Look on almost any roadside in the late Spring, and you're sure to see an elder bush. They're ubiquitous in the US and in Europe, and when I was wandering around India I saw them everywhere too. Medicinally, they're one of the most useful plants to have around, so it's probably a good thing that they're everywhere. Of the plant, Culpepper says "I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder", but he wrote that a few hundred years ago, and although I'd love to assume that everyone knows what elder looks like, if you don't, hop on over to Hunger and Thirst where the lovely and talented Butter has given a great guide to finding and identifying it.
Although elder grows everywhere in the UK (and is a mythical plant that is very much tied to British folklore) I wasn't really introduced to it until I started studying with Kiva (who is more than a bit infatuated with it). Once I started looking for it, I saw it everywhere. On roadsides, in the woods, hanging on the edges of cliffs, and across the street from the beach all the way through Malibu. In fact elder berries were the first medicinal thing that I harvested from the wild. It introduced me to a new world. And so it's kinda fitting that elder is steeped in mythology about being on the border of different worlds...
Medicinally, this plant is an entire pharmacopeia in itself. The flowers, berries, leaves and bark are all usable, though I have the most experience with the first two.
Note: use black elder. I have never seen or used red elder, but it is toxic. I think that the only difference is the colour of the berries, so if you're not sure, wait until it fruits.
Sambucus nigra spp. (here we use S. Mexicana).
Energetics: Cooling. Drying.
Elder flowers always make me think of the skin. I think this is because they are such a good diaphoretic, bringing circulation and moisture to the surface of the skin, but also because they have many uses in folk medicine as a skin or eye wash. According to Matthew Wood, the flowers are a diaphoretic that bring "the blood to the surface, strengthening the periphery, and bringing forth a sweat in pale, bluish persons with weak peripheral circulation."
And indeed you can see that blueish tinge on some peoples' skin- especially on the inner arms and legs, but when it's really pronounced it shows on the face too. Wood goes so far as to say that when you see a mottled blue effect on the skin it's an indication for elder berries, no matter what the symptoms are.
But back to the flowers.
It is a relaxing diaphoretic- relaxing the surface tension to open the pores of the skin, to cause sweating and release of heat. Think of it like venting a house that is too hot- you need to open the windows. This relaxing aspect of it also makes it suitable in situations where there are muscle spasms and coughs, especially as it has a slight expectorant effect too. So it's perfect for use in fevers that have respiratory or sinus issues.
For the immune system, elder is fantastic- both as an immunomodulator and as an anti-viral.
Elder flowers clear heat and soothe inflammation- especially in those with fever and hot-type skin rashes who don't sweat very easily. It's also great externally on skin issues like rashes and acne, and also on hot dry irritated eyes as an eye wash.
Like most people who use elder for colds and flus, I've seen it reduce the length of these things dramatically. It's usually the first thing I reach for whenever I see somebody with a compromised immune system for that reason.
I've given elderflower to people for skin issues before, but the most dramatic experience I've had was actually with myself. I get these weird heat rashes on the front of my arms from time to time when I get really hot or stressed out. A few months ago it started to look like eczema or something- flaky and dry, but an angry fiery red. It was itchy, and it sure looked nasty. I was chatting to a naturopath friend who took a look at it and said "that's ringworm, for sure, you need to go and get anti-fungals or it'll spread everywhere". I wasn't 100% convinced. Not because it was unlikely-- I mean I have a cat who I sleep with every night, and nap with in the afternoons-- but because it just didn't strike me as fungal. That and I share a bed with someone who is rash-less, and do yoga with it 6 days a week and it still hadn't spread. But I figured that a naturopath probably knows better, and so I tried a herbal anti-fungal mix. By day 2 the rash looked even more red and angry, and started weeping and getting crusty. I know that it's really common in heroic circles to say "it's going to get better before it gets worse" and refer to healing crises and such. But this wasn't getting better, it was being aggravated. So I changed tactics, figuring that I was burning up inside and didn't have any real outlet for that heat, since I don't sweat too much. I took a combination of elder flower (2 parts), sage (1 part) and burdock seed (1/2 part), and bathed it in cold elder flower tea. It was gone in 4 days.
For use as a diaphoretic, I'll combine it with either stimulating or relaxing diaphoretics depending on what's needed. If the patient is chilly and the fever hasn't quite gotten going yet then they need warming up in the middle (stimulation) so throw in a bit of ginger, garlic honey, thyme, cinnamon, or orange peel, to get the body to heat up some more. If there is already a strong fever, I'll use relaxing diaphoretics to cause the pores to open to let sweat out. Mint, sage, yarrow, and bee balm all work great.
For the immune system in general, I make an elixir of elder flowers and berries, throwing in other herbs depending on what's most prevalent- for example this year there's tons of respiratory stuff going around, so my last few batches have had mullein and licorice, but really it all depends on where you are and what's going on. If I lived in the north East and had more moist boggy cold stuff going on, I'd use more ginger and thyme. I'm out on the edge of a desert, so I usually have cooling and moistening things like marshmallow and licorice. Play around, or just use elder flowers and berries- you really can't go wrong with these two on their own as they're so powerful (and yet gentle enough for kiddies).
For hot, dry skin issues, you can make a strong infusion of the dried flowers (I use 1:2 volume), either on their own or with some rose petals or leaves, wait for it to cool, then strain and just sponge it on, or put it in a spray bottle and use as a mist. Same goes for the eye wash, though I find it easier to just soak a cotton ball in the infusion and drip it into my eye, than mess around with eye cups or droppers.
Matthew Wood's "The Earthwise Herbal"