You may have seen delicious-looking Elderberry gummies at your local natural foods store, and while this herb is a popular and supportive modern remedy, they have a long and ancient history of traditional use. This herb is a great remedy for colds and flus, increasing our resistance to infection. They also help to disperse energy and release toxins and even make a great topical remedy for skin issues of many kinds.
‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld, which can be translated as “to fan fire’s flames by blowing on it,” which is a common use for the hollow stems of this plant. The hollow stems can also be made into musical instruments and have a long spiritual association as serving as portals to other worlds - flutes made of Elder wood are believed to help summon spirits.
Elders bleed red sap when they are cut and it is traditionally believed that this sap is the blood of magical beings who inhabit the tree. In European folklore, this tree is believed to be inhabited by the Elder Mother, who will haunt you if you cut the tree without proper permission.
This is a good lesson to apply to all plants - it is important to have reciprocal relationships with our herbal allies, always asking for permission and extending gratitude when they give their generous support. As Emily often says in Artemisia Academy’s classes, if you always hear “yes” when you ask permission from the plants, you’re probably not listening.
Having a long, mystical and magical tradition, Elder is seen as a very protective being. Traditionally, they are planted at the corner of a property to protect the inhabitants and parts of the plant can be hung over doorways and windows to protect a home. Elder wood is a common material for making magic wands and they are great at helping to break hexes and curses. Elder has also been found in long barrows in Europe and appears to have a very long history of being used in burial rites. Truly an astounding being, this herb helps support us energetically, spiritually and physically in numerous ways.
Common Name: Elderberry, Elderflower
Latin Name: Sambucus spp.
Family: Caprifoliaceae, Honeysuckle Family
Precautions: Be careful to only consume the flowers and ripe berries of this plant. Remove the stems of the berries before consumption - stems are toxic. Avoid leaves, bark, roots and unripe berries - they contain cyanogenic glycosides that can cause cyanide toxicity, severe diarrhea and vomiting. When consuming in large quantities, it is best to heat-treat this herb in a decoction or syrup.
General Characteristics: Deciduous shrub that can grow up to 25 feet tall. Has pinnately compound leaves with creamy yellow flowers that grow in flat-topped clusters. Fruit is berrylike and appears blue/black. Sambucus species grow all over the world, generally in woods, hedges and open areas.
Peripheral circulatory stimulant
Medicinal Benefits of Sambucus spp.
Elder is an ancient and holy tree that has been used extensively in Europe as food and medicine since before Christ. One of the most common and best known ways to interact with Elderberry is at the onset of a cold or flu. This herb is strongly antiviral and high in Vitamin-C, meaning they can help us heal faster, speeding recovery and enhancing immune function. The flowers in particular tone the mucus linings of the nose and throat, increasing our resistance to infection. Elderberry is great in a cold and flu tea combination with Mint, Yarrow and/or Hyssop.
As a diaphoretic, this herb helps you sweat, releasing toxins via the skin and helping to regulate fevers. They have a cooling energy, which can be useful for people with hot temperaments who need diaphoretic support, as many herbs that make you sweat tend to have hotter energetics. Lucy Jones says that Elder is specific for people who develop purple markings on their legs that look like leopard prints when they exert themselves in cold weather. Helping you sweat, this herb is great at shifting energy and moving things through the body to promote health and vitality. This is a great herb for people who have difficulty sweating in general.
With expectorant properties, Elder is also a good support for colds and flus that bring congestion, as well as difficulties with chronic congestion and allergies, including hay fever. Elderberry helps to open the airways and resolve sinus issues and can even help to ameliorate ear infections. The flowers are particularly supportive for reducing the symptoms of hay fever - drink with Nettle and Plantain a week leading up to allergen season as well as throughout allergen season.
Elderberry is also diuretic and laxative, helping our body release waste and toxins via multiple channels. These actions, along with Elder’s diaphoretic qualities, make them a good aid for arthritis, bringing down inflammation and reducing pain and stress on our joints. They are a great help for excess water retention and can help dilute urine when peeing is painful. Elder has also been traditionally used to sooth migraines, trigeminal neuralgia, muscle and joint pain.
This herb supports peripheral circulation, helping with cold hands and feet and bringing movement to sluggish areas in the body and mind. They help to lower blood pressure and are a great overall tonic when gentle support is needed.
Energetically, this herb is physiologically and emotionally dispersing, helping to expand our worldview and promoting growth and movement in our lives.
Sambucus spp. also makes a great topical and antiseptic remedy for skin issues of many kinds. They make a good ointment for wounds, burns, cuts, scratches, chapped hands, chilblains, bruises, sprains, sunburns and skin blemishes. A cold tea of Elderflowers can also be used topically as an eye wash, Also when applied topically, the leaf, flower and fruits can help sooth psoriasis, eczema, skin diseases and abscessed blisters.
Topical support for skin issues is also a common way that Elder is used in Eastern medicine. In Tibetan medicine, this herb is mostly interacted with to heal wounds, set broken bones and reduce swelling. Energetically, they help ‘to clear the blockage of channels.’ When used externally, it is appropriate to use the leaves along with the flowers and berries, but make sure not to take the leaves, stems of berries, bark or roots of this plant internally.
Medicine Making with Elderberry
A delicious and fun way to interact with Elderberry is by cooking them into a syrup, which is essentially a condensed and sweetened herbal tea. Here's a recipe from Artemisia Academy's Beginner Medicine Making Class:
Place 0.25 oz of Elderberries and 1/2-3/4 cup of water in a pot.
Decoct (simmer) for 10-20 minutes on low heat.
Strain out the herbs. The remaining liquid should be ~1/2 cup. (If too much water is boiled off, add more water and the strained berries back to the pot and simmer for a few more minutes.)
Add 1 cup sugar or honey to the strained tea and heat until dissolved.
Pour into bottles, let cool before adding the cap.
If storing for a long time, add 1 oz of 40% alcohol as a preserving agent.
NOTE: If equipment is not sterilized, it may still mold. Best if used within 6 months.
Herbal Apprentice Program
If you want to learn more incredible herbal remedies and the power of plants, Artemisia Academy's Herbal Apprentice Program may be perfect for you. This 150-hour program is hands-on, interactive, and will give you the skills and knowledge you need to form deep and healing relationships with the herbal allies all around us.
The information I shared in this post comes from my own relationship with Elder, Artemisia Academy’s classes, David Hoffman's Medical Herbalism and Holistic Herbal, Michael Tierra's Planetary Herbology, A Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal, Michael Moore's Western Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Lucy Jones's A Working Herbal Dispensary, and Andrew Chevallier’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine.
About the Author
Alicia Cielle Heiser is an Astrologer, Herbalist and student at Artemisia Academy. Her work centers on facilitating a greater understanding of the cyclical nature of the world and the ways that we as humans fit within the greater whole. She is writing a series of materia medica blog posts for Artemisia to make the wisdom and knowledge of herbal medicine more available to more people. Alicia also offers herbal astrology readings and you can find her at www.aliciacielle.com.
Disclaimer: Information presented on this webpage is for educational purposes only, and does not include the diagnosis and treatment of disease nor replace the advice of a licensed physician. Please refer to a licensed health professional for any illness or persistent symptoms before using herbal remedies.
Herbs can sometimes cause discomfort or side effects, and may interact adversely with pharmaceutical medications. Do not use herbs internally without the approval of a doctor or medical professional if you are currently on medications or have a history of medical conditions.