The elder bush has so many uses, it could be considered a type of wild pharmacy. The flowers, berries, leaves, stems, and roots have all been used as medicine, each possessing different medicinal properties. There are several species of elder, but the most commonly used commercially is the European elder, Sambucus nigra. Among American herbalists, Sambucus canadensis is the species of choice, but there are others that are equally useful.
My first experience using elder was gathering the wild berries, which are intensely tasty. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve gathered elderberries and made my own elderberry syrup. It’s wonderful on pancakes and waffles and makes an excellent medicine that is always easy to get children to take. (Here, have a spoonful of pancake syrup!)
Elderberries have traditionally been used to gently cleanse the stomach and bowels, and to combat respiratory congestion. I used the syrup or glycerite as a gentle, but effective, decongestant and expectorant when a child had a cold or respiratory congestion. Recent research in Europe has demonstrated that elderberries have antiviral activity, which helps confirm their value as a traditional medicine for colds. The berries also act as a blood tonic.
Alcoholic beverages don’t appeal to me very much, but there is one which is absolutely delightful and that is elderberry wine. A little bit of elderberry wine makes a fine medicine for the soul as well as the body—I just think of it as a very large dose of an alcohol tincture of elderberry. Fortunately, it isn’t easy to find, so I don’t imbibe much.
Nature’s Sunshine includes elderberry in two formulas targeted primarily at viral conditions. They are Elderberry Defense and Chewable Elderberry Plus. Both are excellent remedies for viral conditions, especially colds, flu and other acute viral diseases.
I could stop here, having covered NSP’s uses for elder, but as already mentioned, elder bush is practically a pharmacy unto itself, so I can’t resist sharing the uses of some of the other parts of this valuable herb.
For starters, I’ve used the flowers even more than the berries. I first learned the value of elderflower from Edward Shook’s Advance Treatise in Herbology. He said that elderflower and peppermint was an excellent remedy for influenza. The flowers are anti-inflammatory and act as a febrifuge.
My favorite herbal remedy, which I call children’s composition, is a glycerite extract of yarrow, elderflower and peppermint. It’s a formula I’ve made and used to successfully clear up numerous acute or viral conditions, including fever, colds, stomach aches, sore throats, and coughs.
The leaves of elder are astringent and have been used topically for wounds, skin afflictions, ulcerations, bruises, and sprains. The inner bark is a bitter remedy that purges the liver and has a laxative effect. Like cascara, the bark needs to be dried and aged or it is too strong. One can readily see why the elder was, and still is, a highly valued plant among herbalists.
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chevallier
The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood
Indian Herbology of North America by Alma R. Hutchens
Advanced Treatis in Herbology by Edward Shook