The Lesser known medicine from the Elder Tree

Tom

Anneliese is currently on the 2nd year of the Sensory Herbal Apprenticeship, having been passionate about herbal healing and food as medicine for many years. She is an Internationally certified Sports Nutritionist (ISSN) and has lectured on Sport Science and Sports Nutrition for almost 20 years.

Her practice in providing nutritional interventions for athletes led her to herbal supplements to support performance and then a fascination in herbs for all round health. Once she has completed the Sensory Herbal Apprenticeship she hopes to be working with clients to provide herbal healing, leading community herbal workshops and running local herb walks.

The Elder tree (Sambucus nigra) is a common sight amongst the English hedgerows, flourishing with masses of creamy white flowers giving off their heady fragrance in spring and early summer. Or you may be more familiar with the clusters of purplish-black berries drooping heavily in bunches in the autumn. Both the blossoms are berries are renowned for their medicinal properties, however the Elder tree has been described as “nature’s medicine cabinet” (Wood, 2008) and the leaves and bark are complete with their own medicinal benefits. Both the elder bark and root are strongly purgative and emetic (trigger the vomit reflex), and although in the past have been considered to cure a bite from an adder or dog (Culpepper, 1653), they are rarely used today. Due to the potentially toxic nature of the “green parts” of the plant (roots, bark, stems and leaf) this medicine is best used externally.

Each species of plant will have varying levels of natural protection from insects, pests and parasites by containing compounds such as lectins, which are toxic to these potential invaders (Walski et al, 2014). Elder contains a complex mixture of lectins widely distributed through the whole plant which provide a natural defence by inducing cell death (apoptosis), causing cell shrinkage, damaging plasma membranes and causing DNA damage in the invading pests (Shahidi-Noghabi 2010a). Aphids, caterpillars and army worms are just some of the parasites Elder has proved effective against (Shahidi-Noghabi 2010a; Shahidi-Noghabi 2010b; Walski et al 2014). It is these compounds that account for the insecticidal action of the leaves of Elder, which can be used for the benefit of keeping insects from biting us.

When rubbed or bruised the green leaves emit a very strong fetid scent which is insecticidal, making an effective anti-insect preparation. The leaves can be rubbed directly on the skin to prevent flies and insects from biting, though for sensitive skin this may cause irritation. Alternatively, an infusion can be made by gathering fresh leaves, covering with boiling water and leaving to cool. This infusion can be applied to the skin to keep midges and mosquitos away. The scent and insecticidal properties of the leaf fade as the blossoms develop, meaning the best time to gather the leaf is early spring.

Due to the anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties of the leaf (Daryani et al, 2015) an ointment or poultice of the leaves for hot painful inflammations, burns, fistulous ulcers, deep ulcers, piles and gout have been reported in texts from the early 1600’s (Bruton-seal and Seal, 2014). The leaves were traditionally used to make a green ointment known as unguentum sambuci viride to use on bruises, wounds, chilblains and sprains. The traditional recipe for this is given by the renowned herbalist Mrs Grieve in the early 20th century: “take 3 parts fresh elder leaf, 4 parts lard, 2 parts suet, heat the Elder leaves in the melted lard and suet until the colour is extracted, strain through a linen cloth and allow to cool” (Greive, 1931). For anyone other than the vehement traditionalist this recipe can be adapted by replacing the lard and suet with an oil such as olive, sweet almond, linseed or sunflower, and heating with the elder leaves in a bain-marie. 

These treatments for minor ailments such as bruises and swellings may seem trivial, however there is ongoing research exploring the antimicrobial activity of Elder for treating pathogens including Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). One study separately tested extracts of leaf, flowers and berries against 13 clinically significant pathogens (Hearst et al, 2010). Elder leaf extract moderately inhibited of E. coli growth but failed to inhibit other clinically significant pathogens including MRSA. The elderberry inhibited most of the bacterial pathogens[SB1] . However, the elderflower extracts were the most toxic to all the bacteria (including Staphylococcus sp., B. cereus, Salmonella poona, and P. aeroginosa), and exhibited its highest inhibitory activity towards MRSA. This field of research is extremely exciting and outlines the clinical significance of this powerful plant.

There is also recent research interest in the potential use of these natural plant defences as agricultural insecticides to combat crop damage. Given the environmental and ecological problems associated with widespread insecticidal usage, the health damaging effects of chemical sprays on our food, and the recent development of insect resistance to toxins in genetically engineered crops (Hamshou et al, 2010), this research is very exciting. A plethora of laboratory research has isolated 100’s of individual compounds from various plants and scientifically tested the robustness of the insecticidal actions. Unfortunately, the very nature of this “isolation and concentration” model makes it difficult, maybe impossible, to apply these findings to whole plants. However, the positive effect of this research is that a huge range of “natural plant insecticides” are now available on the market, the efficacy of which may be best left to your own experimentation and fieldwork. For all the modern science and laboratory experimentation this is not new information to the older generation of gardeners. Long before the extracted constituents of the plant were isolated, Mrs Greive reported in 1931 that a decoction (boiling the herb in water) of young leaves can be used on crops to keep off aphids, caterpillars and provide immunity to blight. So, boil up your elder leaves and spray on your plants and herbs, making sure you rinse any residues before consuming. 


Bruton-Seal, J. and Seal, M. (2014). The Herbalist Bible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered. Merlin Unwin Books, Shropshire, UK.

Culpeper, N. (1995) [1653]. Culpepers Complete Herbal. Wordworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, UK.

Daryani, A., Ebrahimzadeh, M.A., Sharif, M., Ahmadpour, E., Edalatian, S., Esboei, B.R. & Sarvi, S. (2015). “Anti-Toxoplasma activities of methanolic extract of Sambucus nigra (Caprifoliaceae) fruits and leaves”, Revista de biologia tropical, Vol. 63, no. 1, pp. 7-12.

Hamshou, M., Van Damme, E.J.M. and Smagghe, G., (2010). Entomotoxic effects of fungal lectin from Rhizoctonia solani towards Spodoptera littoralis. Fungal biology, 114(1), pp.34-40.

Hearst, C., McCollum, G., Nelson, D., Ballard, L.M., Millar, B.C., Goldsmith, C.E., Rooney, P.J., Loughrey, A., Moore, J.E. and Rao, J.R., (2010). Antibacterial activity of elder (Sambucus nigra L.) flower or berry against hospital pathogens. Journal of Medicinal Plants Research4(17), pp.1805-1809. Available online in full at: http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1380715471_Hearst%20et%20al.pdf

Shahidi-Noghabi, S., Van Damme, E.J., Iga, M. and Smagghe, G., (2010a). Exposure of insect midgut cells to Sambucus nigra L. agglutinins I and II causes cell death via caspase-dependent apoptosis. Journal of Insect Physiology, 56(9), pp.1101-1107.

Shahidi‐Noghabi, S., Van Damme, E.J., Mahdian, K. and Smagghe, G., 2010b. Entomotoxic action of Sambucus nigra agglutinin i in Acyrthosiphon pisum aphids and Spodoptera exigua caterpillars through caspase‐3‐like‐dependent apoptosis. Archives of insect biochemistry and physiology, 75(3), pp.207-220.


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