of Elderberry pie more than once, but I never minded the bellyache after such an amazing treat.
Even in the Canyon, I felt forlorn at first, looking and looking for one of my favorite friends and unable to find her. But you know how the plants are – a bit shifty and often requiring a bit of focus and a lot of respect. So I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised when one day while gathering Wild Rose petals I looked up to see a creamy clusters waving in the wind on a trail I’d taken dozens of times. I cried with the joy of it, especially to have the Wild Rose and the Elder as such close neighbors. I thought I might just take up residence in that very spot, sleeping between my best beloveds, and eating flower petals for all my meals.
Once upon that time, as a little lost girl I heard the Elder Mother’s song, a gentle lullaby for a lonely child hungry for the magic of the primal woods. In her embrace, at six years old, I allied myself for the first time with an ancient green being.
She seems to me –then and now– a wise woman of the First Forest, a teacher of the oldest ways of healing and wholeness. In her I found a role model and helpmate, and also the roots of the path I walk today. You won’t be surprised then, gentle reader, by the proliferation of Elder posts on my blog, site and in my books, or how I can’t quit talking about her in person. In her capacity to heal I found my own, and she remains one of my greatest personal symbols for the work I do as a mediator and matchmaker between human and plant, between the ancient and the now. She is protectress of children, keeper of mystery and an eternal bridge between faery and human worlds.
In those moments between dusk and dark, dream and daylight, I still hear her song.
She sits beneath the elder-tree
And sings her song so sweet,
And dreams o’er the burn that darksomely
Runs by her moonwhite feet.
Elder: The Matrix
Sambucus is a purveyor of integration, of reconnecting and rebalancing that which has been broken, separated or lost from its matrix. In the immune system, it has the ability to restore equilibrium. By modulating the high and low swings that this organ system can be prone to, it increases the efficiency of the whole body. It is remarkably safe for babies, for the elderly and infirm and even for those with serious auto-immune conditions. The fat purple berries are especially nourishing and suitable for use by just about any constitution.
If we define health as wholeness (and I do), then the process of healing is all about the relationship of the smaller elements to the whole and to each other. My practice of herbalism and the Medicine Woman Tradition centers around facilitating these relationships — acting, as jim mcdonald once succinctly put it, as a matchmaker. Between herb and human, body and mind all the other components that make up the song of life. As a healer, I am not responsible for fixing my clients. Instead, the focus is on nourishing the connections and communication within themselves and in their relationship to the whole. With its body wide effects, Elder reminds us that some of the most important healing happens slowly, in unsee-able yet deeply felt ways.
On a totally practical level, I have seen Elder do some truly remarkable things. Over and over again, I have watched or felt a cold/flu virus start to take root in a person and then with just a few doses of Elder, seen it all but forgotten in 24 hours. In clients, friends, students, family and myself I have observed this. Through trial and error, I’ve also discovered that boiled preparations such syrups simply do not pack the same punch as tinctures, teas, wines or honeys. I’m not saying that the syrups don’t work, but I have observed that they only work about half as well in general.
Unlike some other herbs, Elderberry and Elderflower seem to work really well even from dried plant preparations. Very little vitality seems to be lost to the dehydration process, and it also ages really well, with several year old berries working just fine. Flowers are a bit more delicate but I’ve had good luck with two to three year old flowers that were carefully harvested, dried and stored.
Although I have often focused primarily on Elder’s immunomodulating (and accompanying anti-viral) qualities, it’s medicinal range is huge and well known. It excels as a diaphoretic, especially in infants or small children with a previous history of febrile seizures and high fevers. Susun Weed has been quoted as saying that Elderflower essentially has the ability to reset the fever mechanism in the body when it has gone awry, and this certainly seems to be the case. I prefer the flowers for this use. I will use the hot tea in many cases, but even the tincture will work in a pinch, preferably given in warm to hot water for the best possible diaphoretic effect.
Infused oil of the flowers or leaves makes a wonderful salve or ointment for all kinds of wounds, as well as bruises, sprains and strains. I am of the opinion that it combines especially well with Alder and Rose for a very lovely and effective salve. Taken internally or internally, Elder will assist in the healthy movement of stagnating blood, thereby relieving pain, bruising and speeding up the healing process. And of course the berry the is packed with antioxidants which makes it useful for all around wound healing.
For ear infections without perforation, Elderberry Elixir (made with glycerine) can be very helpful when used as ear drops overnight and seems especially effective for swimmer’s ear. I’ve actually found it to be generally more useful than Mullein flower preparations, but it does depend on the situation.
Elder can be helpful when working with gout, and often seems to work best with Shepherd’s Purse and/or Nettles. It also helps to protect and tone the mucus membranes, lessening the chance of infection either beginning or settling in.
I’ve used Elderberry elixir several times now for various lung ailments, especially those associated with general weakness from smoking, steroids, asthma and other stressors. Where there is deficiency of the lungs and/or kidneys from lupus, I have observed Elderberry to be a useful addition to other, more primary herbs.
It can sometimes be quite helpful in helping with blood sugar modulation, which I have written about previously. It tends to work best in less severe cases and teams up well with adaptogens like Bear’s Claw (Oplopanax horridum, also known as Devil’s Club) or Ashwagandha.
As a nervine, Elderflower has the amazing capacity to assist in the healing of deep grief. It also opens our eyes to the magic of the world — gives us the ability to see a bit more of Faery, if you will. Part of its integrative properties is how it helps us to see what is missing in our perspective of the world, as Faery is prone to do, even if it is what we least expected.
While I have yet to test this next use, Matt Wood has written that:
“Elderberry juice or wine has long been used as a remedy for neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, and sciatica. Several European doctors tested elderberry juice and confirmed these traditional uses in clinical trials (Richard Lucas, 1982, 194).”
The sweet, safe herb has been valued as a food and medicine for millennia, and its healing powers continue to impact us after all these years, dependably nurturing us and bringing us back to the roots of wellness. I am endlessly humbled by my work with plants and the human body, and daily reminded of the miracles both are capable of. Every time healing is initiated, a bit of primal magic is given form, is remembered, is celebrated within the living organism of the earth.
The Pantry: Recipes and Remedies
Kiva’s Elderberry Elixir
Fresh or dried berries can be used with equally good results. For fresh berries, the simpler’s method can be employed by simply covering a jar full of fresh, lightly mashed berries with 2 parts alcohol to 1 part honey or glycerine (by volume). For dry, use a proportion of 1 part berries to 5 parts menstruum (by weight). I prefer a menstruum again, made up of about 2 parts alcohol to about 1 part honey or glycerine by volume.
To make it even simpler, just fill your jar about halfway with dried berries. Cover the berries completely with honey or glycerine, stirring to distribute. The fill the rest of the way with alcohol. Shake well. Macerate for 4-6 weeks (or possibly a year or two, if you’re anything like me).
Kiva’s Ultimate Elder Mother Elixir
If you want to get fancy, you can do something similar to my favorite version of the Elderberry Elixir. Measurements are approximate
1 cup Elderberries (dried)
1/2 cup Elderflowers (dried)
1/4 cup Rose hips (I prefer fresh but dried will do, if using dried use about 2 TB)
3 TB fresh Ginger or Wild Ginger
1 TB Orange peel (fresh grated or dried chunks)
pinch of Oshá (optional, dried or fresh)
small handful Wild Licorice (optional, dried or fresh, the licorice of commerce can be substituted)
Brandy (a dark rum or good whiskey can also work)
1 quart jar
Mix all herbs together and place in quart jar. Cover herbs with honey until fully saturated, then fill jar with brandy. Macerate for 4-6 weeks. Strain and use by the dropperful.
For best results, 1/2 – 1 dropperful every few hours should be used until cold/flu symptoms recede or disappear completely. And as I’ve said before, be sure to rest extra as well, the Elderberry has a much harder time with your immune system if you’re really worn down. A little extra sleep will increase its benefits tenfold.
Elderberry Honey & Honey Paste Pastilles
Simply cover mashed fresh berries with honey and let infuse for a month. Can be eaten by the spoon straight from the jar or strained and added to teas etc. You can also grind dried berries to a fine powder and then add enough honey to make a paste like consistency. The paste can be taken as is, or rolled into marble sized pastilles and the wrapped separately and stored in a cool, dry, airtight container.
appr 1/2 cup elderberries in a quart jar covered with just boiled water and left to steep overnight. Strain and enjoy. A couple of slices of fresh Ginger or a bit of grated orange peel thrown in before the water is added adds a lovely spicy flavor and a bit of wild honey is SO good in this. A very tasty winter beverage.