Elder Sambucus spp.
When you come across an Elder in the wild, it is difficult to tell if it is a tree or a bush. Its leggy, hollow branches bend and sway, sporting delicate sprays of flowers in early spring and laden with heavy clusters of fruit by fall (A bush! you’d think). Yet in maturity it towers over you with a rather commanding presence (A tree, perhaps?). In the literature and folklore discussing Elders, both terms are used. Though I can’t imagine that Elder actually prefers one to the other, I find ‘tree’ to be a little more flattering, and I will explain shortly why I strive to be polite in my dealings with this particular plant.
Elders grow all over the world and have been used medicinally for thousands of years. In Medieval times, nearly every part of the Elder tree was used for different medicinal properties (bark, leaf, flower, berries)*. Perhaps because of this prodigious usefulness, clever Elder devised an ingenious strategy for protecting itself. There is a persistent superstition throughout Europe and the British Isles that something terrible will befall you if you disrespect an Elder tree. Where did this idea spring from? I am not pointing fingers, but only the Elder tree itself stands to gain. This dark glamour is still effectively protecting Elders from abuse in the Old Country, where reportedly even loggers refuse to cut them down. (Well played, Elder!)
Though I feel I’m on good terms with all the plants I pick, this is clearly not one to be trifled with. I take great pains to gather the powder blue berries of our native Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) in late summer, snipping each cluster very precisely, so as not to snap one of the hollow supporting stems (and possibly become cursed). Note: The Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), native to Western Washington is not edible or medicinal (but still magical).
Elders command respect, and like another of my slightly standoffish plant friends, Stinging Nettle, they have earned it. We need their medicine. Throughout our long history with Sambucus, it has evolved a unique set of chemicals that allow it to be as wicked as it wants and we’ll forgive. You see, Elder is a foe to the dreaded flu.
This is how it seems to go- chemicals in Elderberry disarm the spikes on viruses that allow the influenza virus to stab into your cell and inject it with viral babies. (If you aren’t scared of the flu yet, do a little research on viral infections and replication–it’s terrifying!) Anyway, Elder just snaps that little viral arm right off and it can’t do its evil viral business in your cells anymore! (It‘s a little more complicated than I am making it seem, it’s more of an enzymatically mediated arm breaking than a literal one). Researchers have recently discovered that taking the syrup of Elderberry reduces the duration of the flu to just 3-4 days in most cases and promotes increased levels of antibody production. It has been shown in in-vitro studies to be effective at inhibiting ten different strains of the influenza virus! I have made an Elder syrup that combines the immunostimulating, viral arm-disabling, antibody-boosting properties of Elderberry with the gentle but powerful diaphoretic** effects of the Elder flower. Here at the Radicle lab, I make a Black Elderberry glycerite (Sambucus nigra) and a Blue Elderberry tincture (Sambucus cerulea) and they both taste lovely (Thanks, Elder!). With flu season in full swing, I recommend stocking your medicine cabinet full of fine preparations such as these. Most of us have lowered resistance this time of year after battling some of the more common viruses, and that’s when the dastardly flu attacks. This season- Fight Back with Elderberries!
*A word of caution: Though the medicinal properties of Elder leaf, root and bark are espoused in many ancient texts, I cannot recommend taking them internally for any reason. These plant structures contain tricky compounds that are violent purgatives, laxatives and emetics. There have even been cases of poisoning from the leaves and stems due to the presence of active cyanide-like compounds. Only the flowers and blue or black berries from a properly identified Elder plant are safe to ingest.
**A diaphoretic is a substance that reduces fever by causing you to sweat. While the standard practice is to suppress a fever, herbalists tend to support the process, encouraging its quick resolution. Unless a fever becomes dangerously high, fevers are healthy response and play an important role in disrupting viral takeover.