Elder is native to Europe where it is amongst the plants most commonly attached to folklore. Its branches contained a soft centre that was easily removed to create a variety of musical instruments, such as pipes and whistles. Perhaps it was for this reason that they were thought to have a strong association with fairies. It was believed that these illusive creatures were encountered near an elder plant on Midsummer’s Eve. The bush was thought to be protective if it had seeded itself near ones house. An endless list of folklore from various pagan tribes across Europe made use of elder and had potent legends and stories associated with it.
Throughout history, elder was used for ailments of many kinds. Among my favourites, was the belief that washing your face with dew collected from elderflowers would keep a woman’s youth. Medieval herbalists saw it as a medicine for “all infirmities” and both elderflower and elderberry were often used to prevent and combat colds and flu.
Growing up in Europe, I commonly encountered elder plants on the edges of woods and learnt through traditional knowledge how to harvest and use both the flowers and the berries. Whilst we often made jam from the elderberries, many commercially available products today offer elderberry extract in syrup, pill or lolly form. Current knowledge as well as traditional medicinal use of elderberry draws on its antiviral properties and is given to help combat colds and flu, catarrh, ear infections and allergies. It is generally believed that the berries enhance immune function and help to prevent and overcome colds and flu.
Research into elderberry extract showed promising results with people taking the extract recovering faster from influenza than those taking a placebo. The scientific community appears to agree that it can be used as an effective treatment against influenza. It’s use is regarded safe for both adults and children.
If not for the folklore or the medicinal use, than at least we can enjoy elderberries for their lovely rich and sweet taste. A cup a day may well keep the sorrows of a nasty winter flu away, but it will most definitely sweeten up your day!