Sambucus Nigra, S. Canadensis
The Elder tree has a rich history of use throughout European herbal and folk medicine and has continued to remain an important herb in all areas of the herbal world today. Elder flowers and berries have long been used as remedies to open the eliminatory channels of the body, promote detoxification and increase immune system function. When consumed in large quantities, the stem of the plant is considered emetic, meaning it makes you vomit, so avoid getting too many stems in your medicinal preparations (the stems are very tiny and more than a few will most certainly stick around– I have never had a problem!). Tis the season to talk of the flowers – we will talk all about using the berries when they ripen at the end of August!
Here in New Englad the Elder tree blooms in the month of June. We can never be sure exactly when, but we are often blessed with her blossoms around the time of the summer Solstice or shortly after. The blossoms of the elder tree grow in large umbels with many tiny yellow flowers that are creamy and aromatic – and they taste as such, due to the presence of volatile oils and fatty acids.
Elderflowers are an excellent diaphoretic, opening the pores and increasing circulation to the peripheral of the body. They are an excellent remedy for fever when the heat is lodged deep in the core of the body. For this use, drink the hot tea (1-3 cups/day) to stimulate the lymphatic and circulatory systems and promote a sweat. Drinking the hot tea will also help to loosen and expectorate upper respiratory congestion associated with a cold, a sinus infection or seasonal allergies. Because of its ability to stimulate circulation and move body fluids, elderflower makes an excellent remedy for easing stagnation and increasing overall circulation. It has a particular affinity for stagnant and sluggish capillary circulation – often indicated by bluish/purplish skin in the hands, feet or other areas where there are concentrated capillaries. This may also be a good remedy for those with edema of the hands and feet or for those who bruise easily.
I also use elderflower tea as a remedy for many spring allergy symptoms – it works wonders for post-nasal drip, relentless sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes. With presenting allergy symptoms, or as a preventative measure during the allergy season, I recommend adding elderflower tea into your daily routine and drinking 1-3 cups of the hot tea daily.
As the common name’s reference to the elder alludes, both European and Native American cultures worshiped this plant as an elder. They saw it as a wise one (often referring to it as the elder mother) and were in awe of her many healing gifts and uses as a food, medicine and material. These cultures were sure to show their respect by offering gifts and gratitude – a practice we often forget to engage in today. If you make elder medicine this season, or even just stop to enjoy her beauty and smell her sweet flowers, be sure to thank her for her many gifts – past present and future.
Elder, a member of the honeysuckle family, can easily be found growing wild and cultivated throughout North America. The tree seems to have an affinity for watery places, so you will often find them growing along streams and ponds or on the edges of fields or woods. Sambucus Nigra or black elder is native to Europe, while Sambucus Canadensis is native to North America (these two species can be used medicinally interchangeably).
Red elder or red berried elder, Sambucus racemosa, should not be used.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RED AND BLACK ELDER?
The red elder has a brown and spongy pith (break off a stem and look at the texture and color of the inner pith), while the black elder has a white and spongy inner pith. Furthermore, the red elder has leaflets of between 5 and 7 on one pinnate leaf, while the black elder has between 5 and 11 leaflets on one pinnate leaf. The flowers and berries of the red elder form more of a cone like shape rather than the more flat umbels of the black elderflower and berry (as you can see in the pictures above). The red elder usually blooms earlier in the year and fruits in late June to July. Black elder usually blooms in late June and the fruit ripens in mid to late August. If all of this wasn’t enough – the red elder has red berries, while the black elder has dark purple or black berries! The red elderberries have cyanides in them and are considered poisonous, although they were apparently eaten by Native Americans (they found some brilliant way to remove the seeds!). The berries of the black elder should not be eaten green, wait for the berries to fully ripen to a deep black before harvesting and using as food or medicine! The picture (below) shows the pinnate leaf of the black elder, notice that this one has 7 leaflets but their could be a pinnate leaf with more or less leaflets on the same tree!
All photographs on this posting are of the black elder!