Into the Forest: Exploring Elderberry
Botanical name: Sambucus spp. (of the blue and black berried varieties, I of course prefer our wild Gila native S. neomexicana and S. mexicana)
Common name: Elder, Hylde Mor, The Elder Mother
Energetics: Berry – Neutral. Flower – Cool, Dry
Taste: Berry – sour, sweet, bitter. Flower – acrid, sweet
Pictured above are some of the lovely, luscious and terribly tasty Elderberries Wolf and I chanced upon a few days ago while exploring some nearby high mountains. While I was looking for Osha I realized the entire mountain valley was absolutely covered in Elder trees and many had berries still drooping from their branches. I can’t wait to return next year to gather flowers as well! Of course, the trees just happen to be surrounded by thousands of Raspberry, Gooseberry and Wild Rose bushes, which makes harvesting a rather prickly challenge. Just think of next May though… The idea of that many Elders and Roses all in bloom at once is just about enough to make me do a little dance of joy and anticipation.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for any time at all will have likely noticed my inordinate fondness for Elderberry. While my fascination with this herb goes back to my early childhood, it’s only been in the last four years that I’ve really begun to understand the depth and complexity of its medicine. 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.
I hope you enjoy these recipes and I’ve also provided some links to previous Elderberry posts I’ve done at the very bottom.
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)
- Raw honey
- 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.