Elderberry (S. canadensis): the American elder, is a
large shrub native to North America. It bears white flowers early in the summer
and dark, almost black, berries in the late summer. Both the flowers and the
berries have been used as food and for making wine. According to James Duke,
"Elder Blow [flower] wine is something special, delicious, with a beautiful
pale yellow color." Presumably American settlers knew the European elder, a
plant believed to have magical healing powers, and used the American native in
similar ways. The flowers were formerly prized for use in salves and ointments,
and the juice of the berries was valued as a tonic.
S. nigra is found
throughout Europe and is still used as a botanical medicine. Both flowers and
berries are used and, in Europe, are considered different herbal
medicines. European elder flowers contain 0.03 to 0.3 percent of an
essential oil that contains free fatty acids (particularly palmitic acid) and a
large number of compounds called alkanes. They also contain at least 0.8
percent flavonoids. Caffeic acid and derivatives, including
chlorogenic acid and p-coumaric acid, have been identified. Traces of a
cyanogenic glucoside, sambunigrin, and the triterpenes alpha- and beta-amyrin
are also constituents. American elder flowers may contain similar ingredients,
but the essential oil is reportedly richer in linoleic and linolenic acids and
lower in palmitic acid. European elderberries have up to 3 percent
tannins. They too contain flavonoids, particularly rutin, isoquercitrin, and
hyperoside, and several anthocyanins. Approximately 0.01 percent of the berries
is essential oil, and the seeds contain a number of cyanogenic glucosides,
including sambunigrin. Leaves and stems contain more sambunigrin.
Elder flower tea is
used to "break" a fever by bringing on sweating. It is used especially for
situations in which the feverish person feels chilled, and the tea is drunk as
hot as possible. A cooled infusion has traditionally been used as a
gargle for sore throat. Elder flowers are believed to have mild diuretic
action. Elderberry juice (made by cooking and pressing the berries) is
reported to have laxative as well as diuretic properties. Traditional
herbalists consider it a "wonderful blood purifier."
Sciatica and neuralgia
are among the traditional European uses of elderberry juice. Some
multi-ingredient herbal preparations for rheumatic pain in the United Kingdom
or in Europe include elder flowers or berry extract. It is also a component in
multi-ingredient concoctions marketed for respiratory complaints.
Probably the most
common use of elderberry is to treat colds.
A tea is made by
pouring 2/3 cup boiling water over 2 teaspoons (3 g) of dried flowers and
steeping for about five minutes before straining. As many as five cups a
day might be consumed, particularly in the afternoon and evening. The tea is
administered until recovery. Elder flower preparations: 1.5 to 3 g fluid
extract or 2.5 to 7.5 g tincture daily. Elderberry juice: a teaspoon of
elderberry juice in water four times a day as a tonic.
Precautions: Careless handling of elderberry can result in poisoning.
Children using peashooters made from the stems of the shrub have suffered, as
did a number of people drinking elderberry juice at a picnic in the early
1980s. The cyanogenic compounds are especially concentrated in the leaves, and
Tommie Bass reports using a solution made from elderberry leaves as an
effective topical insecticide. Use of stems and leaves should be
avoided. Prudence suggests that pregnant women and nursing mothers should
not use elderberry.
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