The Sap is Rising…

I like winter, it’s a good time to retreat into oneself  and listen to what the darkness has to teach but I am always happy when I can see signs life reappearing in the plants around me.  This week I can smell and see that happening as the sap starts to slowly rise in many plants.  One of the most useful and familiar of herbs is certainly showing those signs at the moment.  Elder (Sambucus nigra, NL:Vlier) is thankfully so common that there is most likely a modest specimen growing quite close to where you live.  Perhaps you use it wisely already or perhaps you would recognise its flowers or berries.

I remember a very resilient old Elder which hung over my family’s driveway as a child. We didn’t know how to work with Elder at that time but the local birds evidently did.  Each year our car would become covered with staining purple droppings as the birds gorged themselves on its ripe berries.  The shrub was severely pruned each year to limit the damage and each year it bounced back, absolutely thriving in the clay soil and sunshine.

Elder has so many uses in traditional medicine that it is really worth getting to know.  I shall post in detail about Elder one day soon, when I feel spring’s energies flowing through my own veins again.  Until then I wanted to share with you one remedy which I used a few weeks ago with success.

Elder (in winter) for fever.
Sambucus nigra is known, among other things, as a traditional fever remedy.  It is effective at inducing perspiration which in turn lowers the bodies temperature yet is reputedly mild enough to be used for childhood fevers, when they are not extreme. Generally the flowers are used to treat fever and the berries to reduce the severity and longevity of cold and flu.  Recently I felt a cold or flu creeping up on me and wanted to self treat with Elder however in late December neither fresh berries or flowers were available to me here in Amsterdam.  A tea, using dried organic flowers from a healthfood shop, might have been an option but I wanted to experiment with a local Elder.

It is said that one should always ask permission of the Elder before harvesting from her so I sought out a strong Elder shrub in my nearby park and mentally asked to harvest enough material to treat myself. The bark and leaves of Elder also contain some of the fever reducing agents found in the flowers and berries.

I harvested a few healthy (and budding) young twigs and small branches (about 2 feet long in total and mostly second year growth).

  • I cleaned them a little with water and scraped the outer and inner bark from the branches and broke up the twigs which were too small to scrape.  The remaining Elder material was kept aside.
  • The twigs and bark were placed in a small heavy pan.
  • I added about 700ml filtered and freshly boiled water to the pan and covered with a heavy lid.
  • This infusion was left at a fairly cool room temperature for 48 hours.
  • As time progressed I checked the infusion a few times and the smell of Elder became increasingly intense and the liquid became slightly gelatinous.  It smelled fresh and tasted smooth, soothing and slightly sweet.
  • After 48 hours the infusion was strained and the spent plant material was kept aside with the unused material.
  • I drank the infusion over the following 4 hours, rested and wrapped up comfortably warm. I sweated more than usual and noticed a feeling of being cleansed and nourished.  The threatening cold/flu came to nothing more than a few hours of feeling tired and hot with a slight headache.  Of course this may or may not have been thanks to the Elder infusion but I will happily try it again when I feel a cold or flu trying to take hold.
  • The used Elder material was returned with thanks to the foot of the shrub from whence it came.  One small branch was not used at all and is currently rooting easily in a vase of water on my kitchen windowsill. It has several healthy new leaves. 
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    4 thoughts on “The Sap is Rising…

    1. Hi Lynn!
      What a fabulous remedy, one that I will try!
      Every time my mum has been over, she has ventured out to find elderflower tea and till now has been unsuccessful. How could I go about making it from fresh and how could I perhaps dry it and store for when she is next over?


      1. Hi Olga,
        Thanks for your comment and great to hear you mum likes Elderflower tea!

        It is very easy to make fresh Elder flower tea and there should be plenty of Elder close to your home. When the shrub is in full bloom (May/June) and on a warm dry day find an Elder away from polluting roads. If you are feeling spiritual/superstitious then ask permission of the plant to harvest some flowers – most countries have some folk lore about this with Elder. Select only healthy looking flower heads (umbels) which have creamy-yellow stamens. Pick them carefully as they are very easily damaged, I tend to collect them into a paper bag to avoid squashing the umbels on the way home. Don’t wash the umbels before use but do snip off any thick stemy parts and shake off any insects and unwanted bits. After gently shaking, it helps to lay the umbels on some white paper for a few minutes when you get home. The tiny insects then tend to crawl out.

        Use one or two big umbels per cup of tea. You can use the actual flowers alone (although its a bit fiddly to separate them when fresh) or the entire umbels. I simply place whole umbels (sort of folded up) in a small tea pot, add boiled water, cover and infuse or 5 – 10 minutes. If making it in a cup, do cover with a saucer whilst infusing.

        If you would like to harvest Elder flowers to dry and store then collect them just before the shrubs are in full bloom (May/June). Harvest as above, lay out on paper to dry in a warm, well ventilated place. When thoroughly dry the little flowers can be rubbed off the umbels and stored in jam jars, in a dark place, for up to a year. You would use about 1 heaped teaspoon of dried herb per cup of tea.

        Let me know how it goes come the summer!


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