I have been gathering Elder flowers for the last week or so, on and off when the weather permits. The fragrant clusters of white flowers appear in early to mid summer and are a valuable herbal medicine.
Medicinal uses of Elder flowers are well documented. They help to stir up stagnant blood and encourage it to move to the periphery of the body, bringing on a sweat when there is a fever. The herb is also indicated when there is mottling on the limbs caused by stagnant blood. You especially notice this on the thighs and upper arms of affected people, a geographic pattern of darker areas surrounding light patches, showing that the blood is not moving properly through the body.
Elder flowers are soothing and anti-inflammatory, reducing unpleasant cold and flu symptoms. The tannins and essential oils contained in the flowers seem to work together to encourage mild expectoration, calming uncomfortable inflammation and opening the respiratory passages. This anti-inflammatory effect works well in cases of hayfever or allergic rhinitis. If you use Elder flower tea regularly throughout the spring and summer you will reduce the body’s reactivity to the allergens in the pollen. I tend to mix it with nettle for this purpose – another excellent anti-inflammatory.
In Northern Europe the tree is associated with the Elder Mother. It is considered important to make an offering to the tree before picking, and cutting back or digging up elder trees is considered to be fraught with bad luck. The word Elder itself comes from the Old English word ‘Aeld’ which means ‘fire’. Some people say that this refers to the use made of blowing through the hollow stems to help fires to get going, but it also refers equally well to the plant’s use in fevers.
The Latin name for the European Elder is Sambucus nigra, the generic name Sambucus coming from the word ‘Sambuca’ or a Pan Pipe because the hollow stems are traditionally used to make musical instruments such as those played by the Greek god Pan. Pan is a satyr, lecherous half goat god of the wild and nature and the origin of the word ‘Panic’. He is said to cause mysterious sounds in the woods and fields which cause a contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds. It is as though his presence challenges people to commune with Nature but they find it threatening, perhaps because it involves surrendering the idea of a separate self.
The Elder is traditionally considered to be the tree which enables channels of communication between spiritual dimensions and the material world. I think that this says a lot about how this herb works. On the deepest level I believe that herbs in general help us to connect with the wider environment, producing healing through encouraging a sense of connectedness. However in no herb is this effect more prominent than in the Elder.
Allergic rhinitis (or hayfever) is a good example of this. If you suffer from hayfever it is easy to see how this solidifies the sense of separate self during the season. Hayfever forces the sufferer to shut the world out, to stay indoors, try not to breathe in the offending particles, to keep separate. By soothing the inflammatory response and reducing the reactivity of the mucus membranes Elder helps to bring the hayfever sufferer back into the bosom of nature and interconnectedness. Likewise if the blood is not moving effectively through the body it is not possible for the bodily processes to work healthily, leading to a ‘closedness’ in relation to the external environment. Elder opens the tubes, moves the blood and helps to restore a sense of being part of the bigger picture.
We spend much of our lives concerned with the sense of separate identity, seeing the external world as just that, ‘external’, a challenge to our well being, our health and our equanimity. According to the Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan Medicine it is this sense of separate self which is ultimately responsible for our disease states. If we can truly accept that we are part of the wider whole, that the elemental balance of the world around us has a deep and profound effect on our health, then we are able to live in a harmonious state, adjusting our diet, lifestyle and mental attitude to the change in the seasons and the cycles within our bodies.
After working with Elder as a medicine for many years the deeper properties were finally revealed to me while I was making a primitive bow. Attending a bowmaking course I chose an Elder stave. The tutor was not sure, he felt it would be a tricky piece to work with, but I suppose I liked the idea of making an enchanted bow. Elder is not considered to be a particularly ‘good’ bowmaking wood. It has a hollow pith and it tends to be knotty and tricky to work. I spent hours on that stave, all the time wondering if it would allow me to make it into a bow. Anyone who has made a primitive bow will know that you have to work with the wood, not rushing it, and gently asking the stave to bend into a bow when strung. If you are impatient, or if the wood is not suitable, it will reward your labours with catastrophic failure when drawn back.
You could say that the Elder stave and I bonded, or that the hours of quiet woodworking allowed me the chance to reflect on the properties of this wonderful tree. Either way I was rewarded not only with a beautiful primitive bow, but also an insight into the way that medicine from this tree works.
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