Friday, 6 September 2019

Herbal Focus: Elderberries

Article © Debs Cook
The elder tree (Sambucus nigra) is a deciduous shrub or small tree which grows to between 4–6 m in height, the bark is light grey when young, changing to a coarse darker grey outer bark with length wise furrowing. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, 10–30 cm long, and are pinnate with five to seven leaflets, the leaflets are 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm broad, with a serrated margin. The flowers of the elder give way to fruits which hand in clusters of many small drupes each 5-6mm in diameter and dark purple-black in colour and its these fruits that we'll be focusing on in this article.

The name Elder comes from the Saxon words 'eller' or ‘kindler’ due to the fact that the hollow stems of elder wood were used as mini bellows to help fires that were dying out to burn. The inner pith of the stems hollow stems have been used to make musical instruments. Other names for Elder include: - Black Elder, Common Elder, European Elder, Pipe Tree, Bourtre, Suin, Acte, Judas Tree, Lady Ellhorn, Whistle Tree, Old Lady, Hylder, Hylantree, Eldrum, Ellhorn, Hollunder, Sambuke and Sureau.

Seeds from elderberry fruits have been found in Neolithic remains in Switzerland which suggest that the elderberries were gathered for food and possibly for medicinal use since around 2000 B.C. In the 1st century A.D. Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides were both making use of the purgative properties of the leaves, buds, bark, sap and of course the berries, Pliny also described the use of the berries from the elder being used to dye the hair.

In 1644 Martin Blochwich a highly respected German physician of his day, compiled a manuscript in Latin which he called ‘Anatomia Sambuci’, the manuscript was translated into English by C. De Iryngio in 1651 and reprinted in 1677, then promptly faded into obscurity, until someone at the European nutraceutical company called BerryPharma, rediscovered the book whilst doing some research into the use of elderberries as a traditional remedy and decided to get it revised and reprinted in 2010.

Blochwich intended his manuscript to be a reference guide for his fellow medical practitioners who lived in the villages and countryside’s of Europe. It drew upon the existing traditional remedy works of his time, dating back to Galen and Pythagoras and he added his own experiences with the elder. The ‘Anatomia Sambuci’ was one of the earliest medical textbooks to be printed for educational purposes, during a period in European history when witchcraft was still an offence and knowledge was still the protected right of the theologians, the rich and the powerful. However, the newly formed British Royal Society showed their progressiveness by recommending the book to their members in 1677.

William Turner in the 16th century wrote more about the uses of the leaves and root of the elder tree than the berries, of the berries he only wrote that when the fruits are soaked in wine, they “softeneth the mother and openeth it, and it amendeth such hurts as are commonly about it”, he also made reference to them being used to dye the hair black. The seeds found in the berries were also recommended by John Gerard for those who suffered from “the dropsy, and such who are too fat and would faine be leaner.” Like Turner, Gerard gave more uses for the leaves, flowers, bark and pith of the elder than he did for the berries, uses of most of these parts of the elder have been forgotten in time and these days only the flowers and berries are commonly used.

In the 17th century Nicholas Culpeper, herbalist and author believed that everyone in the 17th century recognised the elder tree and knew how to use it, so much so his book entry for the elder tree says simply “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder.” and then moved on to discuss the Dwarf Elder also known as Danewort.

John Parkinson wrote about the different uses of the elder tree in his 'Theatrum Botanicum' published in 1640, of the berries he wrote that “the juyce of the berries boyled with a little honey, and dropped into the eares, easeth the paines of them; the decoction of the berries in wine being drunke, provoketh urine.

18th century herbalist Sir John Hill describes how “the juice of the berries is boiled down with a little sugar, or by some wholly without, and this, when it comes to the consistency of honey is the famous rob of elder, good in colds and sore throats” and adds that “a wine is made of the elderberries, which has the flavour of Frontignac.” Frontignac being a sweet wine made in Frontignan in the Languedoc region of France, elderberries were also used to make a rich port-style wine.

In his book Herbal Simples W. T. Fernie also wrote of the elderberry rob saying that “Almost from time immemorial in England, a 'rob' made from the juice of Elderberries, simmered and thickened with sugar, or mulled Elder wine concocted from the fruit, with raisins, sugar and spices, have been popular remedies in this country, if taken hot at bedtime, for a recent cold or sore throat. But only of late has chemistry explained that Elderberries furnish 'viburnic acid,' which induces sweating and is specially curative of inflammatory bronchial soreness.” Incidentally a ‘rob’ is any fruit juice that is thickened using sugar, so you can make blackberry or raspberry rob, it doesn’t have to be elderberries, but for helping to ease cold and flu symptoms, elderberries work best.

20th century herbalist Maud Grieve wrote in her book ‘A Modern Herbal’ that “Elder Berries have long been used in the English countryside for making many home-made drinks and preserves that are almost as great favourites now as in the time of our great-grandmothers. The berries make an excellent home-made wine and winter cordial, which improves with age, and taken hot with sugar, just before going to bed, is an old-fashioned and wellestablished cure for a cold.” The use of the berries to prevent or ease symptoms of colds and flu is a use for these fruity little berries that has cropped up throughout history. Grieve wrote also of the elderberries use for making wine, for which it is well suited, I’ve made many bottles of elderberry wine in my past and combined them with other ingredients to make delicious hedgerow wines.

Making Use of Elderberries

Elderberries have anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, aperient, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emollient, expectorant, galactogogue, haemostatic, laxative, purgative and stimulant properties. Chemical constituents in elderberries include the cyanogenic glycoside viburnic acid which can help to induce perspiration, sambunigrin another cyanogenic glycoside is present in the seeds of the berries, and this is one of the constituents which contribute to the purgative action of elderberries. The berries are rich in bio-flavonoids including quercetin, rutin and sambucin, elderberries also contain anthocyanins another a type of flavonoid which is antioxidant and may help to protect support the immune system.

Anthocyanins are water soluble pigments which give shades of red, blue, black and purple to black dependant on the amount contained and their companion constituents, they can also be used to fashion homemade pH indicators. Incidentally, elderberries contain almost 5 times as many anthocyanins as blueberries and twice the antioxidant capability of cranberries, in the food industry an extract of elderberry is used as a food colouring due to its stability.

Despite being an astringent berry which is why they have a tart flavour, elderberries contain several natural sugars including fructose, glucose, pectin and saccharose, it is their natural pectin level, which makes elderberries an ideal addition to hedgerow jams and jellies. Polyphenols including chlorogenic acid which is responsible for the laxative and anti-hypertensive properties of elderberries are also present, alongside vitamins A and B and also vitamin C, elderberries join blackcurrants and rosehips as being the 3 highest vitamin C containing fruits. The berries also contain good amounts of the minerals calcium, phosphorous and potassium, and fruit acids including citric and malic acid, tannins are also present which help give the berries their astringent action.

Dried elderberries make a soothing and comforting drink which could help ease some of the symptoms of colds and flu. They offer a rich source of bioflavonoids which can help boost the body’s natural defences, the berries also contain minerals including potassium, calcium, zinc and vitamins A and B plus vitamin C which can be beneficial when suffering from a cold, they are a useful addition to the herbal store cupboard as they can be used when fresh berries are out of season.

Elderberries can be used to make cordials, jams and jellies; they can even be used as a substitute for currants when baking. They make excellent homemade wine and can be used to make a traditional drink called a ‘rob’ which is a soothing and pleasant to drink hot during the colder months of the year. The berries are a wonderful remedy for coughs, colds and 'flu' when taken as a tea, a cordial or as a tincture. In fact the tincture, if taken in teaspoonful doses three or four times a day at the first signs of a cold, may help prevent a cold from developing. If it does develop, it may be milder and last for a shorter duration if elderberry tincture is taken.

Debs Cook is the DHM web manager and our resident Herbal Historian, you can read more of her articles over on her Herbal Haven blog.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to source the most up to date and accurate information, we cannot guarantee that remedies in our articles are effective, when in doubt, consult your GP or a qualified Medicinal Herbalist. Remember also that herbal remedies can be dangerous under certain circumstances therefore you should always seek medical advice before self-treating with a homemade remedy, especially if you are pregnant, breast feeding or suffer from any known illness which could be adversely affected by self-treatment.