Last year, at the first herbal apprenticeship class, we each drew a card from a plant tarot deck. I drew Elder. A plant of wisdom, magic and powerful medicine. I was aware of its existence, but had very little experience with it. I vowed to change that, and dubbed last year my year of Elder.
Elder is the common name for several different varieties of the Sambucus tree. A member of the Adoxaceae family. The berries are highly medicinal and have been used as medicine for thousands of years, though most parts of the plant are poisonous when ingested, careful identification and knowledge about collecting and preparing this medicine are imperative. The berries are powerful immune aids but MUST be cooked to avoid serious stomach problems. I recommend Rosemary Gladstar’s book Medicinal Herbs, it is an excellent resource.
Elder’s flowers are a diaphoretic, meaning that they induce sweating, thereby helping to lower fevers. Elder’s berries have immune-enhancing properties. The berries also have powerful antiviral properties and so helpful in treating viral infections including flus, herpes, shingles and upper respiratory infections.Rosemary Gladstar, Medicinal Herbs, 2012, Storey Publishing, pg 134-135
I only have the mental capacity to learn a couple new plants each year. I start by stalking them, tracking their habitats and growth. From the first leaves to the final fruit. I will go out of my way with the express purpose of checking on a meadow, hillside or river bank.
At the first sign of spring, I bundled the baby up and took to the roads, highways and trails determine to meet this lovely lady wherever I could find her. I was not disappointed. Maine and New Hampshire have an abundance of Elder often growing right on the roadside, in runoff ditches and the abundant swamps.
I tinctured blossoms in the spring time, always making sure to take less than 1/20 of the blooms so that there would be plenty of food for the pollinators and berries in the fall for the birds and me.
Elder blends in nicely with the other little trees, bushes and plants that line the roads. It really distinguish itself from the other low lying ditch inhabitants when it flowers. All of a sudden that patch I thought looked like Elder, would adorn itself in lacy umbrellas of cream colored blossoms and became Lady Ellhorn.
There are some lookalike bushes and flowers and it is a good idea to wait a whole year to make sure that any medicinal plant you are utilizing is the one you think it is. There are many types of plants that look very much alike at certain times of year. Flowers that are similar, but differ slightly in cluster structure. Leaves that change in shade and form as the spring turns to summer. Berries from similar flowers; turn into different colored berries come fall, etc.
One of the most important aspects when practicing an honorable harvest is to get to know my allies, to watch them grow and truly appreciate all the aspects of their life cycle. Their structures and composition shift and with those changes, comes different preparations and purposes. There are many medicines that must be gathered young, and just as many that should be mature to be potent or useful for a specific purpose. Observing these changes often gives you hints at these properties.
I also believe it just good manners to sit with them and really get to know these beings before I partake. I like to have talked with a plant and its home four or five times before I come seeking gifts. Plants do plenty of talking but it takes time and quiet to hear them. During one of my wanderings I found this wonderful patch right off the side of the highway.
I harvested flowers and watched it weekly till one day I drove past and- it was gone. Mowed to the ground by the roadside mowers that move up and down the roadways midsummer. I was heartbroken, not only for my own intended harvest but for the plant itself. I’m sure that had not been part its plan. Each spring blossom a promise of fall conversations with the birds preparing their own bodies for the coming winter. I looked over the poor battered stumps that remained of those proud bountiful shoots.
This was also the fate of a many other roadside specimens I had been tracking. When it came time for the berry harvest in the fall, my possible harvest plants had been reduced significantly.
I vowed to help if I could.
It wasn’t until last week I thought to go in for a closer look. I approached, chanting healing words under my breath, stepping carefully around the ragged remains of last summers massacre. I bent close and saw a joyous thing.
Tinny almost imperceptible green buds were growing under the grass and moss, right above the roots almost buried, as if afraid to make themselves known to the sun. Who can blame them?
I had an idea. The Elder protection and relocation program!
I would need some help, in the form of my stepsons (who still think I occasionally have good ideas and are usually willing to lend me a hand.) We approached the owner of the property and asked permission to take some of the remaining roots. He graciously agreed, and a few minutes later we had a bag full of potential.
I wrote a poem about ‘hope’ the other day and I found a new definition in my sink as I washed the sodium chloride off these twisted beings. From the base of each was a new start. A small fragile thing, hoping to be more than it is now. Fighting for the smallest chance to grow big and strong. To lift fans of glorious leaves to the sun; flower, and tempt the birds into telling summer stories with fall berries .
In these fear-filled times it is hard to find things that are pure, undisputed signs of progress. It is one of the reasons I have not written much since PJ’s birth, the wounds of the world feel so big. What difference can I make? The answer was lit by cold springtime sun spilling over a tangle of muddy roots, a sink full of riches.
There is a old allegory about a conversation between a boy throwing starfish back into the sea and an old man watching him.
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
Our actions have consequences not just for ourselves but for the other beings we share this earth with. Living mindfully each day is very difficult and it often feels like a futile pursuit. Do it anyway.
I have a choice how I live this “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) I choose to scour the hills and ditches looking for medicine, that I may propagate and spread it to others. It is not a pursuit that yields any instant reward; still, it is my act of defiance against the fear that nothing I do matters.
At worst; these Elders got to travel farther than their kind can on their own, and at best I will be able to give the gift of future healing to others. Animal, plant and earth. It is hope not only for this spring, but next fall and all the seasons after that.
It is worth the effort.
Be well my friends. Take care of one another, even if it’s just digging up muddy roots by the side of the road.