- Category: Health Living
- Published: Thursday, 20 December 2012 13:54
- Written by Pamela Thiessen
Like many other plants, the elderberry has a long and interesting history which incorporates both folklore and fact, and in some cases it is hard to decipher which it is.
One thing becomes evident – ancient peoples used all parts of the plant for survival which demonstrates their extraordinary ingenuity. The wood was used to fashion musical instruments and household items (but never cradles since this might bring harm to the baby); the flowers were dried and brewed into teas, while the berries produced a black hair dye and were concocted into a tincture to ward off colds and infections (in fact one herbalist of the 17th century called it a remedy “against all infirmities whatever.”)
While modern herbalists obviously shrug off information on the elderberry’s power to keep away evil spirits, they perk up their ears when it comes to healing properties since peoples of the past often have tried – and – true knowledge pertaining to remedies for common ailments. Research has been conducted but more needs to be done to validate what anecdotal reports and studies have shown. It should be stated that elderberry shrubs are not the place for the amateur herbalist to engage in experimentation since the roots, stems and leaves contain a toxic substance. Ripe cooked berries are perfectly harmless and in fact, quite delicious in jams, jellies and pies.
That said, the elderberry is not a common shrub in Canada, although some species do thrive in northern climates. The shrub is quite beautiful during blossom time with its white or off – white feathery flowers which produce clusters of deep purple or black berries (or amber berries in some lesser – known species), so we may well see more plantings in the future.
Growing in the wild
Across North America, the elderberry is known mostly for its culinary uses – and often the fruit used in commercially prepared jams, chutneys and wine is the species known as “black elder,” common in Europe where production of various food commodities is well established. The use of supplements and syrups for therapeutic purposes is also more advanced.
As more research is done on American elder species, there is a good chance these berries will be used more extensively – both for food and medicinal remedies. When settles arrived in the New World, they brought with them some of the “home remedies” – and a recipe for wine – based on elderberry and were overjoyed to find an elder species growing in the wild; they found to their delight that native Americans, too were using the plant for medicinal purposes. Currently small orchards have been established in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
It is quickly apparent that elderberries are healthy, containing similar nutrients as more common berries such as raspberries, blueberries and cranberries, but often in larger quantities. These include vitamins A, C, and B6 and iron. In addition as is evident by the berry’s deep purple colour, it is an excellent source of anthocyanins (part of a whole group of plant chemicals known as polyphenols) – a substance widely reputed to have antioxidant potential. In other words, it neutralizes free radicals which cause cell damage leading to cancer.
Some tests have shown that elderberry extracts (that is, concentrated juice) could boost the immune system, guarding against the influenza virus and colds. This is likely due not only to polyphenols but also to its high vitamin C content. It should be noted elderberry as other berries have a range of bioactive components that are available in greater proportion in the processed product (juice or extract) than in the fresh berry. Thus look for extracts or syrups, and a salve which has been used to mitigate pain from sprains or rheumatism. It is interesting to note that some common herbal teas include dried elderberries or its flower in their mixtures (check the label).