If I mention elder as a medicinal herb the berries and flowers come easily to mind. Elderberry syrup and solstice cordial made from flowers are very popular. Blooms and berries are safer for the inexperienced to use internally or for food. Not many herbalist use elder externally. A shame because the leaves should not be wasted. They make a lovely oil that can be used on bruises, sprains and chilblains. I might even try them in the injury liniment that I make. Elder is very effective in moving the stagnation/energy that causes pain, swelling, and inflammation. Aging skin might benefit from a salve or lotion made from this oil. The leaves have be used to soothe, tone and tighten tissues. Some claim they remove age spots. Elder is one of those plants that needs to be used with caution, knowledge and experience.
Elder Latin Name: Sambucus. Family: Adoxa/Adoxaceae. Common names- there are “blue”, “black” and “red” elderberry subspecies. To avoid confusion and ensure safe/accurate ID and harvesting, it is best to use Latin names. Elder is a tall bush that drops its leaves in the fall. The leaf shape and color can vary between subspecies (long, lance shaped, and pointed or pinnately compound, and toothed) but in general are arranged oppositely on the 10-30 branches/canes. The small “white” flowers form a crowded cyme/cluster. They have a strong unpleasant smell and bloom sometime in the late spring. The small, ripe, smooth berries can be blue, black or red. They form dense clusters.
ALL elders contain two alkaloids that convert to cyanide ( a poison) when exposed to the acids in the human stomach. These toxic chemicals are found in the seed, root, branches, green stems, and leaves. BUT not the flowers or the RIPE fruit that surrounds the seed. There are several wild elder subspecies that Not everyone is in agreement about whether some are more toxic than others. To be safe I cultivate and only harvest from S. nigra and S. canadensis. Both are easy to find in nurseries.. You can also propagate elder from cuttings. I failed to get my new bushes to overwinter twice. But now that they are established they are almost invasive and have to be pruned every year. The Flowers are at their peak sometime in June. The berries will be ripe in late fall. The flowers are always edible especially if you remove their green stems. The berries may need special preparation such as cooking well and straining out their seeds. Elderberries must always been eaten when fully ripe!
There have been reports of people getting sick from eating the ripe dried berries (not cooked). Yet several of my teachers and the Botanical Safety Handbook mention no concern with using dried berries without cooking them first. I powder them and add them to honey. Many herbalists tincture the ripe berries (both fresh and dried) without cooking them first but do strain out the seeds. Very few people feel comfortable using other parts of the plant. Do your research and use your best judgement.
Elder berry and flowers encourage the body to release toxins through sweating, moving stagnant blood and urination. Elderberries contain constituents that prevent viruses from penetrating cells. Elder has been used since ancient times to treat fluid retention, colds, flu, hay fever, asthma, hot flashes and childhood infections. This plant is very useful for relieving a cough, opening the lungs, increasing oxygen saturation and breathing capacity. It has a long history of being used as a laxative, purgative, and organ tonic. It supports the nerves and digestive system. The berries are high in Vitamin C, and contain small amounts of iron and potassium. You will find them in syrups, jams, pies, and cobblers. Externally the flowers are used in skin and hair products such as salves, lotions, toners, and rinses. They have been used in eyewashes, gargles and compresses for headache, skin conditions, bruising, sunburn, and pain. They will lower a fever, relieve a sore throat, help with congestion. and clear heat as a tea or tincture. In recipes you can find them in salads, drinks, jelly, and baked goods.
Parts Used:Berries and flowers internally. Leaves externally.
Energetics:cool, bitter, sweet, dry
Contraindications:-dehydration. Only consume the flowers or cooked berries. Research Elder’s role in cytokine storms.