Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subspecies caerulea) is a tall shrub with beautiful lacy clusters of tiny white flowers that look like snowflakes. This fascinating medicinal and edible wild plant grows in North America, Europe, western Asia, and North Africa[i]. We have two species of elder in the western U.S.: blue and red. The red elder (Sambucus racemosa) is not customarily used and is said to be poisonous, although I know a very wise old herbalist who makes jam and medicine of the red berries without any ill effect. That said, it is not recommended to use the red Elderberry for food or medicine. The focus of this article is limited to the blue Elderberry.
Throughout history, there are few plants more revered than the Elderberry tree with its rich mythology and longstanding use as a food and medicine. For the animists of old Europe the elder was magical and enchanted. The European mythology tells us that trees were guarded by a dryad named the Hylde Moer or Elder Mother[iii] and should the tree be cut or burned, this tree nymph would haunt the perpetrators with misfortune and, as was believed in Romania, a toothache[iv]. The Elder Mother also reigns as Queen of the Underworld, an alternate dimension of Earth, where the spirits and fairies dwell. Because Elders were associated with fairies, leaving a baby to sleep under an elder tree could result in the child being stolen by fairies and replaced with a changeling afflicted with unexplained disorders. It was also told that those who stood under an elder tree on the mid-summer night could witness a procession of the king of the fairy land and his entourage.[v]
Elder is not just relegated to ancient folklore, in the not so ancient mythology of Harry Potter the Elder Wand is said to be the most powerful wand that has ever existed. It is able to perform feats of magic that would normally be considered impossible such as mending another wand damaged beyond normal magical repair. The wand is said to be worthy only of a wizard who had conquered death. [vi]
Elder stems are filled with pith and hollow out easily. The hollowed stems were used by Native Californian tribes and old Europeans alike to fashion instruments such as clappers, flutes, whistles and pipes. [vii] Most of the literature states that the common name “Elder” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “ellen,” meaning fire-kindler because Elder’s tube-like stems were blown into, coaxing warm flames from the embers in the hearths of the Old Country. However, Master Herbalist Matthew Wood posits that the name elder comes from the Icelandic word huldafolk meaning hidden people or fairies.[viii]
By any name, elder is an excellent medicine. By the time of the renown ancient naturalist Pliny (77 C.E.), the medicinal properties were well known and documented[ix]. So great were the curative powers of the elder that it was called “the medicine chest of the country people”.[x] Elder is an excellent fever reducer and back in the days when fever was a major killer, elder was a major medicine. It has been said that King Charlemagne directed all newlyweds to plant an elder tree in their yard as his form of Obama care.
Contemporary science has confirmed the age old use of this ancient medicine. Elderberry extract has been proven effective against ten strains of influenza. Studies show that the bioflavonoids in Elderberry inhibit viruses from attaching to cells, increase the immune response to viruses, and reduce healing time from the flu by half. [xi] Elderberry also has significant antioxidant properties and may help prevent damage to the body’s cells, lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system and improve heart health. In fact, Elderberry outranks blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, and blackberries in terms of total flavonol content[xii].The lacy flowers of the elder are also useful in treating diabetes; research has shown that extracts of Elderflower stimulate glucose metabolism and the secretion of insulin, lowering blood sugar levels.[xiii]
While Elderberry syrup is readily available from most natural food stores, I recommend ethically gathering some berries in late summer and making your very own syrup (see below for syrup recipe) Homemade elderberry syrup makes excellent gifts especially during the winter holiday and cold season. The syrup is also good on pancakes and your kids won’t mind taking their medicine. In addition to healing colds and flues, the act of respectfully gathering your own medicines and building a real relationship with the living nature around you is empowering and weaves you deeper in in the web of life.
And, what a web the elder weaves by joining the winged and web-footed, the finned and furry, the scaled and the slimy. Elder shrubs connect the ground level stream banks to the taller riparian trees in a vibrant vertical display of textures and strata rich in sustenance and habitat for different members of our animal society. This diversity of vertical homes is a popular spot for wild lives. It is quite democratic, this Elderberry thicket. Deer browse the elder foliage, while a colorful palette of our avian allies love the berries including the Western Bluebird, the Red-Shafted Flicker, the Ashthroated Flycatcher, the Black Headed Grosbeak, White-Crowned Sparrow, and the Ruby Crowned Kinglet among others.[xiv] Streambank elders also take good care of fish: their shade cools the water while their roots knit soil in place to keep the water running clear.
Elder is not just a great food for wildlife it is also fantastic food for humans. The tiny flower clusters are delicious and beautiful in fritters. The flowers can be easily made into a lovely Elderflower syrup that when added to gin and bubbly water is a perfect summer drink. The superfood berries can be used like blueberries in baked goods but should never be eaten raw. And one could write a whole book on Elderberry wine…
So many of us long to live healthier lives in deeper connection with nature; this is why some of us choose to live in in the Pacific West. As the elder illustrates, nature heals us, she feeds us, and she fills our minds with wonder and story. One excellent way to transform your local habitat into your true home is develop relationships with the plants and creatures who live around you: Learn their names, their stories, medicines and who eats them. Follow whatever golden thread that ignites your wonder for the natural world. Just maybe, this grand adventure can begin with learning to love our Elders.
How to Make Elderberry Syrup:
The best way to make homemade healing elderberry syrup is to gather your own berries. I suggest you make an offering of tobacco or cornmeal and ask the Elder for its medicine. Sit quietly and wait to see if you get an answer. It is during this quiet time with the tree that you begin to build your healing relationship with the elder.
You might ask, how do I know if permission is granted? Sometimes you just don’t. However, after enough practice you might find that you feel an indescribable connection with the plant that lets you know if you should gather. This practice helps to build your relationship with nature and your intuition, which are essentially the same thing. Intuition is really just connecting to the deep nature within us. Anyhow, once you gather your berries it’s time to make syrup.
The secret to making great elderberry syrup is to make a very concentrated tea and then add a good amount of honey to the concentrate to preserve it.
Four cups fresh elderberries
(If you want to use dried berries, use four cups of water for every one cup of berries)
Four cups water
One stick cinnamon or (optional)
1.5 cups honey
Put elderberries and water in a pot and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 60-90 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half.
Strain the berries from the liquid and compost them. (I try to put the berries back on the Earth and thank them for the medicine. Ideally I offer them back to the tree.)
Measure the concentrated elder tea. You should have about 2 cups.
Add 1.5 cups of honey depending on how thick and sweet you want your syrup. The higher the amount of honey the less likely it is that your syrup will mold.
After adding the honey, cook on very low heat for an hour or so or until you have about 2.75 cups of syrup.
Remove from heat and let cool. If desired, you can add a 1/8 or ¼ cup of brandy to the syrup to extend shelf life.
Pour into bottles and label well. The syrup will keep in the fridge for a year or so depending on how much honey and brandy you have added.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Fill in ; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
[i] Sambucus Nigra, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens online at http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/sambucus-nigra-elder
[iii] The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines by Matthew Wood
[iv] Elder in Profile by Kat Morgenstern online at http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/elder.php
[v] A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html
[vii] California Indians and Their Environment by Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish.
[viii] Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
[ix] Essential Facts for Elderberry by Herb Society of America online at https://www.herbsociety.org/herbs/documents/HSAElderberryFactsheet.pdf
[x] A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html
[xi] The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines European Cytokine Network. Volume 12, Number 2, 290-6, June 2001, Recherches
[xii] Elderberry, University of Maryland Medical Center online at http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/elderberry
[xiv] Plant Guide for Common Elderberry, United States Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Sciences, National Plant Data Center online at https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf