Elderberry (Sambucus)

Explore the healing wonders of Elder, why Elder is called a “medicine chest” since medieval time, and why we want to grow an entire grove of Elders on our homestead.

I met Elder for the first time years ago at my workplace in California, where I often sat in her shade, not knowing then about her medicinal gifts, but simply drawn to her protective energy.

At the same workplace, an herbalist came to teach a workshop. She casually walked around naming every plant she saw, listing their healing qualities. “Oh yes, there’s dandelion, her bitter roots are excellent for the liver. There’s plaintain by your foot, chew up the leaves and put it on your bug bite to relieve the itch. Oh hello elder dear, your berries look beautiful this season. Thank you for protecting us against colds and flus…” and so on. I was so impressed by her plant knowledge, I followed her around everywhere, hurriedly jotting notes, hanging on to every name and every word she uttered.

I thought to myself, “It must be so magical to be attuned to all the plants that grow around us!” Years later, I find myself understanding much better what it really means to know my surroundings in this same way. To live like this is to know that you are a part of a very large family of wise beings who have nourished and healed us for thousands of years.

Today, I’d like to honor one special family member I’m glad to know: Wise Mother Elder.

You may already be familiar with Elder, which is often sold today as elderberry syrups to boost the immune system and relieve flu and cold symptoms. Elderberry is indispensable in our own medicine cabinet and every summer, we go to our favorite spot in the Cascade mountains to harvest bucketfuls of elderberries for our own use, mostly in jam for our breakfast and syrup for treating cold/flu. Occasionally, we also collect elder flowers to dry for tea.

There is a story told all over the world, in different cultures and various versions, of the woman who lives in the Elder. Sometimes she is called Elder Lady, sometimes Elder Woman, but my favorite name for her is Elda Mor.

The stories say that Elda Mor is a Wise Woman who has taken the shape of a tree in order to heal her children. She is powerful and she demands respect. If you wish to have her help, you must honor her. If you abuse her, fail to ask permission to take part of her, Elda Mor will poison you.

Elder grows somewhere near you; look and ask for her. When you find an Elder bush, develop a relationship with Elda Mor. Visit with her from time to time. Then, when the Elder blooms, go out in the moonlight and tell her of your desire to heal with her magic and her knowledge. She will respond, granting permission for you to take her sweet flowers. Thank her and put up her tincture immediately, capturing moon beams. Thank her and put up your tincture immediately, capturing moon beams, Elder dreams, and the ancient wisdom of women in your bottle.

Susun Weed, Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year

Common Elder Species

There are many types of elder including species native to Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and North & South America, but not all are edible. Black Elder and Blue Elder are the two most common species that we find in culinary and medicinal uses.

Black Elder / European Elder / American Elder: Sambucus nigra / Sambucus canadensis. This is the elderberry that’s most commonly mentioned and referenced in herbal medicine. Black elder is native to most of Europe (Sambucus nigra) and North America (Sambucus canadensis). They are medium to large shrubs with pinnately compound leaves. Black elder spread by rhizomes and grow to about 19 ft tall depending on soil conditions. They prefer moist soil in semi-shade and can be found in hedgerows and woods. They flower in early to late summer, depending on the climate. The flowers are tiny and white / cream color in large, dense clusters called cymes. The fruit ripen in August-October and are drupes of small, juicy, purply red berries.

Black elder (sambucus nigra). Image by Renate Dodell via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Black elder has a long history of edible and medicinal uses, with all parts of the plant used for a wide range of treatments. Elder flowers and berries are still commonly used in Europe to make jams, pies, preserves, chutneys, wine, and syrup. Elder flower extract is often used in England to impart a delicate sweet flavor to baked goods, sparkling wine, and tea.

Elder Flowers and Elder Berries have long been used in the English countryside for making many home-made drinks and preserves that are almost as great favorites now as in the time of our great-grandmothers. The berries make an excellent home-made wine and winter cordial, which improves with age, and taken hot with sugar, just before going to bed, is an old-fashioned and well-established cure for a cold.

Margaret Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Volume 1

Blue Elder: Sambucus caerulea. Blue elder grows in Western N. America – British Columbia to California, Montana, Texas and Mexico. Blue elder thrives in dry, gravelly soil on stream banks and woodland edge. We’ve found that blue elder grows well in the mountains, particularly clear cut sites on south facing slopes. Blue elder is aptly named for the berries’ blue color, compared to its eastern relative which has very dark purple berries. It has similar medicinal qualities to black elder and a long history of documented use of all plant parts by indigenous people.

This plant is similar to the American Elder but larger in all respects, occasionally becoming a tree as much as 40 feet. The individual berries are larger, as are the cymes they are borne in; clusters have weighed in at more than 2 pounds.

Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden
Blue Elder (Sambucus caerulea)

*Some of the information above are found from Plant for a Future and we highly recommend this website for anyone with an interest in edible and medicinal plants. The site has a useful edible and medicinal rating scale, thoroughly lists many examples of uses from various sources, notes any known poisons, and serves as a great starting point to growing edible plants.

Folklore

Not long ago, people revered plants not only for their curative powers, but also for their magical powers. Some sees this as mere “superstition” of the country folk. But from my own experience of being drawn to sitting with the Elder tree long before knowing anything about her medicinal properties, I tend more toward the belief that there is much wisdom in these stories. At the heart of many of these stories – whether it’s a warning or a blessing – is a deep respect for Elder.

Myths abound about Elder’s magic throughout Europe.

In most countries, especially Denmark, the Elder was intimately connected with magic. In its branches was supposed to dwell a dryad, Hylde-Moer, the Elder-tree Mother, who lived in the tree and watched over it. Should the tree be cut down, Hylde-Moer was believed to follow her property and haunt the owner… [Also in Denmark], we come across an old belief that he who stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, attended by all his retinue.

Margaret Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Volume 1

For the most part, Elder is more often associated with protection against evil:

The Russians believe that Elder-trees drive away evil spirits, and the Bohemians go to it with a spell to take away fever. The Sicilians think that sticks of its wood will kill serpents and drive away robbers, and the Serbs introduce a stick of Elder into their wedding cermonies to bring good luck. In England it was thought that the Elder was never struck by lightning, and a twig of it tied into three or four knots, and carried in the pocket as a charm against rheumatism. A cross made of Elder and fastened to cow-houses and stables was supposed to keep evil from the animals.

Margaret Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Volume 1

Elder’s magical influence can still be seen today, most notably, the Elder Wand in the Harry Potter series.

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