Learn all about the uses and natural benefits of elderberry along with folklore of days past.
Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine (Storey, 2016) by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “M” section.
Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis), blue elderberry (S. nigra subsp. cerulea), and red elderberry (S. racemosa)
When I was in college, my parents lived in a house with an elderberry hedge that surrounded their backyard. When the bushes bloomed, the fragrance was intoxicating, but the bigger event was when the berries ripened. Even after the flocks of birds had shared the harvest, there were still plenty of berries for us to turn into jam and to dehydrate. We ended up with gallon jars of them, which we powdered and used for sweetening beverages, sprinkling over ice cream, and mixing into pancakes. I still think back to that bountiful harvest whenever I’m picking a single bowlful of berries from my own small elderberry bushes.
Elderberry fruit and flowers from black or blue elderberry are wonderful as herbal medicine. The berries and flowers can be used individually, or combined together, to relieve the symptoms of colds and flu, soothe a cough, reduce a fever, and relieve stomach and intestinal cramping. The berries contain high levels of flavonoids and vitamins A and C, and are a good source of minerals. In addition, medical research is looking into the benefits the berries offer in treating influenza and other viruses, as well as some kinds of bacteria (such as streptococcus and E. coli). Elderberries are rich in flavonoids like anthocyanins, which are stimulating to the immune system; they work by reducing the influenza virus’s ability to spread, so that fewer cells in the body are infected. Research is also looking into elderberry’s potential for cancer treatments, and pharmaceutical drug companies are interested in its potential as a plant-based medicine.
Sambucus, the Latin name for elderberry, refers to the sambuca, an ancient harplike musical instrument that was made with elder wood. The green stems are easily hollowed out; whistles and flutes have been created from them. Once dried, the hollowed-out stems are surprisingly sturdy! Another use for them is to make spiles, or spouts, for collecting maple sap; the dried stems are pounded into the trunks of sugar maple trees to channel the sap into buckets, so that the sap can be gathered and boiled into maple syrup.
Elderberry does come with a couple of cautions. Although the blue- and black-berried species are used as food and medicine, eating the red-berried species (Sambucus racemosa) will leave you nauseated and vomiting (hence its nicknames poison elder and stinking elder). In addition, the green unripe berries, leaves, stems, and twigs of all species of elderberry are mildly toxic; they contain a compound called sambunigrin, which is a cyanogenic glycoside. The bark also contains calcium oxalate crystals, which are toxic, too. Only flowers and ripe berries of the blue or black elderberries are safe and useful.
The edible parts of the elderberry plant — the berries and the flowers — can be used in a number of ways. Elderberries can be eaten cooked or dried; made into jams, jellies, and syrups; or fermented into wine. The ripe fruits can be combined with honey or sugar and baked into muffins or pies, even added to pancakes. The delicate creamy white flowers can be prepared as elderflower fritters by dipping them in a light flour batter and then frying them in oil; dust them lightly with a bit of powdered sugar and you have an amazing dessert. Elderflowers are made into a sparkling wine, and for those looking for a nonalcoholic alternative, try elderflower-infused sparkling water, which is a delicious champagne substitute.
Elderberry juice will turn your hands purple; it seems only natural that people would use it for dyeing wool! Few people realize, however, that the purple-ink date stamp on meat packages was made from elderberry juice until the mid-1990s, when it was replaced by synthetic dyes. Other parts of the plant are used in the dyeing process as well. Boiling elderberry bark will yield a black dye without much effort; the leaves, gently simmered, yield a green dye when alum is used as a mordant (a substance that serves as a fixative for the dye and that sometimes affects the resulting color; it’s applied to the material to be colored before the dye is used). Elderberries are most often used for dye, though. They give a nice deep purple color with alum as a mordant, and if salt is added, the color changes to a lovely lilac shade.
A brew of the leaves sprayed onto garden plants helps repel aphids, caterpillars, and adult flower flies (also called syrphid flies; in their larval stage these are beneficial predator insects, but as adults they damage flower blooms). Horsemen have long tied small bundles of the leaves to the tail and mane of their horses to repel flies that pester the animals. Today they make a fly repellent spray by steeping lemons, elderberry leaves, flowers, and stems; alternatively, you can simply tuck a flowering sprig into the browband of your horse’s bridle to repel the flies.
In addition to repelling insects, the tea from steeped elder leaves is said to repel rodents, which could be useful if mice are eating your strawberry fruits. Be sure to rinse your strawberries before eating them, though, as the elderberry leaf tea makes them taste a bit odd.
In Welsh legends elder is a sacred plant. In Scandinavia it was believed that if you stood under an elder on Midsummer’s Eve, you would see fairy folk, and in Germany one must not cut down an elder without first begging the tree’s forgiveness. English common folks would plant an elder to invoke the help of a witch to undo evil spells. Interestingly, immigrants from Europe brought these traditional beliefs with them as they settled in the New World, including the common belief that lightning rarely strikes an elderberry plant. For this reason it was considered wise to plant one near a home so that it would offer its protection from lightning to the house dwellers.
Elderberry shrubs are frequently planted in home landscapes, especially to provide wildlife habitat. They provide nesting sites for hummingbirds, warblers, and vireo birds. Many different kinds of birds forage the berries, as do both small and large animals such as squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and foxes. The shrubs give shelter to elk and deer, as well as to livestock like sheep and llamas. However, keep in mind that the flowers are fatal if they’re eaten by wild or domestic turkeys and peacocks. Chickens won’t touch the plant, and if they did eat it, it would be fatal to them.
Excerpted from Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, © by Tammi Hartung, photography by Mars Vilaubi and illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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