You’re doubtless familiar with the elder plant (Sambucus nigra): both elderberry or elderflower are fantastic cold and flu remedies, especially for kids. But did you know that it’s one of the most versatile herbal remedies in the world, with centuries of use in everything from water retention to intestinal colic? Read on to learn why the elderberry has a place in every home.
The book of elder
If any plant has ever been considered as a cure-all or panacea, it’s the elder. Entire books have been written on the medicinal virtues of this humble plant: Martin Blochwich published a 230-page treatise on elder in 1633, translated in English as The Anatomie of Elder. Shakespeare, no less, included elder among historical medical luminaries in The Merry Wives of Windsor, asking, “What says my Aesculapius? My Galen? My heart of elder?” The Roman Emperor Charlemagne was so enamoured of the elder’s properties that he decreed that the plant should be grown in every garden in his kingdom – a rare example of ‘elite’ endorsement of folk medicine.
The energetic perspective
So far, so historically interesting. But is the formidable reputation of the elder based on anything tangible and enduring, or is the remarkably widespread acceptance of the plant as a herbal panacea merely a historical curio? The best way to answer this question in the case of elderberry is to consider its energetics: whether it is warming or cooling, relaxing or tightening, moistening or drying. Elderberry is cooling, relaxing and moistening, its relaxing properties most apparent in its ability to open the tubes of the body – such as the blood vessels, digestive tract, urinary apparatus, female organs and skin pores. Once this is understood, the myriad traditional indications for elderberry begin to make sense.
Elder for the infant
Elderberry is nowadays best known as a superlative remedy for childhood, and more specifically infant, fevers. Infants commonly display a pale blue swelling across the nose, accompanied by red, dry, irritated skin on their cheeks – and this when we should reach for the elderberry! Its relaxant properties soothe spasmodic coughs and intestinal colic in children displaying this complexion. Many parents will have uncomfortable memories of their child waking around midnight, unable to breathe properly and turning blue; here elderberry would quiet the little patient and usher the whole family back to peaceful slumber. And of course, the skin signs that point to the utility of elderberry are not limited to children and infants: the relaxing, cooling and moistening qualities of the berries will help anyone whose skin is swollen, pale and blue – swollen ankles, perhaps, or sprained wrists where this appearance is common – or red, dry and rough, such as certain forms of eczema.
Fever-clearing and blood building
Elderberry is a diaphoretic; that is, it brings on a sweat by opening the pores of the skin, to release the excess heat of fever. A classic British herbal combination is yarrow flower, peppermint and elderflower – the berry would work nearly as well – drunk hot and in large quantities at the onset of a cold or flu. Thus fortified, the patient should go to bed, wrap up warm and sweat the illness out before it becomes a problem.
Elderflowers and berries have similar properties, although the berries have one important property lacking in the flower: they are toning and building to the blood. Unsurprisingly, then, they are useful in anaemia. In women, its relaxing, opening powers are useful in menstrual problems and fibroids, and the aforementioned Blochwich cited the treatment of swollen womb, postnatal uterine inflammation, excess flow of thin blood, clotting and coagulated flow and cramps.
Energetically, then, the historical and traditional uses of elder certainly make sense. But what of science? As is the case with most herbs and their traditional indications, modern science has little to say on the topic since hardly any decent quality research has been performed. However, some recent research supports the idea that elderberry is effective against influenza. In 2019, Australian researchers [https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190423133644.htm] went so far as to propose that elderberry “inhibits the early stages of an infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells…blocking the viral cycle at several stages has a higher chance of inhibiting the viral infection.” The chemical constituents responsible for these effects are the anthocyanins, antioxidants that give the elderberry its dark purple hue. A recent systematic review [https://bmccomplementmedtherapies.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12906-021-03283-5] confirmed the efficacy and safety of elderberry in viral respiratory infections, such as influenza.
The historical and traditional list of uses for the elder plant are quite without parallel, and the energetic standpoint makes it easy to understand why this has been the case. While it may be true that no plant is quite worthy of a cultivation mandate issued by a Roman autocrat, everyone would benefit in some way from adding elderberry to their diet – and CrystalNutri’s super-concentrated, chemical-free elderberry crystals are by far the tastiest and most convenient way to do so! Elderberry and elderflower are also key ingredients in several of our most popular crystal blends, such as ImmunExtra, ImmunExtra Kids and Crystal Blessing.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll take a look at some of the folkloric and even religious beliefs surrounding the elder tree.
Herbalist & Naturopath