June is one of my favourite months. In our part of the world, it is the month when everything is the most green and lush. This is when our temperate woodlands resemble the lushness of a tropical rainforest.
Spending time in nature is important throughout the year. Almost every aspect of our culture and lifestyle tends to cut us off from nature, but maintaining our connection with nature and the earth is an essential part of any healthy lifestyle. It’s impossible to be in balance and harmony when we are cut off from our roots. I recommend everyone spend time outdoors, every day if possible, even if all we can manage is a walk or a few minutes of contemplation in a local city park. It’s important to leave the cell phone behind and not just move through a natural space, but to also find a spot that makes us feel good where we can sit, take in the energy of the place, and just be.
April through to July is a very busy time in the plant world. Almost every day one or more species of plant is coming into bloom. At this time of year things progress so quickly that if I don’t get out in the fields and woods for a couple of days, I end up missing so much.
There are a number of species of plants that bloom around the summer solstice. Every year when they begin to flower, I am reminded that we are transitioning from spring into summer. In the open fields the plant I most associate with the beginning of summer is the common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum). And, in transition areas and woodlands, it is black elder (Sambucus nigra).
Black elder is a circumboreal species that grows throughout most of the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. There are at least three different subspecies of black elder. European black elder (Sambucus nigra ssp. nigra) is the Eurasian subspecies. It is the one you will most likely read about in herb books. Blue elder (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) is the western North American subspecies. Canadian or American black elder (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) is the subspecies that lives in Ontario, as well as most of eastern and central North America. These distinctions are important to botanists, but from an herbalist’s point of view all three subspecies have pretty much identical properties. We generally refer to all three as black elder and use whichever is native to the region in which we live.
IDENTIFYING AND HARVESTING ELDER FLOWERS
Black elder is a shrub or small tree that grows to a height of about three metres. It lives in areas where the soil is fairly moist. This plant is most commonly found in river valleys or near wetlands. It prefers to grow along the edges of woodlands or in openings in the forest where it will be in the shade part of the day, but it also grows in open areas. Black elder spreads by rhizomes as well as by seed, so it tends to grow in dense colonies or thickets.
Almost every part of this plant is used medicinally, but the flowers are the most versatile and commonly used. In southern and eastern Ontario, black elder usually flowers from late June to mid-July. This can vary a bit depending on the weather conditions from year-to-year, but generally the best time to harvest the flowers is during the first week of July. If you are harvesting the herb yourself, it is important to learn how to distinguish this species from red elder (Sambucus racemosa), which is considered to be somewhat toxic. Red elder looks similar, but tends to grow in the understory of open woodlands and flowers earlier in the spring. Its flowers grow in elongated clusters, whereas the flowers of black elder form large flat-topped clusters. By the time black elder comes into flower, red elder already has immature green berries.
When black elder blooms, the flowers open over a day or two beginning in the centre of the cluster, and gradually open outwards towards the periphery. Since we want to harvest the flowers before they are fertilized, it is best to harvest clusters that still have a few unopened buds along the outer edge. This indicates the flowers haven’t been open very long and few of them will have been fertilized. We harvest the entire cluster just below the point where the flower stalks begin to branch from the main stem. When we get the flower clusters home, it is best to squeeze the stalks of the cluster together starting at the base and then cut off as much of the stalk as possible without removing any of the flowers. There will still be some stalk left with the flowers, which is fine. We do this to increase the ratio of flowers to stalk in the portion that we use.
MAKE-YOUR-OWN ELDER FLOWER TINCTURE
Elder flowers can be used fresh or dried as a tea or tincture. The tincture made from the fresh flowers is preferred, but other preparations are also effective. Dried elder flowers and tinctures made from the fresh or dried flowers are readily available in stores that sell herbal products. We can also dry the flowers ourselves or make a tincture of the fresh flowers.
To make a tincture, fill a wide-mouthed glass jar (amber if possible) with the lightly chopped flowers and add a mixture of three-parts vodka to one-part water. The flowers have to be chopped and the vodka-water mixture added to them very quickly or the flowers will turn brown, which means that they have oxidized too much. Store the jar in a dark cupboard and shake it daily for the first week or two. Let it sit for at least a month before pressing and filtering it. Three months is preferable, but it will maintain its potency for years if undisturbed. Once it is filtered it begins to degrade and should ideally be used within six months, so it is best not to filter it until you need to use it.
HERBAL MEDICINE FOR ALLERGIES AND HAY FEVER
There are many people for whom roaming around in the outdoors at this time of year is not a pleasant experience because they suffer from pollen allergies. The majority of our tree species flower from April to June. Grasses tend to flower in June and July. Many trees and grasses are pollinated by the wind instead of by insects. These species produce copious amounts of pollen that blow around in the air this time of year.
Our typical modern diet and lifestyle causes members of our society to become more prone to immune system imbalances. As a result, autoimmune conditions, such as allergies, are becoming increasingly more common. Add in poor air quality as a factor and there is an increased likelihood that an immune imbalance will manifest as respiratory allergies such as hay fever or allergic asthma. This can be further aggravated by smoking — anything, not just cigarettes!
Pollen allergies can be extremely debilitating. I remember having hay fever as a child. In July and August sometimes my nose would run like a tap for days. It wasn’t painful, but it was definitely one of the most irritating things I’ve experienced. I radically changed my diet and lifestyle and began using herbs in my late teens and allergies are not an issue for me any more, but I can empathize with those who do suffer from them.
Along with improving our diet and lifestyle and getting more exercise, there are many herbs that are effective in helping to reduce allergy symptoms, and there are some that in the long run can help eliminate allergies altogether.
Black elder flower falls into the former category. It is one of the most effective herbs used in Western herbalism for treating hay fever-like symptoms. It can be used on its own or in combination with other herbs. Some of the herbs it combines well with for treating hay fever symptoms include: yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium); common purple coneflower herb (Echinacea purpurea); boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum); purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria); German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita); garden sage (Salvia officinalis); goldenrod herb (Solidago spp.) and blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata). All of these herbs grow or can be grown in our area. You can make a simple formulation by combining two-parts elder flower to one-part each of two of the above herbs, either as a tea or tincture. Keep in mind that yarrow, boneset and blue vervain are very bitter, so you will probably only want to use one of them in any given combination. If you are making a tea, steep a couple of teaspoons of your herb mixture for 10-15 minutes in a covered cup. You can add a small amount of sweetener if desired. The dosage of a tincture varies depending on its strength. If you make a simple tincture the way I suggest above, you will have something close to a 1:5 tincture for which the adult dosage is a teaspoon or slightly less. For teenagers, use the adult dose. For children 12 and under, the dose is adjusted based on their weight. Whether you use a tea or tincture, it should be taken three-to-four times per day on an empty stomach whenever you are experiencing hay fever symptoms. Take it more frequently on bad days. You can take it up to six times per day. The frequency of the dosage depends on the severity of your symptoms.
OTHER HERBS AND VITAMINS FOR ALLERGY RELIEF
For anyone who has hay fever, there are other things that can be done to help. It’s important to eat lots of fruit and vegetables and significantly reduce consumption of processed foods, sugar, dairy products and gluten-containing grains such as wheat, durum, kamut, spelt, rye, oats and barley. Exercise regularly, but build up your exercise level very gradually if there is a risk it could trigger an asthma attack.
Vitamin C can also be helpful during allergy season. For this purpose, it must be taken in the form of mineral ascorbates instead of ascorbic acid. Calcium ascorbate is the most common. It works best when combined with polyphenols such as flavonoids (quercetin is one of the most effective for allergies), and anthocyanin extracts such as from pine bark, grape seed or berries. These should be taken one to three times per day with meals, depending on the severity of your symptoms, beginning a couple of weeks before you expect your allergies to start. Buying all of these supplements individually can become expensive. Fortunately, there are a couple of products on the market that combine these mixtures for you. These supplements and anti-allergy herbs, such as elder flower, are mutually synergistic and work best when used together.
MORE BENEFITS OF ELDER FLOWER MEDICINE
Black elder flower is very effective for runny nose symptoms, regardless of the cause. It can also be used for colds, influenza and sinus infections. For infectious conditions, it has the added benefit of being an excellent immune stimulant and antiviral. It is very effective for lowering fever and provides some minor benefit for coughs as well.
Black elder flower has many other uses. It helps improve blood and lymphatic circulation in the extremities of the body. It also improves circulation to the brain, which aids our concentration and memory. Elder is effective for the treatment of inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract, such as cystitis. It is also mildly detoxifying. As a result, it can be used in combination with other detoxifying herbs for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions of the skin, joints and muscles, such as acne, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. No matter what we use it for, we will also benefit from its calming properties which help to reduce the effects of stress. In all of these applications, the dosage is similar to that mentioned above for allergies.
In Native American traditions, it was primarily the leaves, bark and roots of black elder that were used medicinally, although the berries were sometimes used as well. In modern Western herbalism, although the flowers are most often recommended, we also use the berries. They are not as effective for the treatment of allergies, respiratory infections and fever. However, like the flowers, the berries are detoxifying and often recommended for chronic inflammatory conditions. They also have a mild laxative action and can be useful for chronic constipation.
All in all, black elder flower is an herb that is great to keep on hand all year round. For those of us who suffer from allergies, it can be an important part of an overall strategy to help reduce allergy symptoms. Elder can help make it easier for those of us with allergies to enjoy the great outdoors at this amazing time of year.