Herbal Monograph: Elder Flower

Posted by Emily Rubeo on

"Elder is shrub and tree, it is flexible and firm it is medicine and food and is both gentle and strong. This important native herb is the first to be introduced on my plant walks. Elder flower tea conveys its qualities to us on the honeyed aroma and flavor of mother nature herself." -- Susan Marynowski, Herbalist.
The elder plant is one that has a long and deep history in the world that dates thousands of years back. Elder seeds were found in Neolithic pole-dwellings in Switzerland that date back to around 2000 B.C.E. This suggests that the plant was in cultivation at that time, though much of the ancient information about Elder is in regards to ceremonial and funerary practices (1). Elder’s first recorded medicinal use is typically attributed to around the time of the Romans (2). In around 800 CE, Charlemagne decreed that every household would plant an Elder tree, making it one of the most prominent plants used in European folk medicine.
Common Name: Elderberry, Elderflower, Pipe Tree, Scot Tree, European elder, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Hylan Tree (Anglo-Saxon), Ji-Gu-Mu (TCM for berries)
Botanical Name:  Sambucus nigra, Sambucus canadensis, Sambucus cerulea (blue,)Sambucus racemosa (toxic)
Part used: Berry, Flowers, sometimes bark and leaves (we'll just discuss the flowers here!)
Key constituents: Flavonoids (rutin, quercetin, flavanols), mucilaginous polysaccharides, triterpenes (alpha and beta-amyrin, sterols), volatile oils, coumarins, tannins, fixed oils (free fatty acids), pectin, bitters
Energetics: This is a cooling plant (both the berries and the flowers) that is well indicated for hot and irritable conditions, which is why it makes for such a great diaphoretic that brings down a fever. Elder flowers have a cooling and moistening effect due to the mucilaginous polysaccharides, but there’s also a drying effect from the tannins and the diuretic action of the flowers. Over the long term though, as a diuretic and diaphoretic, we will usually see a net drying effect (Popham).
Taste: The taste of the flowers are sightly sweet, sour and slightly mucilaginous. 
Actions and properties: Alterative, Anticatarrhal/Decongestant, Astringent, Antiviral, Demulcent, Relaxant Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Expectorant, Hepatoprotective, Inflammation Modulating, Skin protectant, Antioxidant rich, Relaxing nervine.
Plant uses: Colds and influenza, Herpes, Seasonal Allergies, Strengthen eyes, Fevers, Ear Infections, Skin health
Medicinal uses:
Elder flowers have many uses, but they particularly shine in two areas: for fevers and to promote healthy skin. While that may seem an odd pairing, it’s not uncommon that herbs acting as relaxing diaphoretics also support the physiological functions of skin health. You'll notice we use this herb in both ways in our home and the shop!
Anticatarrhal/Decongestant: Catarrh is an old fashioned word for mucous that you would see with sinusitis.  Elder flower is an excellent choice for alleviating congestion from excess mucous in the upper respiratory tract like one would experience with hay fever or sinusitis. It is a unique botanical as it is different than other decongestant herbs that tend to be pungent, warming and spicy. Without having these qualities, Elder flower's energy works to move things up and out of the upper respiratory tract, opening and draining congestion.
Demulcent: Nothing near the level of something like Marshmallow root, the flowers of Elder have mucilaginous polysaccharides that give it a slightly slimy effect on the mucous membranes and skin. Demulcent herbs soothe and protect irritated and inflamed tissues.
Relaxant Diaphoretic: This is one of Elder flower's best uses! Dried Elder flowers are said to be a cooling diaphoretic that work to cleanse the lymphatics, capillaries and the blood. They work in the respiratory system and the pores of the skin. Diaphoretic herbs are incredibly valuable in the vitalist herbalist's world. They work to move with the body's vital force and support a fever. Fevers are an important mechanism of the immune system and the constant suppression of fevers only prolongs illness. Elder flowers work to let heat out of the body by dilating the capillaries close to the skin (3). This is akin to opening the windows in a hot, stuffy room.  They don't work to reduce the fever but bring relief during this phase of illness. This is what makes Elder flower (when dried) a relaxant diaphoretic. It encourages perspiration and the release of heat by relaxing tension and resistance in the peripheral vasculature (mainly capillary beds). When used fresh, the flowers are more of a stimulating diaphoretic as their volatile oils are still potent. Those oils increase peripheral circulation. Elderflower’s ability to enhance blood circulation also promotes better cardiovascular health. Research also suggests it may play a role in reducing cholesterol levels, which helps support overall heart function. 
Diaphoretics are incredibly valuable in the treatment of respiratory infections and ailments as they typically occur with a fever. Conveniently, Elder flower is both a diaphoretic and an expectorant (as are other herbs with this action).
Expectorant: The flowers help to excrete mucous (a bronchial secretagogue effect). This is considered an amphoteric expectorant in that it works as either a relaxing OR stimulating expectorant (4).
Skin health: Traditionally, Elder flower has been used externally for problems of the skin. They can be used in a toner or wash or infused into oils. They are known to soften and rejuvenate the skin (3). Elder flower washes or lotions are perfect for red and inflamed skin conditions, such as irritated rashes, sunburn, and rosacea. Recent in vitro research has shown that elder flower preparations used topically have the potential for broad spectrum UV protection. (6). “Elder flowers are diaphoretic and sudorific in proportion to the quantity administered, but find their principal employment in external applications, as for fomentations and poultices to swellings, and in the earlier stages of gatherings, boils, and abscesses, to discuss any collection of lymph; an ointment, also, is prepared from them, which is suitable in those cases where a cooling and emollient application is desired, as for cracks and chaps in the hands, lips, nipples of the breasts, and for similar purposes.” (7).
Diuretic: Elder flowers promote urination and have been used in cases of edema and swelling. They are widely known for their ability to correct kidney problems.  They can be used for both a cold, pale edema and a hot, inflamed kind with scanty urine (5).
Hepatoprotective: Elder contains a compound called aribion A along with alpha and beta-amaryin palmitate which gives Elder hepatoprotective qualities against liver damage that has been induced by carbon tetrachloride (4). This is a chemical found in refrigerants, cleaning products, and fire extinguishers that can destroy the nervous system, liver and kidneys. Thankfully, it’s been phased out, but Elder still demonstrates an amazing ability against liver damage due to toxic chemicals.
Inflammation Modulating: Elder flower contains the flavonoids quercetin and rutin which accounts for its inflammation modulating properties. These are also useful for inflammation due to allergies. It’s also important to note that the mucilaginous polysaccharides add a soothing effect to tissues that will sedate heat and inflammation when accompanied with dryness. 

Adult Dose

Tincture: 2-4 mL (1:5, 40%) up to 3x/day (Hoffmann, 2003). 

Tea: 8 fl oz (2 teaspoons dried or fresh flowers in 1 cup boiling water) up to 3x/day (Hoffmann, 2003).

Topical: Lotion, salve, or wash as needed (Hoffmann, 2003).

Given all the amazing benefits of Elder flower, it won't surprise you find all the places we use it here at Handmade by Bumble!

 

Herbal Tea: Elderberry Boost

Herbal Tincture: Allergy Relief

Botanical Facial Nectar: Bee Ageless

 I also make a fever supportive tea using Elder flower.

 References:

1. Amidon, Caroline. “History and Lore of Sambucus,” The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry, 2013.

2. Bergner, Paul. “Sambucus: Elderberry,” Medical Herbalism: Materia Medica and Pharmacy, 2001.

3. De La Forte, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs, 2017.

4. Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. 2003.

5. Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. 1997

6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1011134413001759

7. Hatfield, John G. Botanic Pharmacopoeia, 1886

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Comments

  • Wow! I had no idea there was so much to know about the elder flower. I have an even greater respect for it and I completely understand why you would use it in so many products.

    Tara on
  • This is all such good info!! Thank you for taking the time to collect the data and to keep us informed. We appreciate the time you take to type it up and share!

    Mandy George on
  • This is so informative & very well written. I had no idea how amazing the elder flower can be! Thank you for sharing!

    Samantha J on

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