Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Other common names: Black elder, ellhorn (German), pipe tree, elderberry, European elder, hylantree, bour- or boretree.
Caution: Do not consume red elder berries, this is not the same species as Sambucus nigra, and the red berries are toxic.
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Antimicrobial, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, respiratory tonic, immune booster, anti-tussive, antihistamine, anti-pruritic, decongestant, lymphatic tonic, blood purifier, expectorant, bitter, cholagogue, aperient laxative, astringent, antioxidant, cardiac and vascular tonic, analgesic, demulcent, diuretic.
You can harvest the flowers in late spring/early summer. Berries are harvested in late summer/early autumn.
Part used: Berries, flowers. Other parts have been used historically, but due to the cyanogenic glycoside content, this has fallen out of practice and will not be detailed here.
Tannins, N-phenylpropenoyl-L-amino acid amides, anthocyanins, quercetin, carotenoids, cyanogenic glycosides, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitamins A, B and C, hyperoside, organic acids, plastocyanin, sambunigrin, mucilage.
Berries are cooked or thoroughly dried (a week or more, be sure they are well dried or sickness can result) and then made into various preparations, including decoctions, cough and fever syrups, tinctures, liqueurs, capsules, lozenges and more. Flowers are dried or used fresh (be careful not to include any of the plant’s bark or inner wood when processing flowers or berries). They can be made into syrups and cordials, infusions, tinctures and other medicines.
The flowers and berries share many similar properties, however we tend to use berries when the complaint involves pain, or the mild laxative effect is desired.
The flowers can be made into a wash to treat eye infections/irritations, and skin conditions (especially those that are bacterial, viral or fungal in origin). Use in the bath, or in poultice form (great for ear aches, strains, sprains and bruises). Cooked berries can also be used topically in a poultice, although the flowers are more common for external use. They have also been used for making emollient lotions, dyes (along with other parts of the plant) and cosmetics. Elder even repels insects.
Contraindications: Do not use if pregnant or nursing. Do not use in patients with severe kidney stones, obstructed bile duct or large gallstones, or those retaining water due to kidney disease. Insulin-dependent diabetics and those suffering from autoimmune disorders such as lupus or HIV/AIDS should consult a doctor before use. May interact with immunosuppresants and pharmaceutical diuretics. May decrease the absorption rate of opiate drugs.
I suggest consulting a pharmacist or physician before starting any herbal supplement if you are taking a prescription medication or have serious underlying health concerns.
Energetic/traditional use: Elder has a strong spiritual history in many cultures. For a number of communities, it is considered a sacred tree that is very attractive to fae folk. The wood (which can take over a year to dry thoroughly enough to be non-toxic) is used to make ceremonial tools and musical instruments, and other sacred items – particularly for calling spiritual beings. Being beneath an elder tree at dawn or dusk, especially on Midsummer Night’s Eve, is a perfect time to see some fae at play. Elder has long been known as a protector, as well. The tree itself will guard the land and homes around it, and parts of the plant may be used to create guardian items to protect people or places. Be aware that this plant demands the highest standard of respect…if you are going to harvest it is integral to provide an offering as well as a request for permission and expression of thanks. To forego this is to encourage ill-luck. It is considered taboo in some cultures to burn the wood. It has been associated with Witchcraft and also has been used in funeral ceremonies due to its affiliation with the life and death cycle, and the crone aspect of Goddess. Elder is most often considered female in its energy. The rune associated with elder is Fehun and it is the 13th tree in the Celtic year. It is considered bad luck to use elder wood in a crib, as fae folk take this as an invitation to adopt the child (this would be a bad practice regardless, due to toxic potential). Falling asleep beneath an elder tree might be unwise, if you don’t wish to slip into a fae realm. Of course, you would be rather well protected…maybe. Washing your eyes with dew from an elder can assist a human in being able to see fae folk.
Disclaimer: The information on this website is intended as general education on herbs and is not intended to take the place of medical care. Please consult a health care professional before embarking on any health regime.