The elder tree is in an honored class of plants reaching a legendary, supernatural status. European folklore surrounds elder with stories of its powers, rumors of it being the tree from which Judas hanged himself, and warnings to anyone who treats it disrespectfully, as it is a protector from evil and home to the fairies.
Before harvesting any part of elder, the custom is to make an offering to the spirit of the plant. Reading of such superstitious hocus-pocus, skeptics will likely dismiss the plant, needing to experience its medicinal qualities to become true converts.
Early summer displays elder’s (Sambucus nigra, European, and Sambucus canadensis, North American) white, lacey, flat-topped blooms along roadsides. As the summer peaks, the flowers give way to sprays of pellet-sized purplish-black berries. Elder loves moist areas; I’ve found it growing along the pond at Oconee Forest Park in Athens, and in wet ditches along roadsides. According to Dr. Michael Dirr, elder will tolerate dry soils, but has an “unkempt habit” and easily naturalizes, giving elder a weed status in his book.
Traditionally, elder is considered a blood tonic among Europeans, American Indians and Appalachian people. Without knowledge of the mechanisms of the immune system, people theorized illness came from “bad blood”. Blood tonics, as a historical class of herbs, are excellent immune boosters and cancer fighters. Externally, elderflower water was popular among European women for removing freckles and sunburn.
As Civil War medicine, according to Confederate surgeon Dr. Francis Porcher (1863), elder leaves were heated in lard as a salve for wounds and sprains. Dr. Porcher also reports the berries make better spirits than the finest malt.
Current research reveals elderberry and flower’s antiviral efficacy on influenza, colds, sinusitis, and Herpes simplex and zoster. The flavonoids of elder contain immunostimulatory properties for influenza A and B. An in vitro study on H1N1 demonstrated how elderberry flavonoids would bind to and prevent H1N1 infection, by blocking the virus’ ability to infect host cells. Studies suggest elder’s immunostimulatory properties can be transferred to help with cancer and AIDS.
In cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), where therapeutic options are limited, elder is an alternative to antibiotics by preventing some of the mechanisms for Staphylococcus aureus to survive.
Elderflower’s flavonoids could be effective in the prevention and treatment of insulin resistance, stimulating insulin-dependent glucose uptake. The berries’ polyphenol antioxidants help lower the risk of metabolic diseases and cardiovascular illnesses.
The flowers and berries are edible. Berries make delicious jams and syrups, which kids love, and elderberry wine for the adults. When they’re ripe, though, I just like to add them to my yogurt, getting an ounce of preventative medicine for the day. Steep the flowers as a tea, or fry them as a fish-tasting fritter.
When harvesting elderflowers, lay the flower tops on plastic garbage bags for an hour or more to rid the flowers of resident insects. The bugs cannot tolerate fumes coming from the plastic. Berries don’t need the same treatment.
And please remember to respect your elder, making an offering of thanks to the elder tree spirits.
This article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald, August 1, 2010.