We’re deep into berry season here, with the blueberries almost done, although strawberries continue to be lush, and the wild berries of salal and western bilberry at their peak. Another wild berry is coming into its own right now, although it’s not as much of a culinary one- Elder.
In our area, we have mostly red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, with the occasional blue Elder, Sambucus caerulea. On our property in particular, it’s all the red variety, about 6 of them at last count, although they seed prolifically and grow fast if they find a good spot, so next year, we’re sure to have more. They like to grow at the edges of woods, where the soil stays damp and cool from the shade, but where they can also reach up for the sun on their leaves.
There is a long, dense stand of the blue variety lining Highway 101 for miles going north from here, and whenever I drive that way, I look forward to seeing what stage they are in: from the creamy white explosion of flowers in the spring, to the cool lush green all summer, to the silvery-blue berries starting about now. Likewise around our place, I watch for the flowers in the spring, peeking out between the sword ferns and salmonberry below them and the tall firs above them.
The variety we use for our Spagyric is the European Sambucus nigra, or black Elder, which is the classic Elderberry of wine, medicinal syrups, and many ancient healing uses. Our native Elders are trickier to work with medicinally, especially the berries, with the blue and especially red ones being toxic if not prepared properly. I do make my own tea from the flowers, since they have the same calming diaphoretic properties as the European, and a lovely taste, but for the important antiviral properties of the berries, the black variety seems to be best.
The name Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word æld, meaning “fire”, because its hollow branches could be used to both start fires, as they are easily set alight, as well as being useful as a straw or bellows for blowing on a fire to stoke it. At the same time, there was a taboo against burning or otherwise damaging Elder trees and wood, especially in Germanic regions where the plant was called Hyllantree or Holunder, a reference to Hylde-moer, the Elder Mother, a dryad or tree spirit who was said to live in Elder trees. If her trees were honoured and cared for, she would protect the people of the house around which they were planted- but if not, bad luck would befall them.
I find the dual nature of Elder’s relationship to fire very interesting, in light of its medicinal uses. Hollow stems that can be blown through, which were also traditionally made into flutes, speak of the element of Air and the breath, while using them as a bellows connects to the power of fire. Using Elder as a remedy for winter infections draws on both these properties, especially when applied to the flu, for which Elder has been most used and proven effective.
The flowers of Elder are diaphoretic, which is why I use them as a tea as mentioned already. They will reliably create a sense of inner warmth, leading to sweating which cools the body and brings down a fever, which is the classic Mars action of increasing heat to drive it out.
The berries are the more widely-studied medicine of Elder, and they have been used for centuries for directly fighting influenza infection. Modern research has shown reduction in symptoms and duration of infection from the average of 6 days to 2 in patients given elderberry extracts, and this is in keeping with the time-honoured uses of Elder for healing the respiratory system and its vitalizing energy of air and breath.
Since both the spring flowers and autumn berries of Elder are medicinal, and act together in a synergistic way, we include both in our Essence of Elder. It has a sweet, rich berry taste, followed by a light floral note, making it an easy Spagyric to take and give to kids or picky persons. Its diaphoretic effects come on quickly, and can be enhanced with a hot bath and bundling up in blankets, as long as the fever being treated is not too high to safely push a little.
Once curled up like this, as the flowers’ peaceful energy comes through, the patient finds they feel calm, relaxed, and in less pain, able to get the rest that is needed for healing.