Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Ultimate Guide to Elderberry Medicine

A few years ago my husband and I returned to France to spend time with our family and friends. While there I got to experience France through another passion that has shaped my life, medicinal plants! 

Many of the plants that I love for food and medicine grow abundantly in France. Nettles can be found growing through cracks in ancient walls and lining the pathways to caves that have been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. Dandelions cover alpine meadows, giving the impression they are covered in gold. Poppies, a certified weed, give a deep blush to the fields. 

An elderberry bush in full flower jumps out of the landscape. Photo taken on a volcano in central France. 

Elders are also common in France. While we were there the elders were in bloom, which made them especially noticeable. It was just like meeting up with old friends but in a new place. 

Learning about how others have used elders for food and medicine in the past can help us to explore forgotten methods of use. I have used various French resources to help write this article and many of the recipes have been inspired by French sources as well. 

If you're inspired to use elderberries or elderflowers as medicine but don't have a shrub near you I highly recommend getting dried berries and flowers from Mountain Rose Herbs. They have high quality organic herbs and I buy all of my dried herbs from them. If you use links on this website to purchase the herbs you help support the free information on this site. Thank you! 

In May of 2016 I’ll be teaching an intensive herbal course with French herbalist Christophe Bernard in Provence, France. We’ll be exploring the region, learning about how herbs can be used to help chronic health problems and enjoying that special je ne sais quoi of France. 

All about Elder
For most of the year elder shrubs tend to be tucked away into the landscape, blending into their surroundings. But just after the summer equinox elder shrubs burst out of hiding. First I’ll see one bloom here then another there, but pretty soon elder has announced its presence in the grandest of fashions with its large white blooms dotting the landscape throughout the valley where I live. 

People have been using the elder shrub for thousands of years as food, medicine and tools. It has a rich folklore and has long been associated with the faery worlds, death and rebirth. It is still highly revered today as one of our most powerful herbs for preventing and treating colds and the flu. 

This article will look at popular ways that elderberries and elderflowers are used as food and as medicine. We’ll also look at how the bark, leaves and wood have been used as tools and medicine. Much of this more obscure information about elder has been gleaned from French resources. 

After a thorough introduction to elder, I’ll share one of my favorite Elderberry recipes. 

John Evelyn, writing in praise of the Elder, says:
'If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our
countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds.'
Maude Grieve
A Modern Herbal

What’s in a (French) name?

The French call elder shrubs Sureau

Because all parts of the elder are used medicinally it is referred to as the pharmacien de la maison or house pharmacy.

A French saying that illustrates the high respect for this plant says: 

Si Dieu le veut, un malade, rien que de toucher au sureau, se porte mieux. 

Which translates to: God willing, a sick person can be cured simply by touching elder.

History of Use and a bit of Folklore
A container made from an elder branch. 
Elder has a long history of use in Europe. Archeological excavations show large numbers of seeds at prehistoric sites, indicating elders were consumed during the Magdalanian era, which was 17,000 to 9,000 BP. It’s been hypothesized that the wood was probably used as well for tools. 

Excavations have exhumed ceremonial flint spearheads that were modeled after elder leaves, giving us the insight that the elder was probably revered then as it is now. 

Elderberry shrubs were an important plant for the Celtic people. Celtic druids made flutes from elder to communicate with the souls of dead people and Celtic myth says that the spirits of the forest dwell in the hollow wood of the elder tree; the white blooms in the spring symbolize the reincarnation of the dead. 

During the spring in Austria and in the north of England people would leave elder cuttings on tombs. If the branches flowered then that meant the soul of the dead had joined paradise. Luckily, elder grows really well from cuttings! 

Elderberries make a great dye. Depending on the method used it can create a grey, purple or black dye. It has been used to dye hair black or dye textiles like the purple silk scarves you see pictured below. Until recently, French school children used ink made from elderberries. 

Silk scarves dyed with fresh elderberries

Using Elderberries...
Elderberries are powerful medicine. They are renowned for their ability to prevent an upper respiratory infection as well as shorten the duration of a cold or flu. 

During the H1N1 scare of 2009, elderberries were studied and found to be effective against the virus! To date, elderberries have been shown to be effective against 8 different influenza viruses. 

How does it work? 

One way that elderberries may work is that they are extremely high in flavonoids and these flavonoids can disrupt a virus’ ability to replicate. However, there are certainly many different mechanisms of action. 

In clinical trials, patients who took the elderberry juice syrup reported fast termination of symptoms. Twenty percent reported significant improvement within 24 hours, 70% by 48 hours, and 90% claimed a complete cure after three days. Patients receiving the placebo required six days for recovery. As proof that elder has more to it than the enzyme neutralizing constituents, researchers found that the patients who took it also had higher levels of antibodies against the flu virus. 

“Recent research from Israel and Panama has demonstrated that elderberry juice (Sambucus nigra) not only stimulates the immune system, but also directly inhibits the influenza virus (Zakay-Rones et al 1995; Mumcuoglu 1995).
Paul Bergner

Elderberries can also be used to prevent a herpes breakout or to shorten the duration of a herpes breakout. This illustrates another capacity of its antiviral capabilities. 

The flavonoid-rich berries are anti-inflammatory in nature and have been used to strengthen the eyes as well as decrease arthritic pain. 

In 1899 an American sailor informed a physician of Prague that getting drunk on genuine, old, dark-red port was a sure remedy for rheumatic pains. This unedifying observation started a long series of investigations ending in the discovery that while genuine port wine has practically no anti-neuralgic properties, the cheap stuff faked to resemble tawny port by the addition of elderberry juice often banishes the pain of sciatica and other forms of neuralgia, though of no avail in genuine neuritis. Cases of cure have been instanced after many tests carried out by leading doctors in Prague and other centres abroad, the dose recommended being 30 grams of Elderberry juice mixed with 10 grams of port wine.
Maude Grieve
A Modern Herbal

Herbalists are not the only ones who are recognizing the amazing powers of elderberries. In 2013 the first international conference on Elder was held in Columbia, Missouri. The goal of the conference was to “raise elderberry to the scientific level it deserves.”

Using Elder flowers....
Like elderberries, elder flowers can be used for symptoms of a cold or flu. Elder flowers differ significantly in how they are used however. 

Elder flowers probably contain some immunomodulating or antiviral activity that can help to shorten a cold or flu. 

They are also used for high fevers when there is a state of restlessness and no sweating. Elder flowers are slightly diffusive and help to open the pores to release heat through the skin. 

An almost infallible cure for an attack of influenza in its first stage is a strong infusion of dried Elder Blossoms and Peppermint. Put a handful of each in a jug, pour over them a pint and a half of boiling water, allow to steep, on the stove, for half an hour then strain and sweeten and drink in bed as hot as possible. Heavy perspiration and refreshing sleep will follow, and the patient will wake up well on the way to recovery and the cold or influenza will probably be banished within thirty-six hours. Yarrow may also be added.
Maude Grieve
A Modern Herbal

Today elder flowers are most famous as a tea for colds and the flu, as discussed above. However, in the past they were more commonly used externally for problems with the skin. They can be used as a tea wash or infused in oil for a cream or salve. They are said to soften the skin and rejuvenate the skin. Elder flower water used to a be a very common toiletry for women. 

Elder flowers are diaphoretic and sudorific in proportion to the quantity administered, but find their principal employment in external applications, as for fomentations and poultices to swellings, and in the earlier stages of gatherings, boils, and abscesses, to discuss any collection of lymph; an ointment, also, is prepared from them, which is suitable in those cases where a cooling and emollient application is desired, as for cracks and chaps in the hands, lips, nipples of the breasts, and for similar purposes.
John G. Hatfield 
Botanic Pharmacopoeia

Elderflowers growing in central Utah

Elder flowers, like elderberries, have also been used to support eye health. 

The infusion is useful, and receives somewhat extensive employment, as a wash, in weakness of the eyes, dimness of vision, and twitchings of the eyelids.
John G. Hatfield 
Botanic Pharmacopoeia

Elder flowers can be infused into oil and used for ear infections. 

Elderflowers in oil

Using Elder wood and leaves...
Elder wood has a pithy center. This easily hollowed out center makes it very easy to make various tools and instruments such as flutes or blow guns or pipes. Have some caution though. The pithy center contains cyanide-producing glycosides that, when consumed in quantity, can cause a variety of problems, including death. Drying or boiling the materials makes them safer to use. 

From wikipedia

Culpepper to declare: 'It is needless to write any description of this (Elder), since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the Elder.' Pliny's writings also testify that pop-guns and whistles are manufactures many centuries old!
Maude Grieve
A Modern Herbal

A French historical record says the pithy center was used for toothaches and for worts. Although the preparation wasn’t specified we’ll have to presume it was dried before being used for toothaches due to the potential toxicity. 

Elder flowers and elder leaves were used as moth balls and an infusion made from the leaves can be used to expel insects and pests on plants. 

Some other interesting historical uses of elder include: 

  • Freshly crushed elder leaf placed in nose to stop nose bleed. 
  • Inner bark used as a laxative and diuretic for edema, rheumatism and gout
  • Inner bark used as an ointment for burns and herpes

Boil the green bark till the fluid is a soft extract. Then combine with vaseline and you have an excellent salve for old sores, eczema rubrum, etc.
TJ Lyle
Physio-Medical Therapeutics

Botanically Speaking...

Elder trees grow as a small deciduous tree or shrub up to 12 feet tall. 

The leaves are pinnately divided and often have serrated edges. They grow as opposite leaflets. 

The flowers are cream colored and grow in flat umbel-shaped clusters (corymbs). Where I live the flowers tend to bloom around the 4th of July.

It has been said, with some truth, that our English summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe.
Maude Grieve
Modern Herbal 

There are several varieties of elders that can be used interchangeably. These include Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis, S. cerulea, and S. mexicana. 

What about the red-berried elders? 
The red-berried variety, Sambucus racemosa, can be used to make jams and jellies. S. racemosa has a higher content of cyanic compounds and should always be prepared
with heat, strained of the seeds, and never eaten raw in large quantities. These red berries are more mealy than the blue varieties.

Harvesting Elderberries and Elder Flowers
Elder flowers can be harvested anytime they are in their prime. All the flowers should be a creamy white color; some may be just about to open while others in the umbel are fully opened. 

Whenever I harvest elder flowers I also seem to take home a large number of small black bugs. In order to encourage these bugs to find a new home I place the freshly harvested corymbs in an open box or basket and leave them outside for a couple of hours. By the time I am ready to process the flowers into food or medicine the bugs have flown off. 

Keep in mind that every flower bunch that you harvest means that much less berries in the fall! 

The berries can be harvested whenever they are turned a deep blue, purple or black color (depending on species). If you live in an area that frosts early, you could wait until the first frost to enjoy slightly sweeter berries. I harvest the berries anywhere from mid August to mid September. If I waited any longer the birds would be off with all of them! 

Speaking of the birds, when I harvest the berries I harvest only what I can reach naturally. This leaves many more bunches of berries for the birds and other animals to feast upon. 

Both the flowers and berries can be used fresh or dried for later use. 

When using fresh elderberries the process of removing the berries from the stems can be a lot of work. Here’s is a simple trick to make the task easier. After harvesting the berry umbels place them in a bag in the freezer. Let them sit overnight (or several hours). Once the berries are frozen you can use a fork to easily separate the berries from the stems.

Special Considerations
Elderberries and elderflowers are pretty much safe for everyone. The raw seeds can make someone nauseous if they eat too many of them. Cooking them seems to diminish this effect. I have heard from a couple of people that the commercially bought elderberry powder can cause vomiting (presumably due to the seeds in the powdered product). 

As the French say, there are so many medicinal properties within this plant, it is like the house pharmacy. From colds and the flu to arthritis to beautiful skin, elderberries and elderflowers offer medicine in a myriad of ways. 

Do you love elderberry? I'd love to hear how you use elder medicine in the comments below. 

Elder at a Glance

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra, S. cerulea, S. canadensis

Family: Adoxaceae

Taste: berries - sour, flowers - bitter/sweet


berries - antiviral, immuno-modulating, antioxidant rich

flowers - antiviral, relaxing nervine, relaxing diaphoretic, diuretic

Used for: colds and the flu, herpes, strengthen eyes, fevers, ear infections

Plant Preparations: 

berries - food, syrup, tincture, elixir, tea, dye

flowers - tea, infused oil, salve, cream, tincture, syrup, elixir

Sous la protection du Sureau by Bernard Bertrand
Saveurs de Sureau by Bernard Bertrand
A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve
Physio-Medical Therapeutics, TJ Lyle, 1897
Botanic Pharmacopoeia, John G. Hatfield, 1886
Paul Bergner, NAIMH Course Materials

Where to buy elderberries and elderflowers

My affiliate partner Mountain Rose Herbs carries high quality organic dried herbs, including elder flowers and elderberries. 

Bulk organic herbs, spices and essential oils. Sin

Pacific Botanicals is a farm and bulk herb supplier. You can get both fresh and dried elderberries and elder flowers here. 

Ancestree Herbals is a small farm located just a few miles from where I live. They ship fresh elder flowers and elderberries when they are in season. 

If you would like elderberry products then check out

Also look for local herb farms near you! 

Elderberry Syrup Recipes
The following recipes are three of my favorite elderberry syrup recipes. There are endless variations to all of these, experiment and enjoy!

Garden Elderberry Syrup

This recipe is my own little tradition. In September, just as the elderberries are ripening, I gather them from my garden along with whatever else my garden is offering. I often don’t measure out the herbs and each year the syrup is a bit different. This year I measured it all out to give you an idea of how to make something similar. 

As a coincidence, when I was writing this article I came down with the first signs of a cold. My throat was sore and scratchy and I had that feeling that says, "watch out". I started taking this recipe ad-lib and in 24 hours all those symptoms were gone. Thank you elderberry!

What you’ll need...
585 grams of fresh elderberries
3 echinacea flower heads (minced)
2 cups of water
65 grams fresh herbs: rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage (minced)

Simmer the elderberries, echinacea flower heads and water for twenty minutes. Mash well. 

Turn off heat and add the other herbs. Let sit for 30 minutes. 

Strain off. Mine resulted in 2.5 cups of water

I added 1.5 cups honey and 1.5 cups brandy. If you like things sweeter you could add more honey. 

Store in the fridge and use within 6 months or so. 

I take this throughout the winter months as a sort of health tonic. It can be taken liberally at the first sign of a cold or flu to shorten the duration of an illness. 

Elderberry Cough Syrup
This recipe is a combination of stimulating and relaxing expectorants that is combined with the immune supporting qualities of elderberries and boneset. 

All the ingredients in this recipe are dried. 

70 grams Elderberries 
20 grams Marshmallow root
15 grams Elecampane Root 
10 grams Orange Peel 
10 grams Cinnamon bark 
5 grams Boneset
5 grams Licorice root
And honey to taste

Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and add two cups of water. 

Bring to a boil and then simmer for 30 minutes. Strain off the herbs and add an equal part honey, or to taste. 

By adding an equal part of honey you’ll preserve the syrup for a longer period of time. 

Once the mixture is combined you can simmer it further to create a thicker consistency. 

Store in the fridge and use within six months or so. 

Classic Elderberry Syrup
Elderberry syrup is a very old tradition. It tastes great and the additional honey can be soothing to the throat. The only difference between this syrup and the juice above is the amount of honey added.

What you’ll need... 
2 cups of fresh (or dried) elderberries
1-2 cups of water

Gently heat fresh elderberries and water on the stove and mash them to help extract the juice. Simmer for 20 minutes. 

Strain well using a cheesecloth. 

Measure the remaining liquid. Add an equal amount of honey. 

Variation: Add ginger, cinnamon and cardamom to the simmering mixture. 

The syrup will keep well in the fridge. 

To use elderberry syrup

Adults take 1-3 tablespoons each day to prevent colds and the flu. Children can take 1-2 teaspoons a day.

To shorten the duration of an illness take liberally at the first sign of a cold or flu.