I came across this beautiful yet menacing plant while hiking in Cascade Canyon near Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons. I was watching specifically for medicinal plants that day but realized that I’ve never seen an Elder bush in Minnesota. What I learned upon doing a little reading is that I just wasn’t looking hard enough. It turns out these characters grow just about EVERYWHERE! Basically anything east of the Rockies is fair game for this member of the honeysuckle family.
Crunchy mamas know all about the benefits of elderberry syrup. The boards I follow are full of mamas who turn to their homemade elderberry syrup at the first signs of a cough, sniffle or flu. The berries are nutritious: rich in flavonoids, and high in vitamin C, vitamin A, bioflavonoids, beta carotene, iron, and potassium. (Gladstar, 2012). Perfect for boosting the immune system and helping the body stay healthy at the first sign of a cold! It’s as magical as the elder wands in Harry Potter - the most powerful wand known to wizard kind and even able to mend other wands!
While elder is a popular gem in any herbalist and crunchy mom cabinet, it’s also a small but handy homeopathic remedy. It’s small because it’s really only known well as an acute remedy but it works really, really well when it’s indicated. The way I’ve always remember it is in a short rhyme that my teacher once told me. “Sambucus is for mucus.” Well, actually, it’s for coughs but I’m not going to argue that mucus plays a HUGE part in the whole picture.
To homeopaths, Elder is known as “Sambucus”. When prepared into a homeopathic remedy, we use a leaf and flower to make the original mother tincture. Perhaps you’re wondering, why make it into a remedy when it works so well as an herb/syrup? Good question. I was just wondering if you’d ask that. The benefit in this and most cases is that when a substance is made into a homeopathic remedy, we’re able to utilize all of its energetic properties. I don’t want to get off on too much of a tangent here (this might be fodder for another blog post), but every substance has a full, individual, unique energetic signature. It’s sort of like saying that every substance in the world has its own personality. When we create and test homeopathic remedies, we find that each substance has a mental, emotional and physical signature or personality. A lot of time when we use well known herbs, the physical picture is already well known, meaning we already know from its herbal action on the body how it might act as a remedy. When we make that herb into a homeopathic remedy, we can often strengthen the healing properties of that herb and hone their specific action.
Let’s take Elder for example. We know that it has all of those great properties which make it into a fantastic immune booster. When we process it into a homeopathic remedy, a whole picture emerges (through the process of testing it called a proving). For homeopaths, below are some remedy highlights for Sambucus nigra.
Sambucus nigra Remedy Highlights
Profuse sweat accompanying other symptoms
Fretfulness and easily frightened
Asthma with heavy perspiration
Face turns a blue hue during cough
Nasal obstruction and snuffles
Hoarseness from mucus
Respiration difficult, worse from lying
Cold feet and hands with a warm body
Whistling, croupy cough
Sambucus nigra History
Danger and Protection
There were conflicting superstitions around Elder. Some thought that cutting or harming the trees would anger the spirits that lived in them. They were thought to seek revenge on those who had elder wood in their homes. Some thought that elder was a symbol of protection so it was planted near windows and doors to keep evil spirits away.
The Romans used edler as a purgative (laxative) and an emetic (cause vomiting). During the Middle Ages, elder berries were used to reduce swelling and applied to sprains, bruises and wounds. Teas were made for rheumatic aches and for coughs and colds.
Sambucus nigra Syrup Recipe
Combine 2lbs of rinsed, stemmed, edible elderberries with 4 cups of water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Place cooled berry mixture in a large, fine-mesh strainer over the saucepan. Press out juice. Discard the seeds. Stir in 2 ½ cups sugar and cook over medium heat until juice thickens into a syrup. Refrigerate in a covered container. Yummy on pancakes! (Johnson, Foster, Low Dog & Kiefer, 2010)
Gladstar, Rosemary. (2012). Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide and Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Remedies for Vibrant Health. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, LLC.
Johnson, Foster, Low Dog & Kiefer. (2010). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.