Creating a homestead that is self sustaining is one of our major goals here at Chosen Weeds. I am very purposeful about the plants that will be growing on the farm. They need to fill multiple purposes including, but not limited to; medical, food, attracting beneficial insects and other animals, good for the soil, and if they are aesthetically pleasing,well, that is just icing on the cake.
Plus I am always reminded of the clip from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail:
Now that you have had a good laugh, let’s get down to business.
Elderberry fills many of the above qualifications. The berries and flowers are the the edible parts of the plant (the leaves, branches, and twigs contain trace amounts of cyanide). The berries are black or very dark blue and have a sharp, sweet flavor (the berries need to be dried in order to dissipate a volatile chemical that has a rather off putting taste and can cause diarrhea and vomiting). This makes them highly preferred for desserts, syrups, jams, jellies, spreads, and as the base for various cocktails and beverages. The flowers attract many beneficial insects including bees. While this is all well and good, the main reason we have started growing elderberry is for its medicinal purposes.
I will get to that in a second, but I found the history of elderberry quite interesting and is worth a mention.
History of Elderberry
Elderberry has a long history in Europe and is associated closely with the Celtic fairy lands and other mystical lands well known in the European tradition. Thus it holds a place of respect. The “most popular among pagan traditions modern and old is the myth of the Elder Mother, a spirit who inhabits the Elder tree and holds the power to work a variety of magics in this world .” It is said to have “the ability to protect; induce vivid dreams, particularly of the Faerie realms; to heal; and to exorcise or remove negative spells and influences are among Elder’s pagan attributes.”
In the Christian tradition, the elderberry is said to be the tree that Judas Iscariot hung himself from. It has even been said that it was the tree used to crucify Christ. Thus, it has become a symbol of sorrow and death.
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek known as the “father of medicine,” described the plant as his “medicine chest” because of the wide array of health concerns it seemed to cure.
Want to learn more about this mystical tree? Click HERE
Elderberry has been a part of traditional medicane for hundreds of years. “The flowers have a long-standing reputation as a treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever .”
Elderberry extract, when used within the first 48 hours of onset of symptoms, has actually been found to reduce the duration of the flu with symptoms by an average of four days. While researching for this article I found out that during the 1995 Panama flu epidemic, the government actually employed the use of the elderberry to fight the flu .
Elderberry is chock-full of antioxidants and flavonoids, more so than blueberries, cranberries, goji berries, and blackberries . It is these “flavonoids in the extract that bind to the H1N1 human influenza virus as well as the H5N1 avian influenza virus. A 2009 study randomized patients into two groups: One group was given four doses of 175-milligram proprietary elderberry extract daily, and the other group received a placebo daily for two days. The extract-treated group showed significant improvement in most flu symptoms while the placebo group showed no improvement or an increase in severity of symptoms. Researchers conclude that the extract is effective in controlling influenza symptoms .”
How to Use Elderberry
Colds and the flu/reducing fevers
“An infusion can be made to treat coughs, colds and flues, asthma and hayfever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce fevers and thus it has often proven useful in cases of measles, scarlet fever and other infections ”
Dried Elder Berry Infusion:
Put 1-2 ounces of dried berries in a quart jar and fill to the top with boiling water. Steep overnight. Drink it, a half cup at a time .
A homemade syrup can be made to boost immune function and help recover from the flu (via Wellness Mama).
- 2/3 cup dried black elderberries (about 3 ounces)
- 3 1/2 cups of water
- 2 Tablespoons fresh or dried ginger root
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves or clove powder
- 1 cup raw honey
- Pour water into medium saucepan and add elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves (do not add honey!)
- Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour until the liquid has reduced by almost half. At that point, remove from heat and let cool enough to be handled. Mash the berries carefully using a spoon or other flat utensil. Pour through a strainer into a glass jar or bowl.
- Discard the elderberries (you can compost them or I give them to the chickens) and let the liquid cool to lukewarm. When it is no longer hot, add 1 cup of honey and stir well.
- When honey is well mixed into the elderberry mixture, pour the syrup into a quart sized mason jar or 16 ounce glass bottle of some kind.
- Standard dose is ½ tsp to 1 tsp for kids and ½ Tbsp to 1 Tbsp for adults. If the flu does strike, take the normal dose every 2-3 hours instead of once a day until symptoms disappear.
It will last about 2 weeks in the fridge. Whatever is not used can be frozen.
“Externally an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing bath that soothes irritable nerves and relieves itchy skin ”.
“ A cool infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore or inflamed eyes.”
“Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with flowers, briefly dipped in hot water and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.”
Foraging for Elderberry
Many may not be aware that elderberry grows wild in many parts of the US, including here in Southeast Texas. Stands of elderberry are most common along streams and other moist areas. When foraging any plant, it’s important to know what you are picking and the look alikes. There are three plants that are often mistaken for elderberry. The first two are, “Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) and Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). Chinese Privet is slightly toxic and has simple rather than compound leaves though they are all lined up so as to look a little like the compound leaves of elderberry, but smaller and not pointed at the end. Chinese Privet fruit appears in the fall/winter in grape-like clusters of dark, purple, somewhat football-shaped berries instead of the umbels of elderberry berry clusters. Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) produce umbel-shaped clusters of small, white flowers that look just like elderberry flowers but as with the Chinese Privet, Arrowwood leaves reveal its true identity. Arrows leaves are simple, oppositely-opposed along its branches and have toothed edges. After the flowers pass umbel-shaped clusters of grayish-purple, football-shaped berries ending in little dried flower bits appear. These fruit are edible but tasteless. ”
(elderberry, Chinese Privet, Arrowwod)
The third is Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata). For a full description of Water Hemlock (the most deadliest plant in America), click HERE.
While I love foraging, I want elderberry readily available on the homestead, so when I found a bush growing, I took two small green twigs to propagate. There are two ways to propagate from the green twigs, either with water or soil. Either way, you want to make sure you are getting a good cutting. Focus on stems that are very green in spring [here in Southeast Texas, they have growth all year round and I was able to get a cutting in October], those that are sturdy but thinner than the older canes at the center of the clump, choosing ones that are about as big around as your little finger .
Water Method (this is the method I chose)
“Place your trimmings (cut side down) in a mason jar and add water until they are halfway submerged. Place the jar in a sunny area for 6-8 weeks, changing the water often. Roots grown in water are more fragile than ones grown in soil, so wait until they look sturdy before transferring. When they’re ready and there is not risk of freezing temperatures, plant the elderberry bush into quality soil.”
“Place your trimmings (cut side down) in a mason jar and add water until they are halfway submerged. Allow them to soak for 12-24 hours and then transfer them to pots filled with good, organic soil. Keep the pots moist so that the cuttings don’t dry out. They need a humid environment to encourage growth, so either:
- Place them in a greenhouse
- Place a plastic bag over the top to trap moisture and create a greenhouse-like effect, then set the pot in a sunny area.
The trimmings will send out leaves and then grow roots – it can take six to twelve weeks to see significant root growth. Once it reaches the 6-8 week mark, gently tug on the cutting to assess root development. Once they’re well established and there is not risk of freezing temperatures, plant the elderberry cane (roots intact) into the soil ”.
Elderberry is not fussy about where is grows and so it makes for a good starting plant for the beginner homesteader. Transplant into rich, humus soil with good drainage and adequate sunlight. Dig a planting hole and place the new elderberry shrub into the soil with the base of the stem level with the soil line. During the first year, pinch off the flowers so that it can devote all it’s energy to establishing a good root system.
Don’t throw the flowers away though, They can be used to make a lemonade or tea!