The Black Elder - Herbal
Facts and Lore
Part used: the flower and the berries
All parts are used including the roots, stems leaves and berries. It can be gathered in all seasons and dried under the sun. Berries: sweet, mildly bitter and cooling; Flowers: bitter, cooling The leaves can be applied externally to injuries to relieve pain and promote healing.
The black elder (Sambucus nigra) grows in hedges on the edge of forests and roads in diverse areas of the world. Its used dates back in ancient times to the writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Pliny. I has been commonly used down through the ages to make jams, jellies, soft drinks and wine. According to Grieves' "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. "
The term, 'Elder" derives from the Anglo-Saxon term ÆLD which means 'fire'. This derives from the use of the stems of which the soft pith is easily pushed out to make pipes that were used for blowing up fires. They were also used to make flutes both in England, by the Italians who made a flute called 'sampogna' as well as by the Native Americans. The Elder is the most sacred tree of gypsies who would never think to rudely burn it in their campfires. In fact all parts of the tree were widely used for their healing properties.
So great were the remedial powers of the elder that it was called "the medicine chest of the country people" (Ettmueller) and 'a whole magazine of physic to rustic practitioners.' One of the greatest physicians, Boerhaave, had such a high regard for its manifold curative properties that it is said that he never passed an Elder without raising his hat. The popular estimation of elder in Shakespeare's time is witnessed by the comparison of it with the greatest healers of antiquity line in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Sc. 3: "What says my Æsculapius? my Galen? my heart of Elder?"
Indeed, there is hardly a more fascinating herb steeped with ancient lore than the elder. In the mid-1980's upon the suggestion of Dr. Jean Lindenman, the developer of interferon, that researchers confirmed the active anti-influenza ingredients in elderberry. They found that the bioflavonoids in elderberry were able to bind and disarm the tiny viral spikes called hemagglutinin which are covered with an enzyme called neuraminidase that allow viruses to invade by piercing a cell's membrane. Later, in 1992 a team of Israeli scientists and physicians formulated a syrup and a lozenge that contained elderberry. They found that the syrup worked in the laboratory with most common strains of viruses. They were subsequently approved by the Helsinki committee, a world-wide organization which approves patient studies, to carry out a double blind clinical study of patients infected with the flu virus during an epidemic in southern Israel. Half of the patients were given four tablespoons of the syrup per day and the other half a placebo. The results were that within twenty four hours, the symptoms of fever, cough, and muscle pain had improved in 20% of the patients. After the second day, another 75% were much improved and in three days a complete cure was effected in 90% of the patients studied. This was highly significant compared with the control group who had not taken elderberry syrup were only 8% of patients showed improvement after 24 hours and for the remainder, it took 6 days to show improvement in the remaining 92%.
Further tests were conducted on patients to determine the presence of influenza antibodies. Antibodies are substances the body naturally manufactures to combat invading pathogens such as cold and flu viruses. It was found that patients who took the elderberry extract had a higher level of cold and flu antibodies which indicated an enhanced immune system response.
Both colds and flus are caused by viruses. Typically influenza is characterized by high fever while colds are without fever. Influenza is therefore, an acute febrile infection with Type A and B viruses that tend to outbreak every winter. The attack rate may be as high as 40% of the population over a five to six week period. Influenza represents the most common epidemic that occurs yearly and for many, especially the elderly, can result in death as a result of pulmonary complications.
So far there has been no significantly successful treatment in mainstream medicine to doing more than affording temporary symptomatic relief for these, easily the most troublesome of all recurring diseases. Because the antigen of these viruses easily change form each year, the population has little or no resistance to the disease. Because of this, flu vaccines can offer resistance to only a few identified strains of the virus and are ineffective against the myriad of new strains which appear during outbreaks and epidemics. Furthermore, with flu vaccines needing to be administered yearly, as many as 50% of those receiving the shots have complications and for a small percentage, these complications can be life threatening. In 1976 the administration of the Swine-Flu Vaccine caused literally thousands of cases of Epstein-Barre (i.e. Guillain-Barre) commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, without the Swine Flue ever surfacing.
The two existing anti-flu medications are Amantadine and Rimantadine and have been shown to be effective only against Influenza A virus and with no effect whatsoever against Influenza B. They are typically very expensive and seem to cause side effects especially in the elderly. Furthermore, studies have shown the appearance of virus strains that are entirely resistant to either of these drugs.
Elderberry extract, is the mildest of natural substances, completely free of any side effects or contraindications. So far it has tested positive against eight different virus strains and has been used by hundreds of thousands of people in Israel who have found it effective against the influenza virus.
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.'
'The buds boiled in water gruel have effected wonders in a fever, the spring buds are excellently wholesome in pattages; and small ale in which Elder flowers have been infused is esteemed by many so salubrious that this is to be had in most of the eating houses about our town. Some twenty years before Evelyn's eulogy there had appeared in 1644 a book entirely devoted to its praise: The Anatomie of the Elder, translated from the Latin of Dr. Martin Blockwich by C. de Iryngio (who seems to have been an army doctor), a treatise of some 230 pages, that in Latin and English went through several editions. It deals very learnedly with the medicinal virtues of the tree - its flowers, berries, leaves, 'middle bark,' pith, roots and 'Jew's ears,' a large fungus often to be found on the Elder (Hirneola auricula Judae), the name a corruption of 'Judas's ear,' from the tradition, referred to above, that Judas hanged himself on the Elder. It is of a purplish tint, resembling in shape and softness the human ear, and though it occurs also on the Elm, it grows almost exclusively on Elder trunks in damp, shady places. It is curious that on account of this connexion with Judas, the fungus should have (as Sir Thomas Browne says) 'become a famous medicine in quinses, sore-throats, and strangulation ever since.' Gerard says, 'the jelly of the Elder otherwise called Jew's ear, taketh away inflammations of the mouth and throat if they be washed therewith and doth in like manner help the uvula,' and Salmon, writing in the early part of the eighteenth century, recommends an oil of Jew's ears for throat affections. The fungus is edible and allied species are eaten in China.
Evelyn refers to this work (or rather to the original by 'Blockwitzius,' as he calls him!) for the comprehensive statement in praise of the Elder quoted above. It sets forth that as every part of the tree was medicinal, so virtually every ailment of the body was curable by it, from toothache to the plague. It was used externally and internally, and in amulets (these were especially good for epilepsy, and in popular belief also for rheumatism), and in every kind of form - in rob and syrup, tincture, mixture, oil, spirit, water, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, oxymel, sugar, decoction, bath, cataplasm and powder. Some of these were prepared from one part of the plant only, others from several or from all. Their properties are summed up as 'desiccating, conglutinating, and digesting,' but are extended to include everything necessary to a universal remedy. The book prescribes in more or less detail for some seventy or more distinct diseases or classes of diseases, and the writer is never at a loss for an authority - from Dioscorides to the Pharmacopoeias of his own day-while the examples of cures he adduces are drawn from all classes of people, from Emylia, Countess of Isinburg, to the tradesmen of Heyna and their dependants.
-Berries---All the other parts of the Elder plant, except the wood and pith, are more active than either the flowers or the fruit. Fresh Elder Berries are found to contain sudorific properties similar to those of the flowers, but weaker. Chemically, the berries furnish Viburnic acid, with an odorous oil, combined with malates of potash and lime. The fresh, ripe fruits contain Tyrosin.
The blue colouring matter extracted from them has been considerably used as an indication for alkalis, with which it gives a green colour, being red with acids. (Alkalis redden some vegetable yellows and change some vegetable blues to green.) According to Cowie this colouring matter is best extracted in the form of a 20 per cent tincture from the refuse remaining after the expression of the first juice. The colouring matter is precipitated blue by lead acetate (National Standard Dispensatory, 1909.)
The Romans made use of Elderberry juice as a hair-dye, and Culpepper tells us that 'the hair of the head washed with the berries boiled in wine is made black.'
English Elder Berries, as we have seen, are extensively used for the preparation of Elder Wine. French and other Continental Elder berries, when dried, are not liked for this purpose, as they have a more unpleasant odour and flavour, and English berries are preferred. Possibly this may be due to the conditions of growth, or variety, or to the presence of the berries of the Dwarf Elder. Aubrey (1626-97) tells us that: 'the apothecaries well know the use of the berries, and so do the vintners, who buy vast quantities of them in London, and some do make no inconsiderable profit by the sale of them.'
They were held by our forefathers to be efficacious in rheumatism and erysipelas. They have aperient, diuretic and emetic properties, and the inspissated juice of the berries has been used as an alterative in rheumatism and syphilis in doses of from one to two drachms, also as a laxative in doses of half an ounce or more. It promotes all fluid secretions and natural evacuations.
For colic and diarrhoea, a tea made of the dried berries is said to be a good remedy.
In The Anatomie of the Elder, it is stated that the berries of the Elder and Herb Paris are useful in epilepsy. Green Elderberry Ointment has already been mentioned as curative of piles. After enumerating many uses of the Elder, Gerard says:
'The seeds contained within the berries, dried, are good for such as have the dropsie, and such as are too fat, and would faine be leaner, if they be taken in a morning to the quantity of a dram with wine for a certain space. The green leaves, pounded with Deeres suet or Bulls tallow are good to be laid to hot swellings and tumors, and doth assuage the paine of the gout.'
Parkinson, physician to James I, also tells us of the same use of the seeds, which he recommends to be taken powdered, in vinegar.
Elderberry Wine has a curative power of established repute as a remedy, taken hot, at
night, for promoting perspiration in the early stages of severe catarrh, accompanied by
shivering, sore throat, etc. Like Elderflower Tea, it is one of the best preventives known
against the advance of influenza and the ill effects of a chill. A little cinnamon may be
added. It has also a reputation as an excellent remedy for asthma.
To make Elderberry Rob, 5 lb. of fresh ripe, crushed berries are simmered with 1 lb. of loaf sugar and the juice evaporated to the thickness of honey. It is cordial, aperient and diuretic. One or two tablespoonsful mixed with a tumbler full of hot water, taken at night, promotes perspiration and is demulcent to the chest. The Rob when made can be bottled and stored for the winter. Herbalists sell it ready for use.
'Syrup of Elderberries' is made as follows: Pick the berries when thoroughly ripe from the stalks and stew with a little water in a jar in the oven or pan. After straining, allow 1/2 oz. of whole ginger and 18 cloves to each gallon. Boil the ingredients an hour, strain again and bottle. The syrup is an excellent cure for a cold. To about a wineglassful of Elderberry syrup, add hot water, and if liked, sugar.
Both Syrup of Elderberries and the Rob were once official in this country (as they are still in Holland), the rob being the older of of the two, and the one that retained its place longer in our Pharmacopoeia. In 1788, its name was changed to Succus Sambuci spissatus, and in 1809 it disappeared altogether. Brookes in 1773 strongly recommended it as a 'saponaceous Resolvent' promoting 'the natural secretions by stool, urine and sweat,' and, diluted with water, for common colds. John Wesley, in his Primitive Physick, directs it to be taken in broth, and in Germany it is used as an ingredient in soups.
There were six or seven robs in the old London Pharmacopceia, to most of which sugar was added. They were thicker than syrups, but did not differ materially from them; among them was a rob of Elderberries, and both Quincy and Bates had a syrup of Elder.
An old prescription for sciatica (called the Duke of Monmouth's recipe) was compounded of ripe haws and fennel roots, distilled in white wine and taken with syrup of Elder.
The use of the juicy berries, not as medicine, but as a pleasant article of food, in jam, jelly, chutney and ketchup has already been described.
Fluid extract of bark, 1/2 to 1 drachm. Water, B.P.
The flowers were used by our forefathers in bronchial and pulmonary affections, and in scarlet fever, measles and other eruptive diseases. An infusion of the dried flowers, Elder Flower Tea, is said to promote expectoration in pleurisy; it is gently laxative and aperient and is considered excellent for inducing free perspiration. It is a good old fashioned remedy for colds and throat trouble, taken hot on going to bed. 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.
If there was ever a plant steeped in ancient mystery and lore, it is the elder. To this day one will find elder bushes and trees in the older burial grounds of North America attesting to the old world custom of planting them in cemeteries to ward off evil influences. Because of the ancient belief that the cross of Christ was the made from the elder, the gypsies and other rural people consider it the height of bad fortune to burn elder in their camp or hearth fires.
Another old tradition was that the Cross of Calvary was made of it, and an old couplet runs:
'Bour tree - Bour tree: crooked rong
In consequence of these old traditions, the Elder became the emblem of sorrow and death, and out of the legends which linger round the tree there grew up a host of superstitious fancies which still remain in the minds of simple country folk. Even in these prosaic days, one sometimes comes across a hedge-cutter who cannot bring himself to molest the rampant growth of its spreading branches for fear of being pursued by ill-luck. An old custom among gypsies forbade them using the wood to kindle their camp fires and gleaners of firewood formerly would look carefully through the faggots lest a stick of Elder should have found its way into the bundle, perhaps because the Holy Cross was believed to have been fashioned out of a giant elder tree, though probably the superstitious awe of harming the Elder descended from old heathen myths of northern Europe. In most countries, especially in 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 and furniture be made of the wood, Hylde-Moer was believed to follow her property and haunt the owners. Lady Northcote, in The Book of Herbs, relates:
'There is a tradition that once when a child was put in a cradle of Elder-wood, HyldeMoer came and pulled it by the legs and would give it no peace till it was lifted out Permission to cut Elder wood must always be asked first and not until Hylde-Moer has given consent by keeping silence, may the chopping begin.'
Mr. Jones (quoted in The Treasury of Botany), in his Notes on Certain Superstitions in the Vale of Gloucester, cites the following, said to be no unusual case: 'Some men were employed in removing an old hedgerow, partially formed of Eldertrees. They had bound up all the other wood into faggots for burning, but had set apart the elder and enquired of their master how it was to be disposed of. Upon his saying that he should of course burn it with the rest, one of the men said with an air of undisguised alarm, that he had never heard of such a thing as burning Ellan Wood, and in fact, so strongly did he feel upon the subject, that he refused to participate in the act of tying it up. The word Ellan (still common with us) indicates the origin of the superstition.'
The whole tree has a narcotic smell, and it is not considered wise to sleep under its shade. Perhaps the visions of fairyland were the result of the drugged sleep! No plant will grow under the shadow of it, being affected by its exhalations.
A wealth of folk-lore, romance and superstition centre round this English tree. Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, referring to it as a symbol of grief, speaks slightingly of it as 'the stinking Elder,' yet, although many people profess a strong dislike to the scent of its blossom, the shrub is generally beloved by all who see it. In countrysides where the Elder flourishes it is certainly one of the most attractive features of the hedgerow, while its old-world associations have created for it a place in the hearts of English people.
In Love's Labour Lost reference is made to the common medieval belief that 'Judas was hanged on an Elder.' We meet with this tradition as far back in English literature as Langland's Vision of Piers Plowman (middle of the fourteenth century, before Chaucer): 'Judas he japed with Jewen silver And sithen an eller hanged hymselve.' Why the Elder should have been selected as a gallows for the traitor Apostle is, considering the usual size of the tree, puzzling; but Sir John Mandeville in his travels, written about the same time, tells us that he was shown 'faste by' the Pool of Siloam, the identical 'Tree of Eldre that Judas henge himself upon, for despeyr that he hadde, when he solde and betrayed oure Lord.' Gerard scouts the tradition and says that the Judas-tree (Cercis siliquastrum) is 'the tree whereon Judas did hange himselfe.'
'Some men were employed in removing an old hedgerow, partially formed of Eldertrees. They had bound up all the other wood into faggots for burning, but had set apart the elder and enquired of their master how it was to be disposed of. Upon his saying that he should of course burn it with the rest, one of the men said with an air of undisguised alarm, that he had never heard of such a thing as burning Ellan Wood, and in fact, so strongly did he feel upon the subject, that he refused to participate in the act of tying it up. The word Ellan (still common with us) indicates the origin of the superstition.'
In earlier days, the Elder Tree was supposed to ward off evil influence and give protection from witches, a popular belief held in widely-distant countries. Lady Northcote says:
'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 ceremonies 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 was a charm against rheumatism. A cross made of Elder and fastened to cowhouses and stables was supposed to keep all evil from the animals.'
In Cole's Art of Simpling (1656) we may read how in the later part of the seventeenth century:
'in order to prevent witches from entering their houses, the common people used to gather Elder leaves on the last day of April and affix them to their doors and windows,' and the tree was formerly much cultivated near English cottages for protection against witches .
The use of the Elder for funeral purposes was an old English custom referred to by Spenser, 'The Muses that were wont green Baies to weave, Now bringen bittre Eldre braunches seare.' — Shepheard's Calendar - November.
And Canon Ellacombe says that in the Tyrol:
Green Elder branches were also buried in a grave to protect the dead from witches and evil spirits, and in some parts it was a custom for the driver of the hearse to carry a whip made of Elder wood.
In some of the rural Midlands, it is believed that if a child is chastised with an Elder switch, it will cease to grow, owing, in this instance, to some supposed malign influence of the tree. On the other hand, Lord Bacon commended the rubbing of warts with a green Elder stick and then burying the stick to rot in the mud, and for erysipelas, it was recommended to wear about the neck an amulet made of Elder 'on which the sun had never shined.'
In Denmark we come across the 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. Folkard, in Plant-Lore, Legends and Lyrics, relates:
'The pith of the branches when cut in round, flat shapes, is dipped in oil, lighted, and then put to float in a glass of water; its light on Christmas Eve is thought to reveal to the owner all the witches and sorcerers in the neighbourhood'; and again,
'On Bertha Night (6th January), the devil goes about with special virulence. As a safeguard, persons are recommended to make a magic circle, in the centre of which they should stand, with Elderberries gathered on St. John's night. By doing this, the mystic Fern-seed may be obtained, which possesses the strength of thirty or forty men.'
This is a Styrian tradition.
The whole tree has a narcotic smell, and it is not considered wise to sleep under its shade. Perhaps the visions of fairyland were the result of the drugged sleep! No plant will grow under the shadow of it, being affected by its exhalations.
Apart from all these traditions, the Elder has had from the earliest days a firm claim on the popular affection for its many sterling virtues.
Some elder recipes -
Notes compiled from Grieves, Modern Herbal, Coles The Art of Simpling, Gerard's The Great Herbal and other sources.
Created: Friday, September 22, 2006; Last updated:
Monday January 09, 2017