|HERBAL SIMPLES APPROVED FOR MODERN USES OF CURE
W. T. FERNIE, M.D.
Author of "Botanical Outlines," etc_
"'Arn,' or the common Elder," says Gerard, "groweth everywhere;
and it is planted about cony burrows, for the shadow of the
conies." Formerly it was much  cultivated near our English
cottages, because supposed to afford protection against witches.
Hence it is that the Elder tree may be so often seen immediately
near old village houses. It acquired its name from the Saxon word
_eller_ or _kindler_, because its hollow branches were made into
tubes to blow through for brightening up a dull fire. By the Greeks
it was called _Aktee_. The botanical name of the Elder is
_Sambucus nigra_, from _sambukee_, a sackbut, because the
young branches, with their pith removed, were brought into
requisition for making the pipes of this, and other musical
It was probably introduced as a medicinal plant at the time of the
Monasteries. The adjective term _nigra_ refers to the colour of the
berries. These are without odour, rather acid, and sweetish to the
taste. The French put layers of the flowers among apples, to which
they impart, an agreeable odour and flavour like muscatel. A tract
on _Elder and Juniper Berries, showing how useful they may be in
our Coffee Houses_, is published with the _Natural History of
Coffee_, 1682. Elder flowers are fatal to turkeys.
Hippocrates gave the bark as a purgative; and from his time the
whole tree has possessed a medicinal celebrity, whilst its fame in
the hands of the herbalist is immemorial. German writers have
declared it contains within itself a magazine of physic, and a
complete chest of medicaments.
The leaves when bruised, if worn in the hat, or rubbed on the face,
will prevent flies from settling on the person. Likewise turnips,
cabbages, fruit trees, or corn, if whipped with the branches and
green leaves of Elder, will gain an immunity from all depredations
of blight; but moths are fond of the blossom.
Dried Elder flowers have a dull yellow colour, being 
shrivelled, and possessing a sweet faint smell, unlike the repulsive
odour of the fresh leaves and bark. They have a somewhat bitter,
gummy taste, and are sold in entire cymes, with the stalks. An
open space now seen in Malvern Chase was formerly called
Eldersfield, from the abundance of Elder trees which grew there.
"The flowers were noted," says Mr. Symonds, "for eye ointments,
and the berries for honey rob and black pigments. Mary of
Eldersfield, the daughter of Bolingbroke, was famous for her
knowledge of herb pharmacy, and for the efficacy of her nostrums."
Chemically the flowers contain a yellow, odorous, buttery oil, with
tannin, and malates of potash and lime, whilst the berries furnish
viburnic acid. On expression they yield a fine purple juice, which
proves a useful laxative, and a resolvent in recent colds. Anointed
on the hair they make it black.
A medicinal tincture (H.) is made from the fresh inner bark of the
young branches. This, when given in toxical quantities, will induce
profuse sweating, and will cause asthmatic symptoms to present
themselves. When used in a diluted form it is highly beneficial for
relieving the same symptoms, if they come on as an attack of
illness, particularly for the spurious croup of children, which
wakes them at night with a suffocative cough and wheezing. A
dose of four or five drops, if given at once, and perhaps repeated
in fifteen minutes, will straightway prove of singular service.
Sir Thomas Browne said that in his day the Elder had become a
famous medicine for quinsies, sore throats, and strangulations.
The inspissated juice or "rob" extracted from the crushed berries,
and simmered with white sugar, is cordial, aperient, and diuretic.
This has long been a  popular English remedy, taken hot at
bed-time, when a cold is caught. One or two tablespoonfuls
are mixed with a tumblerful of very hot water. It promotes
perspiration, and is demulcent to the chest. Five pounds of the
fresh berries are to be used with one pound of loaf sugar, and the
juice should be evaporated to the thickness of honey.
"The recent rob of the Elder spread thick upon a slice of bread and
eaten before other dishes," says Dr. Blochwich, 1760, "is our
wives' domestic medicine, which they use likewise in their infants
and children whose bellies are stop't longer than ordinary; for this
juice is most pleasant and familiar to children; or to loosen the
belly drink a draught of the wine at your breakfast, or use the
conserve of the buds."
Also a capital wine, which may well pass for Frontignac, is
commonly made from the fresh berries, with raisins, sugar, and
spices. When well brewed, and three years' old, it constitutes
English port. "A cup of mulled Elder wine, served with nutmeg
and sippets of toast, just before going to bed on a cold wintry
night, is a thing," as Cobbet said, "to be run for." The juice of
Elder root, if taken in a dose of one or two tablespoonfuls when
fasting, acts as a strong aperient, being "the most excellent purger
of watery humours in the world, and very singular against dropsy,
if taken once in the week."
John Evelyn, in his _Sylva_ (1729), said of the Elder: "If the
medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries, were fully
known, I cannot tell what our countrymen could ail, for which he
might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or
wounds." "The buds boiled in water gruel have effected wonders in a
fever," "and an extract composed  of the berries greatly
assists longevity. Indeed,"--so famous is the story of Neander--
"this is a catholicum against all infirmities whatever." "The leaves,
though somewhat rank of smell, are otherwise, as indeed is the
entire shrub, of a very sovereign virtue. The springbuds are
excellently wholesome in pottage; and small ale, in which Elder
flowers have been infused, are esteemed by many so salubrious,
that this is to be had in most of the eating houses about our town."
"It were likewise profitable for the scabby if they made a sallet of
those young buds, who in the beginning of the spring doe bud
forth together with those outbreakings and pustules of the skin,
which by the singular favour of nature is contemporaneous; these
being sometimes macerated a little in hot water, together with
oyle, salt, and vinegar, and sometimes eaten. It purgeth the belly,
and freeth the blood from salt and serous humours" (1760).
Further, "there be nothing more excellent to ease the pains of the
haemorrhoids than a fomentation made of the flowers of the Elder
and _Verbusie_, or Honeysuckle, in water or milk, for in a short
time it easeth the greatest pain."
If the green leaves are warmed between two hot tiles, and applied
to the forehead, they will promptly relieve nervous headache. In
Germany the Elder is regarded with much respect. From its leaves
a fever drink is made; from its berries a sour preserve, and a
wonder-working electuary; whilst the moon-shaped clusters of its
aromatic flowers, being somewhat narcotic, are of service in
baking small cakes.
The Romans made use of the black Elder juice as a hair dye. From
the flowers a fragrant water is now distilled as a perfume; and a
gently stimulating ointment is prepared with lard for dressing
burns and  scalds. Another ointment, concocted from the
green berries, with camphor and lard, is ordered by the London
College as curative of piles. "The leaves of Elder boiled soft, and
with a little linseed oil added thereto, if then laid upon a piece of
scarlet or red cloth, and applied to piles as hot as this can be
suffered, being removed when cold, and replaced by one such
cloth after another upon the diseased part by the space of an hour,
and in the end some bound to the place, and the patient put warm
to bed. This hath not yet failed at the first dressing to cure the
disease, but if the patient be dressed twice, it must needs cure them
if the first fail." The Elder was named _Eldrun_ and _Burtre_ by
the Anglo-Saxons. It is now called _Bourtree_ in Scotland, from
the central pith in the younger branches which children bore out so
as to make pop guns:--
"Bour tree--Bour tree: crooked rung,
Never straight, and never strong;
Ever bush, and never tree
Since our Lord was nailed on thee."
The Elder is specially abundant in Kent around Folkestone. By the
Gauls it was called "Scovies," and by the Britons "Iscaw."
This is the tree upon which the legend represents Judas as having
hanged himself, or of which the cross was made at the crucifixion.
In _Pier's Plowman's Vision_ it is said:--
"Judas he japed with Jewen silver,
And sithen an eller hanged hymselve."
Gerard says "the gelly of the Elder, otherwise called Jew's ear,
taketh away inflammations of the mouth and throat if they be
washed therewith, and doth in like Manner help the uvula." He
refers here to a fungus  which grows often from the trunk of
the Elder, and the shape of which resembles the human ear.
Alluding to this fungus, and to the supposed fact that the berries of
the Elder are poisonous to peacocks, a quaint old rhyme runs
"For the coughe take Judas' eare,
With the paring of a peare,
And drynke them without feare
If you will have remedy."
"Three syppes for the hycocke,
And six more for the chycocke:
Thus will my pretty pycocke
Recover bye and bye."
Various superstitions have attached themselves in England to the
Elder bush. The Tree-Mother has been thought to inhabit it; and it
has been long believed that refuge may be safely taken under an
Elder tree in a thunderstorm, because the cross was made
therefrom, and so the lightning never strikes it. Elder was formerly
buried with a corpse to protect it from witches, and even now at a
funeral the driver of the hearse commonly has his whip handle
made of Elder wood. Lord Bacon commended the rubbing of warts
with a green Elder stick, and then burying the stick to rot in
the mud. Brand says it is thought in some parts that beating with
an Elder rod will check the growth of boys. A cross made of the
wood if affixed to cow-houses and stables was supposed to protect
cattle from all possible harm.
Belonging to the order of _Caprifoliaceous_ (with leaves eaten by
goats) plants, the Elder bush grows to the size of a small tree,
bearing many white flowers in large flat umbels at the ends of the
branches. It gives off an unpleasant soporific smell, which is said
to prove harmful to those that sleep under its shade. Our summer
is  not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and it ends when
the berries are ripe. When taken together with the berries of Herb
Paris (four-leaved Paris) they have been found very useful in
epilepsy. "Mark by the way," says _Anatomie of the Elder_
(1760), "the berries of Herb Paris, called by some Bear, or Wolfe
Grapes, is held by certain matrons as a great secret against
epilepsie; and they give them ever in an unequal number, as three,
five, seven, or nine, in the water of Linden tree flowers. Others also
do hang a cross made of the Elder and Sallow, mutually inwrapping
one another, about the children's neck as anti-epileptick."
"I learned the certainty of this experiment (Dr. Blochwich)
from a friend in Leipsick, who no sooner erred in diet but
he was seized on by this disease; yet after he used the Elder
wood as an amulet cut into little pieces, and sewn in a knot against
him, he was free." Sheep suffering from the foot-rot, if able to get
at the bark and young shoots of an Elder tree, will thereby cure
themselves of this affection. The great Boerhaave always took off
his hat when passing an Elder bush. Douglas Jerrold once, at a
well-known tavern, ordered a bottle of port wine, which should be
"old, but not _Elder_."
The _Dwarf Elder_ (_Sambucus ebulus_) is quite a different
shrub, which grows not infrequently in hedges and bushy places,
with a herbaceous stem from two to three feet high. It possesses a
smell which is less aromatic than that of the true Elder, and it
seldom brings its fruit to ripeness. A rob made therefrom is
actively purgative; one tablespoonful for a dose. The root, which
has a nauseous bitter taste, was formerly used in dropsies. A
decoction made from it, as well as from the inner bark, purges, and
promotes free urination.
 The leaves made into a poultice will resolve swellings and
relieve contusions. The odour of the green leaves will drive away
mice from granaries. To the Dwarf Elder have been given the
names Danewort, Danesweed, and Danesblood, probably because
it brings about a loss of blood called the "Danes," or perhaps as a
corruption of its stated use _contra quotidianam_. The plant is also
known as Walewort, from _wal_--slanghter. It grows in great
plenty about Slaughterford, Wilts, where there was a noted
fight with the Danes; and a patch of it thrives on ground in
Worcestershire, where the first blood was drawn in the civil war
between the Parliament and the Royalists. Rumour says it will
only prosper where blood has been shed either in battle, or in
This book is provided for historical purposes only. Please see a competent health care professional for diagnosis and