The Elder (Sambucus niger) has been referred to as ‘the medicine chest of the people’ and revered down the ages for its healing abilities. Superstitions around placating the Elder Mother, such as asking her permission before cutting a branch, and against removing Elder trees may very well stem from this usefulness. The Latin name is from the Greek ‘sambuke’ meaning ‘musical pipe’, as the shoots were traditionally hollowed out to be used in this fashion.
There is so much folk-lore surrounding the elder that it would be difficult to even summarise it here, but here is a late 17th century example. Elder leaves were gathered on the last day of April and affixed to doors and windows. This is very interesting as elder leaves are insecticidal .. so buried in the folk belief that the plant would deter ‘evil spirits’ is a practical measure to prevent insects and the bacteria they carry entering the home.
This insecticidal property can be utilised by gardeners: a decoction of young leaves sprinkled over delicate plants and flower buds is supposed to keep off aphids and caterpillars. An infusion of the leaves can also be used as an insect-repellent by dabbing it about the person to prevent being bitten by midges and the like.
All parts of the elder have medicinal properties, though the flowers are favoured nowadays. The flowers and fruits are used internally for colds, catarrh, flu and fever and the bark for constipation and arthritis. Externally, the leaves or bark will help minor burns and chilblains, while the flowers treat inflamed skin, mouth ulcers and minor injuries.
The are many ways in which elder can be used in the domestic setting: a small muslin bag of elderflowers in the bath is suggested for irritability of the skin and nerves and the ointment (traditionally made from equal parts of elderflowers and lard) is an old remedy for chapped hands and chilblains. Elderflower tea is considered ‘spring medicine’ and is taken every morning before breakfast for some weeks as a blood purifier. It also effective if taken at the onset of flu, especially if combined with yarrow and peppermint.
A bitter, pungent, cooling herb which lowers fever, reduces inflammation, soothes irritation and has diuretic and anti-catarrhal effects. The leaves are insecticidal, antiseptic and healing.
Flowers June to July
Pick the leaves in the summer and use fresh. Strip the bark in late winter (before new leaves appear) and dry for decoctions. Collect fully open flowerheads and dry whole, then strip the flowers.
CAUTION: The leaves and berries are harmful if eaten.
PLEASE NOTE: These notes on the history and use of herbs have been compiled for general interest and are not intended as medical advice, for which you should consult a professional herbalist.
‘Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe’ Dieter Podlech (1987)
'A Modern Herbal' Mrs M. Grieve FRHS ed. Mrs C. F. Leyel (1973)
'The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal' Penelope Ody MNIMH (1993)
'RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses' Deni Brown (2002)