Saturday, September 29, 2007

Elderberry Sambucus a local forgotten medicinal?

As I am on my way up the mountain to collect elderberry, I notice several trees loaded with berries bordering yards, on the roadway, and in even in a nursing home parking lot. Elderberry used to be called "the medicine chest of the country people" but from the looks of my country town here in Sandy, many have forgotten. I picked some Elderberries a few weeks back for my friend Kiva. When I went to the small deserted country post office to deliver them, the clerk was eager to make conversation. I explained to her that I was shipping my friend some elderberries. "ewwwww where did you get them, I loved those as a child, my thumbs would be blue and numb, my Dad would use them for wine, jelly, cough medicine- I wouldn't know where to find any now" When I explained that they are actually quite common, she was sure they must not be the same berry, and in fact that to be careful that they may be poisonous. Have people gotten away from collecting their own medicinals? If there is one "goal" I have with this blog it is to empower people to get back to the old ways- lost traditions. Of course, be sure of what you are collecting, jim has a great guide for gathering your own herbs.
To (hopefully) get you interested in this wonderful plant, I will attempt to dredge up some interesting facts and legends.
Around here in the Pacific Northwest we have both red and blue elderberry. Blue is the one you want for wine (Rebecca's recipe), jelly, syrup (jim discusses it here), elixir ( Darcy's recipe) and other medicinals (kiva's tea), much more medicinal info can also be found on Henriette's site. There are 3 types of blue species that inhabit the West all similar in appearance; sambucus cerulea, S. racemosa & S. mexicana and one red fruit species S callicarpa (pacific red elder) the red has red berries and pyramid shaped flower clusters, the blue has blue berries and flat top flower clusters. Depending on what source you hear it from, the red can be toxic so I would stick to the blue. You can find the berries around here in the Pacific Northwest at the end of summer into early autumn.
The name Elder comes from the anglo-saxon word "aeld" meaning fire, the association being made because of the hollow stems were used to blow on fire (to increase flame) The name "sambucus" is from the Greek word meaning wind instrument. Both Shepard's & Native Americans used to make flutes from the elder branch, the tree was sometimes called "the tree of music". The hollow reads were also used to make smoke pipes, elk whistles, pop guns, and sprouts on maple syrup trees. Some Native American tribes used the sticks of elder for twirling sticks (the sticks used to start a fire by friction), the straight branches were also used for arrows. It should be noted that the leaves, bark, shoots, twigs, and roots of the fresh plant (of either color) are toxic, and children have been poisoned by chewing or sucking on the bark.
The Elderberry plant has held an important place in European myth. There have been opposite stories relating to it magical & supernatural qualities. There has been an association with both the devil and witches (the bad ugly ones lol) The wicked witches were believed to live in elder trees, so people were afraid to cut them down. It was considered dangerous to sleep in the shade of an elder or to plant one near a house. It was also believed if you fell asleep for too long under an elder that you would become intoxicated. Six knots of elder wood were used in a Yorkshire incantation to ascertain if the cattle were dying from witchcraft.
In contrast, the elder was believed to be a tree of protection against evil spirits and for this reason people would plant them near their homes. The leaves are an insect repellent and people used to hang the branches from doors & horses bridals to keep the bugs away. Elder was also planted near dairies to keep the milk from turning.
The fairy Folk love music and they used the wood of the elder to make all of their musical instruments. Hilda the mother of the elves is said to live in the root of the elder, and anyone under the elder tree at midnight on Midsummers day would see the king of the fairies and all his retinue pass by.
In England the dwarf elder was said to spring up whenever Danish blood was shed in battle, for this reason it was called "Dane's blood"
In Tyrol elder was planted on graves, if the plant flourished with berries it is believed that the dead person is happy in the other world after passing.
The appearance of berries on the elder would indicate it was the right time to sew the wheat in the field.
Food Uses
As described above in some of the links I provided, elderberry is both delicious and medicinal. In small quantities you can add it to food ( Elderberries do have hydrocyanic acid , in large quantities it can lead to stomach upset and diarrhea, how much I guess would depend on the person, this can be avoided by straining out the seeds or thoroughly cooking the berries, red elder berries have larger amounts of these compounds, which is why they are considered "toxic" Henriette has a nice write up here). Elderberries are good with other berries such as blueberry or raspberry, and a little honey can be added for sweetness.
Salad Dressing
Add equal parts of mashed fresh elderberries and blueberries to your favorite balsamic vinegar, shake well.
Elderberry Iced Tea
Equal parts frozen Blueberry and Elderberry (seeds strained)
Juice of 1/2 fresh Lemon
Approx 6 heaping tablespoons Green Tea (or other favorite tea)
Boil 3 cups water in a small pan. When it reaches boil, turn off the heat and add green tea. let steep for about 10 minutes. Strain and add to pitcher. Puree frozen berries in lemon juice, add to pitcher. Fill with water and ice, chill. Add honey or stevia to taste. (you can also used the dried berries and steep them like a tea, use the fresh blueberries for the puree)
Cream Cheese puree
Add elderberries ( seeds strained,to taste) to cream cheese and puree for quick sandwich spread, to put on fruit, add nuts, other berries, the possibilities are endless! To make it creamer add a dash of olive or flax oil, yum! You can also add
Add Elderberries to..
apple sauce
apple & rhubarb pies
cottage cheese
and yogurt.

More Delicious recipes

Use your imagination!

Winter Teas
Elderberries are really fun to experiment with in different teas
Dried elderberries, & blueberries equal parts, with a little feverfew & rose hips, honey and a squeeze of lemon for a great winter tea if you feel a cold coming on.

Also try variations with (not all actions are listed) Astragalus (adaptogen, healthy immune function), peppermint and spearmint(digestive aid, antiseptic,analgesic, astringent, calming) , chamomile (anti-inflammatory, digestive aid, relaxing) , licorice (sweet, antiviral), cinnamon (carminative, anticeptic), ginger (carminative, expectorant, antimicrobial -to name a few but can be drying), echinacea (antiviral, antibacterial) and other dried berries such as raspberry.

Resource:Profiles of Pacific Northwest Plants by Peggy Robinson 1977
Edible and medicinal plants of the west Tilford 1997


kate said...

Angie, can you give the botanical names for blue and red elder, as we don't have those common names here?

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

I went ahead and added some of the most common ones around here for the blue and the latin name for the pacific red elder, On the link of Henriette's site you will find much more info. The main way to tell is the red elder will have red berries & pyramid shaped clusters when flowering. Hope this helps

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

I also updated the Food uses section to include a link to Henriette's blog that talks about the red elder toxicity- quite interesting. Updated a few other things as well, I didn't include uses for the flowers or leaves- that will be for another post.:)

Henry and Janet said...

Elderberries are absolutely the best! I use mine primarily for a cold and flu syrup, but these new recipes make me wish I'd have put some aside. (PS, I'm new to your blog and am loving it)

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Welcome! I'm glad you enjoy my blog!

Rosalee de la Foret said...

Hi Angie,

I found your blog through the susun weed forum and was interested because we have very similar interests. I am a LMP/Herbalist/Doula/Parenting Consultant.
I read your elder post and learned a few new things. I wanted to caution you about stating that natives used these branches as flutes and blowguns without giving any further precautions. Blue elder contains both sambucine as well as hydrocyanic acid. According to Janice Schofield (Discovering Wild Plants is the title of the book), there have been several deaths associated with children using elder stems for those purposes. She recommends thoroughly cleaning out of the pith from the stems and then boiling them before use. She also says that all berries should be cooked before consumption due to the same poisons. Of course that is what I've heard about milkweed as well, but I've never had a problem. Anyway, I just wanted to add that in case you didn't already know the major cautions associated with this plant. I have already gathered quite a bit and plan on making some wine this week. Thanks for the great blog.

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Yes I did know about the toxicity thanks for reminding me to add that to the post! There is a mention of the hydrocyanic acid in the food uses, but I should have mentioned that about the bark the other parts of the plant.I noted this when I started my "legends and Native uses" series, sometimes what people used to use the plant for can be dangerous, and should not necessarily be used now (I should updated this in every post however).

Henriette said...

The "several deaths from Sambucus" is simply NOT TRUE. It's "kids got poisoned from it" (= a rash, or a tummy ache, or whatever) that got transformed into "they died, DIED I tell you".

... I know, cos I talked to Janice about it, on one or the other mailing list, years ago.

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Yes Henriette great point (this is why I included your link in the post), I never heard of a death, but I thought it was wise to mention the toxicity for children (better safe than sorry), I only read "poisoned" When people hear of this, I guess the skull and cross bones immediately comes to mind. I think to much would induce vomiting since the bark has more hydrocyanic acid than the rest of the plant. There are uses for this part of the plant externally, and I have even heard that a weak tea has been used by other herbalists as a laxative or diaphoretic (for adults) although I have not used it for this purpose, I also read that Native Americans used small amounts of the bark as a diuretic. Glad to have your voice here to stop all the death rumors, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hi, just came down from the Hood River Valley, there are many many elderberry bushes ripe with berries (I know this now that I brought a branch home with me!). I only wish I had brought an herbal book with me on our excursion. Two questions, do you know of a recipe using honey instead of alcohol, to make a syrup like Sambu? Also, I am a little confused, does drying inactivate the toxic substances in the same way cooking does? I have read some recipes where dried berries are used.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, I guess I should've looked on my shelf before asking the question. Rosemary Gladstar has a simple recipe in her Herbal Remedies for Children's Health book (p. 60). 1 cup fresh or 1/2 cup dried elderberries; 3 cups water, 1 cup honey. Place berries in saucepan and cover with water. Simmer over low heat for 30-45 minutes. Smash berries. Strain all through a fine mesh strainer and add 1 cup honey or adjust to taste. Bottle and store in the refrigerator. Will last 2-3 months when refrigerated. Do you think if I drive out towards Sandy from Milwaukie that I would find Elderberries? That would be closer than driving back up the Gorge. Thanks for your website, really enjoying it!

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Hi! You should have no problem finding elderberries out here, further up the mountain too, in a few weeks.
Check out kiva's blog for more great recipes :)

Leslie said...

I returned from eastern Oregon that had a ton of light blue elderberries growing on the side of one road I traveled. Having returned to Eugene I found the one bush that I knew of and picked some for syrup. My questions are: it's October, do elderberries have a long hang time? Benefit from a frost? Next year could I pick them earier? Thanks for posting the recipe.