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I was so excited when I learned elderberry grew on our homestead. As you might already know, elderberry is a scientifically studied treatment for the common cold and flu, and is also used by herbalists to treat sinus infections, respiratory problems, and inflammation. Now imagine how sad I was when elderberry season finally appeared...and the berries were all red. Because like most people, I'd read over and over again that red elderberries are poisonous and therefore not good for medicine the way black and blue elderberries are.
Fast forward to the day I read the book Herbal Antivirals by Stephen Harrod Buhner. It's an impressively well-documented tome written by a respected herbalist, and among the things I learned from it was that all the fuss about red elderberries (as well as "poisonous" elderberry leaves, stems, and bark) is new-fangled. According to Buhner, native peoples - and notably, the Chinese - used red elderberries and all parts of the plant as medicine...without making themselves sick. The trick, Buhner explains, is in the preparation of the herb. (He also points out that red, blue, and black elderberries are not poisonous - that is, able to kill. They can, however, be toxic, causing nausea and vomiting if eaten in quantity and without the proper preparation.)
As of today, I haven't tried using red berries, but I do use the flowers from our red elderberry plants. Elderflowers are oerhaps best known as an ingredient in European food and drink. What most people don't know, however, is that they are medicinal, just like the plant's berries.
Watch my video on how to harvest, dry, and use elderflowers for medicine, and see my written how-tos, below.
To Harvest Elderflowers
1. Use only fully opened, fresh (not browning) flowers.
2. Cut off the flowers just above a two-leaf split. This encourages the plant to grow and thrive.
3. When you've gathered all the flowers you want (being sure to leave plenty behind so the plant can produce berries for animals and procreation), trim off the stems at the bottom of the flowers.
To Dry Elderflowers
1. Place the prepared elderflowers on the tray of an electric dehydrator (here's the latest version of the one I use) and dry at 95 degrees F. until flowers and slender stems are completely crisp. If preferred, keep the stems on the flowers and tie bunches together with string. Hang in a cool, dark location (like a closet) until fully dry.
2. Store dried elderflowers in an airtight jar in a cool, dark location.
To Use Dried Elderflowers as Medicine
The easiest way to use elderflowers as medicine is to make tea.
1. Fill a tea ball (like one of these) with elderflowers, crushing them as they go into the ball.
2. Place the tea ball in a cup and pour boiling water over it.
3. Cover the cup with a saucer, to prevent steam from escaping. This helps maintain the medicinal properties of the tea.
4. When the tea is cool enough to drink and no longer steaming, remove the saucer and drink. You may have the tea 2 or 3 times a day.
WARNINGS: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's NIH website, "The leaves, stems, raw and unripe berries, and other plant parts of the elder tree contain a toxic substance and, if not properly prepared, may cause nausea, vomiting, and severe diarrhea. Because the substance may also be present in the flower, consuming large amounts of the flower might be harmful; however, no illnesses caused by elderflower have been reported." According to Herbal Antivirals, elderflowers are the part of the plant least likely to cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. He stresses, "the various parts of the plant are emetic (and purgative if you take enough) if used fresh."
That said, any plant or medicine has the potential to give somebody an adverse reaction, so practice common sense by trying a small amount the first few times you use elderflowers. To avoid vomiting and nausea, never consume fresh elderflower stems.
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