The Ancient Medicine Chest
March 5, 2017
Our Noble Interest, elderberry, has been well-known and highly respected throughout much of known history.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, called it his “medicine chest”. Galen agreed with him.
Oxymel is an ancient greek remedy made of honey and acid. The basic recipe is 4 parts honey to 1 part apple cider vinegar. Appropriate herbs could be steeped in it to treat different discomforts.
Here's a recipe for a fermented elderberry oxymel.
From the Leechbook of Bald we have the following:
For foot ache, take leaves of elder and waybroad and mugwort, pound, lay on, and bind on.
A salve : take blooms of elder, and the crop, or bunch or umbel, boil them in butter, and smear
For the half dead the following is recommended:
take blossoms of elder, and rub them, and mix them with honey, and put them in a box, and when need be, take a bowl full of clear sweetened wine, mingle with that and strain : administer.
I will confess that if forced to make a choice between the above recipe and coffee when I'm feeling “half-dead”, it would take me a long time to decide.
Gerard, in his Herball, apparently considers the plant so well-known that he compares many other plants against it in description. He recommends its use as a purgative with few negative effects. It's true that all parts except the ripe berry contain cyanic glycosides, which are responsible for its toxicity. The effect of small doses is to cause vomiting. So far in my research, all reported human cases of poisoning (which showed itself as vomiting) were treated and released with no lasting ill effects so that would seem to be a valid use. Do me a favor, though- please don't be the exception to the rule. If you feel you need a purgative, call a doctor.
Today, we use elderberry for relief against colds and flu. There is some evidence that it's also a diuretic. Modern research bears these uses out.
Elderberry syrup is often put forth as the best way to get the benefits from our Noble Interest, although there is some question as to whether you can get a useful concentration of the active principles at home. If you've ever tasted elderberry syrup, you'll agree it's worth a try.
I'm going to stop here. If you are interested in more historical uses and recipes, they're there. This herb was so highly regarded that it has been used for a great many things, using a great many ways of preparation. As far as I can tell, every great herbalist in history relied on it. It's worth admiring.
Did I forget anything? Is there a particular use you know of that didn't show up here? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for stopping by!
By the way, I'm still trying to figure out what the “waybroad” in Bald's recipe for achy feet is. If you can help on that, I'd appreciate it.
Tomorrow I'll look at the social impact of elderberry.