Modern herbalists turn to Elder during flu and cold season as a powerful preventative and cure. Elderberries are added to teas for daily consumption to build the body’s strength, citing scientific studies that show Elderberries help strengthen cell walls by mitigating the damage done by free radicals through the antioxidant constituents anthocyanins (Cejpek). They’re added to formulas designed to ease fever and other flu and cold symptoms due to their antiviral and antibacterial action (Zakay-Rones) and are often taken straight up as a syrup for those same actions when illness strikes. Elder flowers are used primarily for fevers by modern herbalists for many of the same reasons.
A quick internet search is guaranteed to turn up a plethora of recipes, articles, and references to using Elderberry as a flu and cold remedy…alongside a host of other brilliant herbs who could potentially help out with symptoms like sore throat, coughing and congestion, fever, nausea, and diarrhea that go hand-in-hand with the flu and cold season. The question is, when does Elder really shine as a flu and cold medicine…or, better yet, is it the right herb for what ails you today?
Energetics of Elderberry and Elder Flower
When we take a look at the energetics of Elderberry and flower, as well as the whole of Elder’s medicine, we get a much better idea of how and when to turn to her for help, and we realize that flu and cold symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg Elder can help ease!
Elder has been used by traditional herbalists and healers for centuries for far more than just colds and flus. Elder’s primary action, energetically speaking, is to dry and cool. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the berries and flowers are both used to decrease Pitta and clear excess Kapha, thus clearing inflammation and stagnation of phlegm. Although Elderberries and flowers are not part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine’s materia medica, they are described as cooling and are used to release the exterior with an affinity for the liver and lung meridians (Tierra). TCM practitioners have used Japanese or Chinese Elder bark, roots, and stems as a purgative, a use Traditional Western Herbalists through out Europe once drew upon although it is rarely incorporated into modern herbal formulas.
Traditional Western Herbalism is where Elder medicine has been best documented and most used. According to Mathew Wood, all parts of the Elder were used in Traditional Western Medicine, leaves, bark, and root included. The primary indications for use of any part of elder (berries, flowers, leaves, etc.) was a reddish and potentially rough or dry complexion or a mottled or blue-tinged complexion. In both cases, the traditional explanation for either was that the circulation was blocked by stagnant catarrh or phlegm.
To bring it back around to when and how to use Elder, look for the tell-tale signs of a blue tinge, especially around the eyes and mouth during fever and flus or colds or for other conditions. Also look for the reddened, raised or possibly roughened patches of mottled skin or the blue tinge or a mottled pattern that incorporates blue or red against pale skin. For skin tones that are not typically quite pale, look for the blue or red cast in the darker patterning or areas against a more pale version of the healthy skin tone. You can also look for these color patterns alongside flabby or flaccid skin, which indicates a condition of excess dampness.
Topical Uses of Elderberry
As a topical, elder was prepared in wine, as a vinegar, or as a tea or decoction and used as a hot or cold compress to wash the affected area. This is particularly helpful for swelling in the joints or tissues, as with arthritis, bruising, and edema. Elder can also be used topically to ease swollen and red wounds, like the kind that result from impact wounds or those that are beginning to fester. Maria Noel Groves suggests oil of Elder flower as a good substitution for that of Arnica in topical formulas designed to reduce bruising and swelling.
Elder has been used in formulas that help with nerve reconstruction while healing topical wounds, too. In this case, it’s likely Elder’s ability to relieve swelling and inflammation that helps to open the tissues and allow the nerves to recover. Although I have not yet tried it as of the first publication of this article, I think that oil of Saint John’s Wort and a tea of Elder Flower has the potential to be a powerful combination for healing damaged tissues and easing symptoms associated with neuralgia. Classic herbalists used Elder flower tea or vinegar for the best effects, so it stands to reason that a lotion derived of the two would work well. Combined with a powerful activator and pain-reducer like Cayenne or Chili Pepper, they could move blood well, easing bruising and draining excess fluids that have concentrated in the area. Essential oils of Lavender and Clove would be a potentially good addition to the formula to help ease pain and relax muscles, thus allowing the healing to flow, while contributing to the anti-microbial nature of Elder flower and her partners.
Elder for Respiratory, Reproductive, and Digestive Systems
Taken internally, elder bark was used as a purgative to forcefully move blockages or congealed phlegm. From the Ayurvedic perspective, elder bark could potentially be a good purgative for reducing excess Kapha at its seat, although Elder was not necessarily part of that tradition’s materia medica.
In Western European Tradition, the flowers and berries were used to move stagnation more gently, making them useful for conditions like asthma and bronchitis as well as congestion in the digestive tract, slow or stuck energies in the kidneys as can happen with kidney stones, and to help tone the uterus after childbirth and in cases where the uterus has become swollen or flabby. Indications beyond the mottled, blue-tinged color or reddish and rough colors in the skin include flabby and full tissue conditions and lower back ache (Wood). Modern herbalists often reach for Elder flower as an anti-histamine when the upper respiratory tract is congested, as with colds and allergies (Groves). As such, they are making use of Elder’s ability to dry excess dampness and cool inflamed or overheated tissues. Guido Mase and Jovial King offer up several bitters formulas that include Elder flower, including a Spring Bitters recipe that makes use of Elder’s proclivity toward moving stagnation much in the same vein as herbalists of the Western European Tradition might have in their spring cleanse formulas. In detoxifying formulas, Elder flower and Elderberry offer release of collected Kapha or stagnant Yin energies.
I have used elderberry alongside nutritive and mildly drying herbs to encourage blood circulation and movement of fluids through out the body as a support to muscular-skeletal therapies like chiropractic care, massage therapy, and structural integration. When bones and their supporting tissues are shifted back into a healthy alignment, elderberry helps to clear any accompanying blockages in the circulatory system and cool any accompanying inflammation, thus helping the body to better integrate the adjustment. While the tea I’ve made is intended for internal use, I expect elder tea used topically could be a helpful support as well.
Elder Flower for Fever, Skin, Protection, and Beauty
Elder flowers have been found to be mildly protective against oxidation and UVA rays (de la Foret). They were included in classic cosmetic formulas designed to “white the skin,” although I suspect their UV blocking action was what our ancestors were actually after. Rosalee de la Foret offers a wonderful and simple skin-protective facial serum recipe in Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal that makes use of elder flower’s UVA blocking and antioxidant actions. If you’d like to add some moisturizing action alongside a boost in UVA protection, consider adding a little Cresote oil to her formula.
As a fever medicine, elder flowers are a classic diaphoretic used to open the pores and let the heat escape. Elder flowers are best used as a tea when the fever has reached the point where the patient feels hot but cannot sweat–the heat is at the surface but isn’t being released (de la Foret). I’ve added Elder flower to summer lemonades and herbal blends. They’re particularly helpful to folks like myself, who tend to hang onto their heat and don’t sweat easily. I’ve used them in steams to open pores for spa-treatments for clearing acne and similar skin blemishes as well. For fevers of a Kapha nature, where the high temperatures are accompanied by an inability to sweat, or of a Pitta nature, where the mind is unsettled, a bitters formula making use of Elder Flower and Elderberry can boost Vata while drawing the heat to the surface and providing anti-viral action. DIY Bitters offers a good Fevers Bitter recipe you might try.
Elder Flower Essence: A Light in the Dark
Although Edward Bach didn’t include Elder flowers in his original collection of 38 English Flower Essences, practitioners in more modern times have begun to work with Elder’s energy in this capacity. Elder flowers are considered fairly universally to shed light on dark times. They’re helpful to people who need to protect boundaries, particularly those who are routinely exposed to troubling or poisonous energies and need to carry the light of hope and recovery within for themselves and/or for others. Some practitioners describe Elder Flower Essence as being like a light in the dark, that which gives hope even when it seems all hope is lost. Ashley Litecky Elenbaas of Sky House Yoga recommends Elder Flower Essence for the kind of grief that sits heavy on the chest or that makes it hard to breathe, potentially with the classic Elder blue-hue to the skin. She describes Elder (not just the flower essence, but the spirit of this plant) as a connector and synergizer, one who helps connect us to Heaven and helps the connection system (like the circulatory system) flow, and one who is a particularly good synergizer for those who are grieving. In my own practice, Elder has often been a protector of the light, helping to ensure space is held even when others press against one’s boundaries with toxic and harmful energy.
- Alfs, Matthew. 300 Herbs: Their Indications & Contraindications (A Materia Medica & Repertory)
- Cejpek, K. and I. Maloušková, M. Konečný and J. Velíšek. “Antioxidant Activity in Variously Prepared Elderberry Foods
- de la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal
- Elenbaas, Ashley Litecky. “Plants of Protection: Plants for grief, trauma, and survivors.” American Herbalist Guild Symposium 2017.
- Groves, Maria Noel. Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care
- Mase, Guide and Jovial King. DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor – A Guide to Making Your Own Bitters for Bartenders, Cocktail Enthusiasts, Herbalists, and More
- Tierra, Lesley. Healing with the Herbs of Life
- Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines
- Zayay-Rones, Z and Thom E, Wollan T, and Wadstein J. “Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.“