There may be more reasons than you think for using elderberry at this time of year. In college, I was fascinated with the stories humans tell about plants to transmit traditional knowledge. In each story there is a cultural memory being transmitted in the telling.
Cultural stories About Elderberry
It’s almost Halloween and a fun time to look into some of the scary stories humans have told about plants. Elderberry is an old world plant. In Europe, the variety is Sambucus nigra, and that is where some of these stories originated.
According to this lore…
…the elder bush is sacred to Holle, the guardian of the dead. This entity has been represented in various ways in several cultures. She is alternately a hag and a nurturing mother. In any case, she is not to be trifled with. The elder is never cut down or burnt without risking her wrath. It is still common knowledge that the elder is planted in your garden to watch over the plants in the area. This hag/mother figure is believed to be a bridge between life and death, communicating with and helping souls to pass over.
For these reasons, people have carried bits of elder wood in their pockets for protection, tied prayers to its branches and dreamed underneath its canopy on a midsummer night’s eve. On All Hallows Eve, when people believe the veil between the worlds is thinnest, surely the old woman in the elder is very active.
Stories like these entrench the importance of a plant into the culture that tells them. Elder (Sambucus canadensis here in the states) is indeed a magical plant. It is a medicine chest all on its own. All parts of the plant have been used for a wide range of health issues. Native Americans routinely used the bark and leaves both internally and externally for such things as parasites, bruising, sprains and unnaturally tightened tendons. Today the bark and leaves aren’t used often because of a concern that a cyanide-like compound found within the plant could present a health risk. Truthfully, the toxins in the plant are buffered in such a way that they would cause vomiting long before a toxic level was ingested.d
Modern Elderberry Benefits
These days, elder is most important to us because of its antibiotic compounds. We find the berry in syrups at this time of year to battle the flu. In fact, studies have found elderberry to be very effective in shortening the time of suffering and minimizing the symptoms of a bout with the flu. In lab settings we also find that elder has activity against such forgotten illnesses as mumps and measles. In fact, in the media hype over ebola, it is interesting to find that Stephen Buhner mentions in his recent book, Herbal Antibiotics, that elderberry has shown activity against this virus as well.
Today, our culture is not afraid of a witch living in the trunk of an elder. Our nightmare stories appear to be about the flu and ebola. Elder figures prominently in these bedtime stories because there is value there for keeping us healthy. Those of us who heed the tales will be sure to eat our elderberry syrup as we head into winter!
What about you?
Are you using elder to stay healthy this time of year?