Elderberry, it is said, is one of our earliest medicinal plants. It has been found in Stone Age sites.
Like many herbs that have been around for a long time, powers of good and evil are associated with it. While physicians revered it, for a long time no carpenter would make baby cribs out of it for fear of bringing bad luck to the child. According to Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, the elderberry provided the wood for Christ’s cross. [Kowalchik and Hylton, eds., Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, p. 178.]
There are many different kinds of elderberries, from short shrubs to trees as high as fifty feet. The American Indians used elderberries for many things. They even used the hollow stems, making them into flutes. From this use, the elderberry received its additional name, “Tree of Music.” In fact, the Latin name for elderberry, sambucus, may have come from the Greek word “sambuke,” a musical instrument said to be made of elderberry wood that has had the pith removed, leaving a hollow stem through which to pipe music. While the plant has had the reputation medicinally for healing the body, before that it may have been better known for making music to heal the soul.
Use of the berries
The wild variety of elderberries is one of the most potent sources of vitamin A, thiamin, calcium, and niacin. Tonics were often made from the berries to promote overall good health or to apply topically to reduce fevers and increase sweating. Eating the berries often was said to help relieve symptoms of arthritis and gout.
Use of the flowers
Elder flower water has been used widely in Europe as a mild astringent and skin softener for normal and dry skin. Try a handful of dried elderberry flowers thrown into your bath water to sooth your nerves.
A combination of the flowers and the fruit were used to make lotions, salves for burns, and to reduce swelling and joint pain. Some varieties were much more potent than others; these were used as antiseptic washes for hemorrhoids, broken blisters, sores, rashes, and to clear up pimples and acne.
One popular recipe was a concoction of elder flower tea mixed half-and-half with apple cider vinegar. This combination possessed both healing and cooling properties. Elderberry flower tea was often used topically for sunburn and as a helpful remedy to bleach freckles.
Native American uses
Native Americans made ointments from the flowers steeped in oils. After straining the cooked flowers, the mixture was poured into containers and used as a healing salve and skin cream. Other tribes used a similar mixture to treat rashes, inflammations, boils, contusions, scalds, and burns. It was used to treat ulcers, to relieve itching, and almost all other skin irritations. Another external remedy for healing the skin was to make a tea, cool the liquid in which the bark had been boiled, and use it as an overall skin wash.
Elderberries have long been used to dye hair black by simmering the berries in wine or vinegar.
Other tribes used an elderberry poultice for toothaches. Still others used elderberry poultices for headaches, while others for the pain of swollen joints.
Caution: Elderberry shrubs, leaves, and roots of some species can be unsafe, containing dangerous properties. Exercise caution.
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