I always love spring. Today I found myself crisscrossing a neighbor’s farm, looking over cows. Birds sang. Squirrels foraged. And while we went along ponds, around sinkholes, and along wood and fence lines we found… elderberry! It was once said that you couldn’t go more than a hundred feet in most of the US without running into one. Now, this important plant is far harder to find. But why is the elder so valuable?
Historically, the elder was used for EVERYTHING…
What is everything? Everything! From the earliest origins of medicine with the Greeks and Romans and other groups all across Europe and Russia, to the earliest Native American tribes and beyond, the elder was prized for its seemingly limitless medicinal uses.
It clearly earned the title it would carry for almost 1000 years – “the people’s medicine chest!”
But why is elder so beneficial? There are many reasons modern science sheds light on.
First, it is a nutritional powerhouse, especially its phytonutrient content. These phytonutrients – polyphenols and anthocyanins among others – have all sorts of plant superpowers. Studies show that they can inhibit viral attachment and replication (which explains why for many hundreds of years elder was used for flus), boost our immune system (which explains why it was also considered a surefire remedy for colds!), reduce inflammation (which is why it was used for allergies and other inflammatory problems), and so… much… more!
As one researcher put it, “What our study has shown is that the common elderberry has a potent direct antiviral effect against the flu virus,” said Dr Golnoosh Torabian.
“It inhibits the early stages of an infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells”… The phytochemicals from the elderberry juice were shown to be effective at stopping the virus infecting the cells, however to the surprise of the researchers they were even more effective at inhibiting viral propagation at later stages of the influenza cycle when the cells had already been infected with the virus.
“This observation was quite surprising and rather significant because blocking the viral cycle at several stages has a higher chance of inhibiting the viral infection,” explained Dr Peter Valtchev.
Pass around some elderberry, anyone?
Elder has numerous practical benefits. First, it is beautiful. An elder in flower or full berry is a beautiful sight on any landscape. Even in the most restricted places an elderberry is generally considered an ornamental, so there is almost no where you can’t grow one… though I recommend you grow many!
Yet this beauty isn’t without purpose. Elder make great living hedges and fences. They can serve as an excellent wind break or privacy screen, and historically were used for such purposes, like keeping “rude minchers,” that is thieves, out of people’s gardens. So the elder can not only provide you with food and medicine, it can serve as an important piece a well designed, productive landscape around your home or homestead.
The wood of the elder has a long history of many uses, which is why so many elderberry products contain the word “sambu,” from the word wind or fire. Some of the earliest uses of the plant were to create wind instruments or tools for starting and maintaining fires. These early practical uses soon gave way to more playful ones, and some of the earliest spitball and potato guns in history were made from our esteemed elderberry.
Do you have an elder on your property or do you forage for it? What would you like to learn about this most amazing plant? Leave comments below.
Editor’s Note: Want to read more about elderberry? Check out John Moody’s book, The Elderberry Book: Forage, Cultivate, Prepare. Preserve.
This blog article was originally posted May 2020.
John Moody is a farmer, homesteader and the author of five books. His specialty is soils, weed management, elderberry uses, and general homesteading information. You can read more about John here.