Elderberry - Elderflower Used For Flus, Fevers, Colds and More
by Cary Heather
canadensis, denotes Canada or the Northeast, where this plant was first identified.
Sambucus embraces about twenty species of shrubs and small trees with pithy
stems that grow mainly in temperate and subtropical regions. In North America there
are perhaps four species, which native populations used extensively for foods and
Elderberry grows from three to twelve feet tall in moist, rich soil and ranges from
Nova Scotia to Georgia, west to Texas, and north to Manitoba. It has opposite
toothed, feather-like leaves and creamy white spring flowers that form broad
wheel-like, flat-topped clusters. The flowers ripen in late summer to clusters of juicy
The American red elderberry, S. pubens, grows in the East, and the Pacific coast red
elderberry, S. callicarpa, is found in the West along with the larger blue elderberry, S.
caerulea, which can grow to twenty feet tall. All are attractive ornamentals,
frequently cultivated in mass plantings for their spring blossoms and autumn fruits. All
were also important American Indian medicinals. The red-berried elders are more
toxic than the blue elderberry.
Indians ate the elderberries ripe and dried, and the spring blossoms were used in
foods and steeped into restorative teas and salves. Teas made from the inner bark
served as a strong laxative, emetic, headache remedy, and diuretic, on the skin it
was a valuable treatment for eczema, swellings, and skin eruptions. The Onondaga
used the inner bark as an emetic to counter poisoning; it was also used to treat
toothaches. The inner bark was also pounded and poulticed on cuts, burns, and
sores, and on newborns' navels, as it provided pain relief and reduced swelling. The
Illinois and Miami Indians used strong root-bark decoctions to treat people with
debilities and general weakness. Elderberry syrup was a treatment for coughs, colds,
Indians made hunting whistles and courting flutes from the dense, creamy white
wood; the stems have a fibrous pith that can be easily hollowed out. Some tribes
carved spiles for tapping sugar maple trees from elderberry, as well as from sumac
wood. Indian boys fashioned blowguns from elderberry stems.
As they moved to the New World, our European ancestors brought the European
elder, S. nigra, because of its vital importance in their traditional lifeways. Many
believed that the elderberry was imbued with special spirits and powers. Planting an
elderberry shrub touching the house was considered a deterrent to witches and
ghosts, preventing them from appearing or harming the inhabitants. Our
Scandinavian forebears thought that tying a cross of elderberry sticks to the head of
the bed would prevent bad dreams and nightmares. They used the fresh and dried
leaves in the garden around vegetables to keep away mice and insects and prevent
fungal damage to their garden crops, and they made wines and vinegars from the
ripe fruits and blossoms and salves from the inner bark and flowers.
Modern herbalists continue to recommend the virtues of elderberry. The spring
flowers and ripe berries are used as foods, flavorings, wines, tisanes (of blossoms),
and teas (of leaves). They are worked into a variety of syrups, infusions, tinctures,
and teas to treat coughs, colds, arthritis, congestion, and allergies. People take
elderberry syrup and capsules to strengthen the eyes.
The bark, roots, leaves, and unripe fruits of elderberry are toxic. Only the blossoms
and ripe berries are edible.
Growth needs and propagation:
Elderberry thrives in rich, moist soil with good mulch. It is easily cultivated from seed,
cuttings, and some sucker growth, which can be cut off and rooted. For success,
follow traditional methods. It is easiest to purchase healthy young specimens from
The well-developed root of the mature elderberry shrub can spread underground,
sending up new shoots nearby. This habit allows the elderberry to establish groves in
likely areas. Using a sharp shovel, you can dig out these "new starts" and create an
elderberry grove elsewhere on your property or give new plants to friends for their
Elderberry grows happily with shade-loving herbs in the medicine wheel garden, as it
provides the shade. Blue cohosh, bearberry pennyroyal, and goldenseal are good
About The Author
is commonly used for coughs, bronchitis, and other inflammations in the
respiratory tract. is a popular remedy for symptomatic relief for every
type of upper respiratory issue.
American elderberry, sweet
elderberry, and elder are some
common names for this native
deciduous shrub. The genus name
may come from the Greek word
sambuke, for a musical instrument
that was once made of elder wood.
For centuries elderberry has been
used to heal the body, mind, and
spirit through its gifts of medicines
and charms. The species name,
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