Herbalism and Elderberry

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Elderberry

American Elder – Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis

Flora + Fauna = ♥    

If you plant a food source for birds they will come to it and you can witness, first hand, the connection – that deep, historic and crucial relationship between flora and fauna. 

I love working with plants. I help foster the relationship between plant and animal and it feels so good, partly because it is so needed. As species decline due to human abuse of our environment, due to our dysfunctional relationship with our environment, the need to plant out our urban and suburban landscapes with natives grows more and more important. A shrub like the native Elderberry, provides food to birds and nectar to pollinators in the spring and summer months here in Florida.

However, like wildlife, humans are deeply connected to plants, too. 

I was just at the 2017 Florida Herbal Conference, it was my first time. I brought flower and herb arrangements to share in the classrooms and as stage decorations.

This weekend, spent with herbalists under the big live oaks, helped me to see that herbalism is not just about people and their uses for plants. It is also about people connecting with nature and strengthening their relationship with nature through education, stewardship and care for the environment. Herbalism is also environmental and human rights activism! Learn more about that here: https://www.unitedplantsavers.org/ and here: https://www.herbalactionnetwork.org/

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Emily Ruff,  from the Florida School of Holistic Living, talking about activism and community work with herbs both after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting and with the Standing Rock Water Protectors stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“Herbalism is based on relationship — relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle. This offers us the opportunity consciously to be present in the living, vital world of which we are part; to invite wholeness and our world into our lives through awareness of the remedies being used…” – Wendell Berry

For a lot of herbalists there is more to herbalism than the scientific and medical  understanding and knowledge of the historical uses of  plants by humans, there is an intuitive side to working with herbs. A thought is that plants reach out to us when we need them. That if we pay attention, our own intuition, based in centuries of our ancestors using plants as medicine, connects us to a plant to heal what is ailing us. Obviously, we have to educate ourselves about the safety and uses of plants, but I love the idea of plants and humans connecting on that level. 

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Susan Anderson’s talk on medicines we can find right in our own yards. She shared herbal remedies passed on from her family using Florida native plants.

Though it wasn’t the main topic of his talk, one of the teachers at the conference, Thomas Easley  said that our health issues as a society are related to our dysfunctional relationship with our environment. Note: I’m not quoting him directly but attributing him to this idea, he said it better :).   In other words, our bodies have become weak because we haven’t exposed them to our real environment. For example, by shutting ourselves up in our air-conditioned, sterile living and working spaces, we are missing a key component needed in having a healthy body, the soil, where healthy bacteria needed for healthy digestion exists.

To be healthy we need to develop a healthy relationship with our local environment.

This conference was my first introduction to the idea of bioregional herbalism,  or essentially, working with and learning about the plants around us instead of ordering and shipping plants and foods from other parts of the world. What grows around us has what we need to survive and heal, if we get to know it. I love and support my hometown restaurants that source locally-grown food and organic food farms and movements like “Slow Foods” and events like “Eat Local Week” and I grow some of my own food, too,  but this took that all to another level for me.

Herbalism is taking my relationship with my environment to an even deeper level.

And this brings me to the plant that I am closest to right now. The Elder (a lot of herbalists seem to call it this),  I know it as Elderberry.

elderberry-illustrationI didn’t really notice Elderberry until I became a mom and had my first baby in April, Spring, of 2011. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful, the best that Florida offers, the gentlest of weather that has drawn people to this state from colder climate areas for generations.  In our tiny bedroom above our native plant nursery, I placed my newborns little naked sleeping body in the middle of a pillow and placed that pillow in the morning sunlight that shown in from the window. I did this every day for a while and I would lie there healing from giving birth and I’d just stare at him sleeping in the sun.

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The view out this second story window was of the sweeping branches of a huge elderberry shrub whose white lacy flowers were in full bloom. And the shrub was ALIVE with fluttering pollinators of all sorts. It was like my own private insect show, one character showing up after another to nectar and dance with this plant. I realised the importance of Elderberry to a diverse amount of pollinators those mornings.

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Elderberry and the birth of my baby…for those that are wary of things spiritual, still follow with me in spirit while I delve into this for a minute (or maybe we have already been there and you are still here, so thank you)…I was delighted, when reading about its folklore, to find that to some people, Elderberry is symbolic of birth and death, that is represents transformation and the crossing of thresholds. To some, it’s called the Elder Mother and it is supposed to provide connection with the Goddess Mother and being a new mother myself, with all the sudden fears I immediately felt myself facing, the idea of the Elder Mother right out my window was pure comfort.

And since then, Elderberry has been a medicine for both me and my kids. I make syrups and tinctures from the flowers and the berries. I take a little daily and a little more when I feel sick. There are many ways to consume elderberry. People make wine. Our neighbor, Tim, just won a top state award making a wine with the Elderberries that we grow! People make Elderberry jam like my cousin, Chloe, who visiting Florida from overseas, made a jam, which was one of my first introductions to eating elderberry, thank you Chloe. Also popular, are skin salves, soaps, tinctures and fried snacks made with the flowers.

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Taking the berries off the tiny stems is a long and tedious process. Here’s my son helping out while making Elderberry syrup. We discovered a way of using a screen, that we rub the berries on and they separate easily from the stems that way. Some people freeze the fruit clusters after cutting them from the plant, too, and that, they say, makes it easier to remove the berries, too. I find the screen works the best. Sometimes it’s nice to do it this way too, fresh and hand-plucked, if you have some time.

It grows all over our plant nursery, everywhere. It’s thriving and we think it’s happy. It likes our wet conditions and probably absorbs runoff water nutrients from the organic fertilizer we use on our potted plants. We let it grow where it wants if it’s not in the way of paths and it makes me happy to envision our plant nursery as a future Elderberry forest. 

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This is one of the original strands of Elder that is now even older (and wiser) at our native plant nursery. This picture was taken right before one of Florida’s great late spring rain storms while the tall shrubs were blooming.
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Another strand of Elder in bloom at the nursery, this image was taken from an elevated porch.

I use the green berries and the white/light green flower buds before they open in floral arrangements. The fully blooming white flowers don’t work in arrangements because the next day after being cut they take on a sour smell. Also a hint to us that if we are going to eat or use the flowers, do so right away. The leaves wilt almost immediately when cut.

If you’d like to grow it in your garden remember that it needs moisture and some sun. In folklore, it is said to provide a barrier against negative spirits and that it likes to grow at the edges of a garden to protect the garden. Therefore, I think an apt and fun way to include it in your garden would be somewhere along the edge of your property if you have moist soil or a swale and room for a multi-branched shrub that likes to multiply to form a row of itself. You can also grow it in a big pot as long as you can keep it fed and watered. It might feed and heal you, but it will certainly feed songbirds and pollinators.

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Cheers! Here we are, really enjoying local elderberry champagne in front of some of the elderberry trees.

Do you have a connection with a certain plant? I’d love to read about it! Leave a comment below?

Try it at home: ask an herbalist what their favorite herb is, or what they are studying currently. 

Read more:  I came across this great piece of writing while researching some ideas for this blog post:  http://bearmedicineherbals.com/healing-roots-of-home

OH! and here are some herbal elderberry video links, for real, check these, they are great:

Rosemary Gladstar –  introducing elderberry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMWtLcYs4T4

Mountain Rose Herbs – How to make elderberry syrup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOYzWyFGkqM

Susan Weed – Making a tincture with elderberries: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufEcKRG1ALU

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