Kathleen Hale, member Herb Society of America, Western Reserve Unit
The elder is a scary plant.
Oh, sure, it’s hardy and lovely. In June it is crowned with showy, flat umbels of fragrant flowers above its lacy foliage. Later come rich clusters of dark purple fruit, useful as a dye plant and in making delicious pie or jam. It is a valuable plant for native butterfly and bird species.
But people have often sensed something other-worldly about elder. Rightly so.
In the Harry Potter universe, a wand made of elder turns is a critical plot point balancing the battle of good versus evil. In J.K. Rowling’s Tales of Beetle the Bard, three wizarding brothers conjure a bridge to cross a perilous stream. And Death himself appears.
Pretending to be impressed with the brothers’ skills, he offers them the magical prize of their choice. Supreme among those choices turns out to be the Elder Wand, which renders its owner invulnerable. As with most deals offered by malevolent supernatural entities, the reality is a bit more complicated. After seven Harry Potter novels, the power of the Elder Wand is ended. Probably. You never know.
Stories about elder will tell you that witches are very fond of the elder tree. They will dance under it, in fact, as do fairies. Of course, other stories will tell you that witches fear the elder. All sources agree that mere ordinary humans should be very careful about touching the elder without first seeking permission from the Elder Mother. She is the plant’s guardian, and is notoriously touchy.
In the 1944 film, Lavender and Old Lace, the sweet and dotty Brewster sisters selectively poison lonely old men with home-brewed elderberry wine. For their special guests, the wine is laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch” of cyanide. My personal research has shown that a very nice, and non-toxic, brunch drink for summer is a simple mix of St. Germaine elderflower cordial and prosecco.
Actually, every part of the elder is poison without careful handling. It’s cyanidin glycosides and alkaloids are toxic, and the berries is rendered edible only if ripe, cooked and completely separated from the tiny stems affixing them to the plant.
The elder, Sambucus negra, grows throughout Europe, and Sambucus canadensis grows throughout North America as well. It grows wild in open woods and damp ravines.
In the Iroquois tradition the bark proves useful when scraped and steeped. That tea is used as a tonic in the Spring and Fall (much like my mother, a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia, used to make a stewed rhubarb concoction to “thin the blood”). It has also been used for millennia for what might be delicately called “internal cleansing.”
In flu season, many people seem to be adopting the Central European tradition of ingesting Elderberry C syrup, both as a general health inducer and as a treatment for/preventer of respiratory infections. The fruit, fresh, dried or powdered, may be stewed with warming spices, themselves deemed to be soothing, and combined with honey.
Given the toxicity of the plant generally, this is a tricky proposition. As is typical of herbal preparations for health and wellness, success in clinical trials has proven elusive. And, if you go foraging for your own elderberries, you will not only need to remember how dangerous preparation of the real thing can be, you will need to make sure you are, in fact, dealing with elderberries. Both pokeberry and hemlock have been mistaken for elderberry. Socrates died drinking hemlock. Don’t do it.