My first plant ally was the elder tree or, as I like to call her, my beloved elder. It was one month before I formally became an herbal-medicine apprentice, so this was before I knew that a plant ally is a plant or tree that you choose (and are chosen by) for a lifelong relationship. As your relationship with the plant grows and deepens, it becomes a special liaison for your communication with all the other plants, and you can call on it for any type of healing you need for yourself and others.
I was living in New York City, and had a dream that I was being pursued and had gone into hiding. I was getting ready to sleep under a small, wild-looking tree with a rounded crown. I felt safe when I finally got settled underneath it. It was a magical night in spite of the danger, and the tree seemed to have lights sparkling in it. Now I recognize these as the elder’s umbels, the creamy-white, nearly flat-topped clusters of flowers that abundantly adorn the tree in June.
Every part of the elder tree is medicinal, but the flowers and berries are the most frequently used and safest parts to use internally. The leaves are bark are purgative, and I don’t recommend them for internal use. However, the fresh leaves may be used externally in a simple oil, salve, or liniment for bruises and sprains by steeping the green leaves in olive oil, lard, or rubbing alcohol for six weeks and then decanting them for use.
Elder blossoms are antiviral and can be used for head colds, for problems with skin, ears, eyes, or upper-respiratory tract, and as an anti-infective generally for any of those systems. I also like elder blossoms for healing the tummy if there is queasiness or nausea from post-nasal drip.
Easy Elder Flower Infusion
- 1 cup dried elder flowers
- ½ gallon water
Pour boiling water over the dried elder blossoms in a half-gallon glass jar. Cap it tightly and let it sit for about 2 hours. Strain out the herbs and squeeze them to get every drop of goodness. This infusion can be refrigerated and gently reheated on the stovetop. I often pour it into a stainless-steel thermos to drink throughout the day. You could also put it in a pitcher with ice if it is a hot summer day. This infusion is safe for anyone from infants to elders, and you don’t have to be sick to enjoy it.
Contemporary studies have focused substantially on the antiviral and immune-strengthening properties of elderberries. Original research in the 1980’s from Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem was the first to show that elderberries are more effective against flu than any known flu medication. I use the berries as an iron and vitamin-C tonic, and for colds, flu, and lower respiratory viral infections. I turn to elderberries for coughs and chest congestion, especially that kind that starts out as a head cold and then moves down into the chest. Elderberries can also be used to improve the flavor or less tasty infusions.
Easy Elderberry Infusion
- 1 cup dried elderberries
- ½ gallon water
Pour boiling water over the elderberries in a half-gallon jar. Cap it tightly and let it sit for a minimum of 8 hours. (I prefer a longer steeping time, about 12 hours.) Pour off the liquid, squeezing out the berries as much as you can between your hands, or wringing them out in a piece of cheesecloth. Refrigerate and/or reheat the infusion as described in the Easy Elder Flower Infusion recipe. Compost the berries.
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