The most notable thing in season right now is the flu.
Pandemic pandemonium has set in, and many people are reaching for the antibacterials. Fight the urge: hand washing will do, too, and is chemical-free.
For those seeking natural relief, there is another potent potion to fight the flu. It’s a local, native and delicious decoction made from a plant found on-Island.
Listen to your elders: herbalists point to the power of elderberry. Although the plant’s white summer flowers are now long gone and the beautiful berries are just a memory, elderberry extract is just the thing to take the edge off of cold and flu season.
Research shows that elderberry extract can be effective in treating both influenza A and B, though the jury is still out on whether it is effective for swine flu (H1N1). In fact, elderberry extract is sold at the pharmacy and health food store and is found in lozenges and other flu remedies. A flu epidemic in Panama in 1995 was stanched using this medicinal herb.
It is not magic that cures what could ail you; it is two of the chemical constituents of elderberries. Antioxidants called flavenoids stimulate the immune system, and anthocyanin acts as an anti-inflammatory: these are both benefits for those suffering from the aches and pains that accompany the flu.
Elderberry also comes in other forms that tantalize your taste buds. The edible summer flowers, called elder blow, can be used to make wine, cordials and other refreshing concoctions. They can also be fried up as fritters or added to pancake and muffin mix for a florally focused breakfast.
Even the soda companies couldn’t resist the lure of this berry. Fanta, known for its fruity flavorings, produced an elderberry soda, called Shokata, which is available in 15 countries outside of the U.S. Why it’s not available here, I don’t know. Maybe they should work on the name.
Good and bad are definitely balanced in this plant: the roots, leaves and bark contain a compound that produces cyanide and is toxic when ingested. Historically, however, this did not stop herbalists from prescribing the perilous parts for many ailments. Pliny the Elder declared that drinking elder leaves in wine counteracted the bites of venomous snakes, and another pharmacist noted that “the juice of green elder leaves, sniffed up the nostrils, purges the tunicles of the brain.” I will stick with the berries and flowers and keep my ‘tunicles’ untainted.
Elderberry is featured in European folklore. Believers used it to ward off evil influence and to protect themselves from witches. The tree itself was defended from damage by the Elder Mother, who would have to be asked for permission to cut down one of these trees. A woodsman would plead with her and make this promise, “Old girl, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.” Taking the long view for sure.
Once cut, elderberry twigs are useful for the young and old. One 18th century naturalist noted that “It is needless to write any description of this plant, since every boy that plays with a popgun will not mistake another tree for the elder.” (With the advent of computer games, boys and girls have probably become less adept at identifying elderberry trees.) Its twigs can make “spiles” that can be used to tap maple trees for syrup, and its wood can be used to make arrows, flutes and whistles. In addition, the twigs can be used to start fires, which lead us to the source of the plant’s name: the word “elder” comes from “aeld,” which means fire.
The plant’s scientific name, Sambucus, is from the French sackbut which is a type of trombone. No doubt the flowers’ flat umbels resembled a trombone to the original namer of this species. If you are wondering about the similarity of its name to that of a well-known liqueur, Sambuca is an infusion of elderberries, aniseed and licorice in clear alcohol with some other herbs.
This season, it is advisable to take every precaution to avoid the flu. Know that no matter what treatment you choose, elderberry may or may not be the best medicine, but it is surely the least bitter pill to swallow.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.