Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gentle Elder Flowers

One of my longtime favorite herbs for the cold and flu season is elder flower.  I know that everyone has heard of the elderberry, and it definitely has its place (my girls will not go to bed without a spoonful of syrup!), but I have fully transitioned to the use of the flower as my main elder medicine during the dark season.  The flower has the same general qualities known of the berry, but more pronounced.  On a personal note, I experience the greatest of herbal joys when using flower medicines, especially in infusions.  There just seems to be an extra bit of love and beauty in those delicate blossoms.

Besides being a great anti-viral ally, elder gets things moving when a cold or flu settles in.  It is an upper respiratory ant-inflammatory, thinning and drying secretions while simultaneously soothing dry and inflamed mucous membranes.  We rarely have mucous turn thick and colored when using elder.  Copious clear running fluid is a healthy upper respiratory response to infection (keeping those membranes coated and moist) and elder keeps that going.  It also moves the blood.

One of the many categories of herbal action that elder fits in is diaphoretic*.  In other words, it helps to move the blood to the surface of the body so it can release heat.  Elder is a somewhat neutral diaphoretic which is why is it suitable for everyone.  Here I discussed fever and my position of letting it do its work, and the use of herbs to help it along.  Some diaphoretic herbs like peppermint are cooling and lower temperature, while others (ginger for example) are stimulating, or heating, and may increase the fever temporarily to increase its effectiveness.  When neither of these actions is necessary, elder is the answer to assisting the body in times of fever.  Using elder to increase effectiveness shortens duration.

Gentle like a lamb, elder is the perfect herb for treating babies.  Matthew Wood calls it "the great infant remedy", and points to its use in colic as well.  Broadly applicable to the whole family and the entire progression of an upper respiratory illness, elder insinuates itself into the family medicine chest as the patient, soothing grandmother to go to first in times of need.

For comfort and healing during the flu season,  brew some elder at the first sign of illness.  One cup of the fluffy white dry blossoms in a quart of water and steeped for an hour or two will do.  I make it by the half gallon and warm it on the stove as needed.  With a couple of sick kids and/or mom that will last most of the day.  I have found some other family herbs that partner well with elder:  lemonbalm when relaxation and lifting of spirits is needed to aid healing, rosehips for their nutrition, flavor and color, or possibly marshmallow when extra care for mucous membranes is needed.  Keep it simple, elder alone or paired with one or two other herbs is best.  And know that elder is no one trick pony, her applications go far beyond the virus.

Sambucus canadensis, our native elder is a small tree commonly found across most of N. America.  Here in the southeast it can be found along roadsides (even in the city) and other somewhat recently disturbed sunny areas.  Even whizzing by in an automobile one can not miss the large fragrant blossoms that appear in mid to late June. 

*If you are familiar with medical terminology, do not assume that herbal action definitions are the same as what you know.  That is rarely the case, so just pretend you are learning a new language :)


  1. Rachel,
    When do you use elderberry syrup and when do you prefer the elder flower infusion?

  2. Carey- I think elderberry is a nice preventative throughout the cold season, but if symptoms arise, switch to elder flower. It is just a more effective medicine when a treatment is needed.