How to Harvest Elder Flowers
As summer arrives the impending cold and flu season is perhaps the furthest thing from our minds. Yet even now there is a special plant blooming right in your own backyard that you’ll be glad you took notice of come the first viral pandemic of the fall.
I’m talking about the common Elder.
Elder bushes are perhaps most prized for their luscious purplish-black berries that ripen in late August, early September. In fact, those berries are the star of my Winter Immunity Tincture, which I sell gallons of (yes, really) every fall. Elder berries provide excellent antimicrobial support (including protection against various strains of influenza, Source) and bolster the work of the immune system.
However, an elegant precursor to the berries are the flowers, which are a special medicinal herb in their own right. And it’s these dynamic beauties that are worth our attention.
Elder flowers have a long history of use in the natural medicine community. Ancient medical texts dating back to 460 BC describe the healing value attributed to this plant, with recorded use for:
Amazing, considering how small and delicate these little white flowers appear. Elder flowers possess antimicrobial properties so strong that studies have shown their ability to destroy E. Coli, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and several other bacteria and viruses – Source.
They also function as an a superb anti-inflammatory, expectorant, circulatory stimulant and diuretic.
Perhaps elder flower’s most notable medicinal value, however, is as a diaphoretic.
Diaphoretic herbs promote outward circulation and perspiration, supporting the body during times of fever while also purging toxins out of the body via the skin. This function is especially valuable in cases of respiratory congestion where mucus needs move outward from the lungs. In fact, elder flowers have a great affinity for supporting the lungs and respiratory function- an interesting tidbit considering with a little imagination the blossom head looks almost like the alveoli of the lungs!
All this… and yet elder flowers are so gentle you can give them to a baby!
How To Harvest Elder Flowers
Elder flowers are quite lovely and may put some in mind of Queen Ann’s Lace. In fact, a few years ago my second child came toting a handful of the blossoms into the house while I was on the phone.
I mindlessly waved her away with a harshly whispered, “No! Take those back outside because they make mommy sneeze!” Whoops!
Elder trees are often found growing in ditches along roadsides, hedgerows and in swampy areas. In most parts of the United States and Europe they bloom around mid-June with the delicate white flowers appearing in clusters called “corymbs” (not an umbel, as it is commonly mistaken).
The bark, roots and leaves of the elder are not edible or used in modern herbal medicine due to the presence of cyanide-inducing glycosides. However, the flowers of all sambucus species can be harvested for use. (Keep in mind only the fruit [berries] of the dark species [Sambucus nigra, Sambucus cerulea, Sambucus canadensis] can be used. The dark species contain fruit with lower cyanic acid content, which is the safest for use.)
To harvest, look for corymbs that have blossoms fully open and brilliant white.
Then, cut the flower stalk at the base of the corymb.
Harvest early (before 10 a.m.) on a dry day and then allow the blossoms to remain outside 6-12 hours before bringing them inside to dry. That will allow all the bugs within to disperse and avoid a bug infestation in your house. 🙂
To use the flowers fresh simply remove the flowers from the stem prior to use.
How To Dry Elder Flowers
If you’d prefer to preserve your elder flowers for the coming cold and flu season you’ll need to dry them.
Handle the flower heads carefully to prevent bruising and lay them face down on parchment or recycled paper in a dark, dry place for up to a week until fully dried. Elder flowers are about 80% water so you’ll notice they are considerably smaller when the drying time is complete.
You can also use a dehydrator if you prefer, but I find the delicate flowers do better dried in open air.
When drying is complete the color should be the same yellow-white that existed when they were harvested. Brown flowers will not provide the same level of medicinal value.
Store dried flower heads in a box, separating the layers with parchment paper, or separate the flowers from the stems and keep them in a large, wide-mouth jar for up to 1 year.
If you’d rather purchase the dried flowers, I recommend using Mountain Rose Herbs. However, their supply of flowers sell out fast. They are typically available in May-July before they are gone.
How to Use Elder Flowers
Elder flowers have a mild bitter taste, but at times I’ve found them slightly sweet, too.
You can use them fresh in salads, fritters, baked goods, smoothies – you name it! Simply google “elderflower recipes” for a plethora of ideas.
For medicinal use either fresh or dried flowers should be used in an infusion. The flowers pair especially well with lemon balm, rosehips and/or lemon verbena. For cold/flu support an infusion of elderflower, yarrow and peppermint are a preferred combination, with added boneset for aches and pains.
Keep in mind that elder flower is a diaphoretic, so to maximize that particular action you need to ingest the infusion (tea) hot.
If you ingest the herbal infusion cold the herb functions more as a diuretic, pushing fluid and toxins out through the kidneys, as opposed to the skin.
For colds and flus, a hot infusion is preferred.
Lastly, you can infused the flowers in oil. Consider pairing the flowers with garlic and mullein for a powerful infused oil for ear infection.
At the end of the day…
If you’re new to the world of herbal medicine, give elder flowers a try! They are a wonderful, safe plant to harvest and preserve, and they offer potent medicinal benefit… for FREE!
There’s nothing better than reaching into your natural medicine cabinet for a healing remedy that you provided for yourself. It is a wonderful, empowering, feeling.
To your health!
This post has been shared at Wildcrafting Wednesday.