My experience with plants and using them for medicine has included a lot of reading. There are many books that lay out common usage of plants, dosage information, chemical constituents and preparations. And though I find many of these book to be priceless in their breadth of knowledge and information, I also find that the plant is the best teacher. I have been fortunate in my life to deal with very little illness and hope to maintain that record, however, there is a strange bit of excitement when encountering a new ailment and I get the chance to test a different plant on the problem. For then I see, first hand, its magic. Some plants work subtly, some take patience, and some help create the needed change that facilitates healing immediately. Elder has been that sort of teacher for me, affording immediate witness to its healing powers.
On this side of the Cascades, beautiful Red Elders grow profusely. However, they are not the plant to use as there is much dispute over their medicinal value versus thier apparent toxicity. It generally takes a trek over to the Eastside of the mountains, with the dry, ponderosa forests and sage to find the Blue Elder. But if you are lucky like me and keep an eye out, you might find a rogue Blue Elder growing near your house. In September, when the berries are blue with a yeasty bloom it is much easier to spot. Look for large swathes of soft blue amid the wall of green that covers our area. Collect the flowers in the early summer and dry them to use as a decoction at the first sign of cold or flu. You can also wait until September and gather the berries, cover them with Vodka or Brandy and let steep for a couple of weeks to make a tincture.
Blue Elder is a healing powerhouse has been used by our native peoples as well as by our European ancestors as a top choice remedy for the common cold and influenza. Paul Bergner recommends its use in prevention of the A1 H1 virus that is so heavily talked about these days. A recent clinical trial in Israel showed that a preparation not only ended cases of the flu within three days, but also increased antibody production. The researchers concluded that Elder seems to be designed specifically as a weapon against the flu virus. The flu virus has tiny spikes covered with an enzyme which helps penetrate healthy cell walls and allows the virus to then begin reproducing within that cell. The researchers found that the active ingredients in Elder disarms the flu’s cell deteriorating enzyme in 24-48 hours halting the spread of the virus.1 The effect on influenza of a syrup made from the berries of the elderberry has been studied in a small double-blind trial.2 People receiving an elderberry extract (2 tablespoons [30 ml] per day for children, 4 tablespoons [60 ml] per day for adults) appeared to recover faster than did those receiving a placebo. Animal studies have shown the flowers to have anti-inflammatory properties.3
Clinical studies like these offer nice support for using this plant but my strongest confidence in this plant comes from my own direct experience. My initial introduction was at a women’s retreat in New Mexico. I had just arrived at the grounds from a taxing plane ride and a few weeks of very high stress. The morning after arriving I awoke with a biting sore throat, phlegm in my chest and a deep buzz in my head. All of the tell tale signs illness had found its way into my weakened body. I was resigning myself to the illness when the local herbalist gave me one dropperful of a sweet elixir that tasted like port wine. I rested and took another dropperful in the evening and by the next day all of signs and symptoms of illness had passed. Amazed by this outcome, I now have this medicine on hand at all times. My husband works in a large building in downtown Seattle and seems especially sensitive to flus . Illness commonly makes its rounds through the office and before my introduction to this herb, he was often home sick. He now keeps a large bottle of elder near him at all times and has not been sick in many moons. Any day now, a new little baby will join our household and though I am not generally one to get caught up in the mania associated with “possible” pandemics or the media focus on the upcoming flu season, I think that we will certainly take extra precaution and dose up just to help that weak and developing little immune system. I have found that the trick to preventing the illness on the spot is to take the elder in the form of a tincture at the first signs of illness. If caught soon enough, it seems surely to ward off the full blown sickness. Some of my friends and relatives who have not been so vigilant have noted benefits from taking the tincture even after the flu has gotten hold. In that scenario, it does not seem to offer an immediate turn around but does bring the intense symptoms down to lasting only around 3 days. It is said that a tea of the flowers is just as powerful, but my personal use is limited to the alcohol infusion or honey laden tincture.
Yesterday I climbed the small hill to reach that rogue tree that grows nearby. I pulled down all the branches I could reach and broke off umbels of the robin’s egg colored fruit. I quickly filled my basket and returned home to free the berries from their stems. I filled a jar and covered it Vodka, and layed the rest on the screens to be dried in the dehydrator. In a few weeks, I will strain off the tincture and add a cup of honey to it and fill small apothecary bottles. They will go to the office, be stashed in cars and purses and be put up in the medicine chests of my friends and family. All fall and winter I will lift a dropper to my mouth and take in the sweet medicine and be thankful for the healing.
Botanical Names– Sambucus nigra, Sambucus caerulea-
Common Names-Blue Elder, Mexican Elder, Black Elder
Parts Used– Berries and Flowers
Preparations– Decotions made from the dried flowers, alcohol extractions of the fruit, and syrups made from the berries.
Sweet Elderberry Tincture
One ounce Elderberries-dried or fresh
One pint Vodka
1/2 Cup Honey
Steep the berries in the liquor for at least two weeks, strain and press out all the juices that you can, mix with honey and pour into apothecary bottles. Stable for at least a year if it last that long.
1-Mumcuoglu, M. Sambucus nigra (L), Black Elderberry Extract: A breakthrough in the treatment of influenza. Skokie, Illinois: RSS Publishing, 1995
2-Zakay-Rones Z, Varsano N, Zlotnik M, et al. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama. J Alt Compl Med 1995;1:361-9.
3-Mascolo N, Autore G, Capasso G, et al. Biological screening of Italian medicinal plants for anti-inflammatory activity. Phytother Res 1987;1:28-31.