Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Elderberries in April. A heavy late winter pruning removes dead wood
and helps contain the shrubs' size, as well as encouraging new growth and  fruiting.
How does this happen? The warmest winter I can remember experiencing, and I've come down with my second cold of the season. Usually, I stay pretty healthy. What gives?

This cold is a bit worse than the last. I feel really tired and dragged out. I've popped garlic in my mouth. Drunk ginger, lemon and honey tea. Taken doses of echinacea tincture and lemon balm tincture. Drunk tea made with elder flowers, peppermint and yarrow. And I just finished eating a small bowl of elderberry jam -- as the berries possess anti-viral properties. It also is a great comfort food and quite tasty.

One or another species of elder (Sambucus spp.) is native to many different regions of the world, including here in Kansas, where Sambucus canadensis runs rampant. Its lacy umbels of flowers dress the mid-summer landscape. Several other species also are native to North America. The European species is Sambucus nigra, called by Shakespeare (whoever he really was) "the stinking elder" because its leaves smell like mouse nests, according to some recent reading I've done. Sambucus species also inhabit Asia and other parts of the world.

Wherever they grow, elders are used for their medicinal purposes. The berries of the European elder and the one grown here provide not only anti-viral action, but many nutrients. The bark and roots have been used in the past, to purge the body of its illness, as they are strong cathartics (a extreme laxative) and emetic (make you vomit). This approach is not much used in our kinder, gentler herbal medicine. The leaves can be used externally on bruises, sprains and chillblains. The cooked, ripe berries and the flowers provide enough benefits on their own for this plant to warrant a spot in the landscape, provided you have a large enough area.

Cooled infusions (strong teas) of dried elder flowers are used as a facial wash and to soothe irritated eyes. As a cold remedy, the flower tea reduces mucous membrane inflammation. In influenza, it helps the body sweat out a fever. Its properties complement those of yarrow and peppermint (both of which are somewhat antiseptic, among other things) for colds. Mix with boneset for the flue. Peppermint grows beneath my elders and yarrow grows close by.

White flowers (not the daisies) are yarrow.
Elder berries make a wonderful wine. A wine made from our berries collected in 2010 came out surprisingly pale, with a champagne-like fizz. Very nice. Typically, elder berry wine is dark and richly flavored. Wine made from the flowers is pale.

I make lots of elderberry jam each year and usually finish eating it all before the next year's berries are ready. Because they ripen in August, when I have a bazillion other things to process and preserve, this past year I froze all my elder berries and made them into jam when things were a bit quieter. I let the frozen berries thaw, processed out the seeds and then cooked the pulpy juice into jam.

Fairies appear beneath elders even in winter time.
Elderberry shrubs (Sambucus canadensis, at least) are quite easy to grow. They can be placed in full sun or part shade and seem to adapt to many conditions. You find them growing at the edges of woods and along roadsides all throughout northeast Kansas. Cultivated varieties bear larger berries than the wild ones do, and some bear a little earlier.

Elder shrubs sucker rampantly, that is, they send out underground runners that pop up shoots along their length. I have seen shoots pop up many feet from the parent plant. This occurs most frequently in the spring, so I spend a lot of time in April cutting back shoots. You can dig these and transplant if you want to start another stand elsewhere.

Butterfly on yarrow flowers.
In Europe, the elder tree/shrub also was tied to a lot of myth and folklore. You simply were not to cut wood from the tree without express permission of the spirit living in the tree. On Midsummer's eve, you can see fairies if you sit beneath an elder. I love my beautiful elders and am grateful for the healthful jam and flower tea they provide.

Now I am thinking about that elderberry wine in the pantry. Perhaps I should have a bit... strictly for medicinal  purposes, of course.

Elderberry shrubs in full summer bloom.


Meggie said...

I'm wondering if I can plant elderbery shrubs in Texas. I don't recall seeing them for sale at the local nursery. As far as natural potions to make one feel better, Elaine from Pear Tree Log posted some old rememdies to make one well. Pear Tree Log is a blog that I follow. She posted them for fun. They are totally disgusting! Frankly, I would choose the elderberry wine...

Sandra M. Siebert said...

It might be possible to grow ederberries in Texas, depends on where in Texas, I presume. I don't recall seeing elderberries at local nurseries, I've always mail-ordered them. The ones I ordered after moving here came from Oklahoma. Send me an e-mail to the address posted on the right side of this page and I can send you her phone number.