Respect Your Elder
A guest blog by medical herbalist, Joseph Nolan
It’s late summer, and we’re halfway between the elderflower and elderberry seasons. Just as you know summer has finally arrived when fluffy white drifts appear on elder trees, so you also know it is well and truly over when drooping sprays of purple-black appear in their places. The elder tree is one of the finest sources of medicine on the British Isles, with every part having myriad applications.
Somewhat unfairly, elder leaves are little used in herbal medicine these days. When made into an ointment they are rather like arnica in their powers to relieve bruises, bumps, sprains and strains, aches and pains. Traditionally, they were gathered on the last day in April, and made into an ointment with suet and lard, until the leaves were crisp and the fat turned green. This still works very well, although I substitute olive oil and beeswax for the lard and suet. Beware, however, because while they are wonderfully helpful when applied externally, they are purgative and nauseating when taken in tea. So don’t.
In the olden days, when purgatives and emetics were fashionable and common medicines, Elderbark was commonly used. Nowadays, spending lengthy periods of time miserable in the loo is not generally a satisfactory part of treatment, and so we don’t use the bark or roots much anymore. The bark and the roots are both strongly purgative, though less emetic than the leaves, and strongly diuretic. Once upon a time both were used to treat dropsy, the swelling that accompanies heart problems. The green inner bark can be made into an ointment, in a similar fashion to the leaves, for soothing dry and rough, sore skin.
A herbalist I know says of cold and flu season, “if you don’t have at least 2kg of elderflowers going in, you’re not prepared.” Indeed. An infusion of the flowers encourages perspiration, which is the best method of dispatching a winter virus before it really gets a hold and, once established, it helps to shorten the duration and reduce the severity of a cold. Plus, most people like the flavour of elderflower - and it’s comforting. it also goes well with gin and lemon, if hot toddies are your preferred cold cure. On a more structural level, elderflowers tone and strengthen the membranes of the nasal passages, reducing permeability to viruses and allergens during hay fever season, as well as stemming the flow of secretions. As such, they are essential ingredients in both medicines for both colds and hay fever. Additionally, the tea is helpful as a wash for mottled complexions and is a traditional remedy for melasma, the tan facial discolouration that can accompany pregnancy or use of the Pill. Use the flowers fresh (watch out for small flies and insects!) or dried, as tincture, or as “champagne” or homemade wine.
One of the most popular formulas in our shop is our Echinacea and Elderflower Compound.
An unbeatable winter remedy, Elderberry helps keep winter illnesses at bay by strengthening the immune system, partly but not entirely because of its high vitamin C content. It makes a perfect tonic to take daily from when the berries ripen - convenient just as the weather changes and the first coughs make the rounds - straight through until spring. Elderberry rob, cordial, syrup, liqueur, and shrub are all traditional winter drinks, usually with some spices added. When making your own elderberry remedies, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are particularly nice and you can get wild with some black pepper, cardamom, star anise, or orange peel too. Adding honey improves the flavour to some people’s minds and also adds to the expectorant qualities - very useful once a cough has taken hold. I use buckets of elderberry for people, including children, who have been struck down by a bad cough or a series of chest infections. It’s also quite useful when recovering from lung infections like pneumonia, to strengthen and rebuild, as well as prevent subsequent infection. Take the berries in a traditional form, fresh, dried, as a tincture or wine. They can even be used in baking, similarly to currants. Beware, however, Elderberries must be cooked before using or they will cause digestive distress. The exception to the rule seems to be fermentation, so elderberries can, according to experts, be used raw to make wine without causing upset later on. Eating raw elderberries will cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhoea and, while these are not to a dangerous degree, the whole experience is very unpleasant. Enjoy your elderberries, yes, but do make sure you cook or ferment them first.
Used at the first sign of a sore throat, our Elderberry and Honey Spray will stop infections
in their tracks. Providing anti-viral and anti-microbial properties, as well as the soothing action of organic honey.
The Elder Tree
Elder was once believed to ward off witches and bad spells, to protect livestock from the evil eye, and to keep fairies in line around the house. Hanging about under an Elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve would enable one to see the fairy king and his host ride by. Possibly after drinking the Elderberry wine.