Elder Sambucus nigra
Parts used: Flower and Berry
Key Constituents: Vitamin C, Vitamin A, beta-carotene, bioflavonoids, flavonoids, iron, potassium
Actions: Bitter, Cooling, and drying
Flowers: Anti-viral, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, diuretic
Berries: Anti-viral, diaphoretic, diuretic, laxative
The berries and flowers are considered generally safe for adults and children. Do not eat raw or uncooked berries in great quantity, as they can cause diarrhea and digestive issues in many people. Do not use any other parts of the tree internally as they can be toxic and cause someone to become extremely nauseous.
Growing and Identification
Elder is a large, hardy perennial shrub that grows well in Maine. Reaching upwards of 30 ft high, it generally prefers to grow in moist soils and can be found along roadsides and meandering streams.
In the late spring and early summer, the Elder produces its creamy-white colored flowers, sometimes known as elderblow that usually grow to six inches in diameter. As the flowers pass, they give way to small clusters of deep purple berries in late summer and early fall. The leaves of the Elder are elongated, toothed leaflets that are around 3 inches long and shoot from opposite sides of the stem.
In the spring, when the umbels of the elderflower have burst open is the perfect time to harvest these pillowy-white clusters.
With a pair of clean scissors, cut just below the flowers, where the stalk reaches the branch. Keep in mind that any flowers you harvest will yield fewer berries come fall.
Elderberry Harvesting the berries of the elder tree is a delicate balance-they're ripe, soft and can be bruised easily. With a pair of clean scissors, cut just below the cluster of berries and gently place into a cloth-lined basket or paper bag. To remove the berries easily from the stems, place the berries in a paper bag and stick it into the freezer. When the berries have frozen, generally an hour or two, remove the bag from the freezer and shake gently. The berries will effortlessly fall from the stems.
One of the most highly regarded medicinal plants in Europe and by traditional herbalists, Elder is prized for it’s immune supporting benefits and folkloric magic.
When taken internally, the flowers are diaphoretic and may encourage sweating. If taken during pollen season, the flowers of the elder tree can support a healthy upper-respiratory system. Topical creams and ointments that include elderflower are wonderful for their the cooling properties and are delightful for warm and irritated skin.
For centuries, the berries of the elder tree have been used as a healthy elixir to take during the cold winter months. Packed with vitamin C, Vitamin A and other minerals, elderberries help keep the immune system in tip-top shape throughout the season.
Anglo-Saxons, the Danish, and other old European societies believed the elder tree was sacred. According to Elder Tree Folklore, this sacredness came from the spirit or goddess believed to reside in the plant. The Elder Mother, had the power to protect and to harm. The power of the Elder Mother turned the plant’s natural gifts (flowers, berries and wood) into blessings. From the Elder Mother, the various parts of the tree were imbued with power. For example, the leaves could protect a home or a person from evil spirits when dried and hung in a doorway or around the neck. It was a particularly good omen if an elder grew near a dwelling, as the tree’s proximity to the home would protect the household.
There are so many ways to enjoy the magic of the Elder. In the spring, harvesting the flowers and creating a tincture or trying your hand at making Elderflower fritters is a welcome way to usher in the season. As the berries become ripe later in the summer, either dry or process the fresh berries to use in teas, elixirs, jams and syrups, or combine with beneficial mushrooms to create a nourishing elixir for the cold winter months ahead.