Elder, Dwarf

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Elder, Dwarf

Botanical Name: Sambucus Ebulus (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Caprifoliaceae

Synonyms: Danewort. Walewort. Blood Hilder.
(French) Hièble.
(German) Attichwurzel.
Part Used: Leaves.
Habitat: This species is found less frequently in hedges, but inclines to waste places, not infrequently among rubbish and the ruined foundations of old buildings. Gerard speaks of the 'dwarf Elder' growing 'in untoiled places plentifully in the lane at Kilburne Abbey by London.' The celebrated natural historian of Selborne speaks of the Dwarf Elder as growing among the rubbish and ruined foundations of the Priory. Spots of equal interest with that of Selborne might be cited as favourite haunts of the Dwarf Elder. It grows profusely near Carisbrooke Castle, below the timeworn walls of Scarborough Castle, beside the old Roman Watling Street, where it is crossed by the footpath from Norton to Wilton, in Northamptonshire.

Its old names, Danewort and Walewort (wal-slaughter) are supposed to be traceable to an old belief that it sprang from the blood of slain Danes - it grows near Slaughterford in Wilts, that being the site of a great Danish battle. Another notion is that it was brought to England by the Danes and planted on the battlefields and graves of their slain countrymen. In Norfolk it still bears the name of Danewort and Blood Hilder (Blood Elder). In accounting for its English name, Sir J. E. Smith says: 'Our ancestors evinced a just hatred of their brutal enemies, the Danes, in supposing the nauseous, fetid and noxious plant before us to have sprung from their blood.'

The Dwarf Elder differs from the Common Elder in being a herbaceous plant seldom exceeding 3 feet in height and dying back to the ground every year, spreading by underground shoots from the creeping root.

Description: In leaf, flower and subsequent berry it bears a close resemblance to the Common Elder tree; the stem, however, is not woody and the leaves are distinguished by having a stipule, or small leaf, at the base of the finely-toothed leaflets, which are more numerous than those of the Common Elder, usually seven in number, larger and narrower and sometimes lobed. The flowers are whiter than those of the Common Elder, the corollas splashed with crimson on the outside and have dark red anthers. They are in bloom in July and August, have a less aromatic smell and do not always bring their fruit, a reddishpurple berry, to perfect ripeness in this country. The berries are, however, often present among imported Continental dried elderberries, the species being much more common there than here. In France it is called Hièble, in Germany Attichwurzel.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Expectorant, diuretic, diaphoretic, purgative.

The Dwarf Elder has more drastic therapeutic action than the Common Elder, and it is only the leaves, or very occasionally the berries, that are used medicinally. The leaves are probably more used in herbal practice than those of Sambucus nigra, and are ingredients in medicines for inflammation of both kidney and liver. The drug is said to be very efficacious in dropsy. Dwarf Elder Tea, which has been considered one of the best remedies for dropsy, is prepared from the dried roots, cut up fine or ground to powder; the drug was much used by Kneipp.

The root, which is white and fleshy, has a nauseous, bitter taste and a decoction from it is a drastic purgative. Culpepper states that the decoction cures the bites of mad dogs and adders. The root-juice has been employed to dye hair black.

The leaves, bruised and laid on boils and scalds, have a healing effect, and boiled in wine and made into a poultice were employed in France to resolve swellings and relieve contusions.

A rob made from the berries is actively purgative.

An oil extracted from the seeds has been used as an application to painful joints.

Mice and moles are said not to come near the leaves, and in Silesia there is a belief that it prevents some of the diseases of swine, being strewn in sties.

In the United States, the name of Dwarf Elder is given to an entirely different plant, viz. Aralia hispida (N.O. Araliaceae). In Homoeopathy, it is the American Dwarf Elder which is employed. There it is also called Bristly Sarsaparilla and Wild Elder. It is found growing in rocky places in North America.

The homoeopaths use a tincture from the fresh, root and a fluid extract is also prepared from it. It has sudorific, diuretic and alterative properties and is regarded as very valuable in dropsy, gravel and in suppression of urine. It is particularly recommended as a diuretic in dropsy, being more acceptable to the stomach than other remedies of the same class.

The 'Prickly Elder' of America is a closely related species, A. spinosa, also known as False Prickly Ash (the real Prickly Ash being Xanthoxylum Americanum), which contains a glucoside named Aralin. A decoction of the plant is used for the same purposes as Sarsaparilla.

The 'Poison Elder' of America is again no Elder, but a Sumach, its other name being Swamp Sumach, botanically Rhus verni (Linn.). It is a handsome shrub or small tree, 10 to 15 feet high, growing in swamps from Canada to California, with very small greenish flowers and small greenish-white berries and is extremely poisonous. It was confounded by the older botanists with R. vernicifera (D.C.) of Japan, the Japanese lacquer tree, which has similar poisonous properties. Its synonym is R. venenata (D.C.) See SUMACH.

There is a tree called the 'Box Elder,' mentioned by W. J. Bean in his Trees and Shrubs hardy in the British Isles; this is not a true Elder, however, but one of the American maples that yield sugar.

There are about half a dozen species of Elder hardy in Great Britain. The Common Elder (S. nigra), of which there are many varieties in cultivation, several of which are very ornamental, has leaves often very finely divided and jagged and variegated both with golden and silver blotches, a specially ornamental form being the 'golden cut-leaf Elder,' and another with yellow berries; the American Elder (S. canadensis) (the flowers of which, together with those of S. nigra are official in the United States Pharmacopoeia) has berries smaller and deep purple rather than black, the leaves broader and the flowers more fragrant than our Common Elder, it never attains tree size, but is a shrub of from 6 to 10 feet in height; the Blue Elder (S. glauca), the intensely blue berries of which are used as a food, when cooked, in California; the Red-berried Elder (S. racemosa), a pretty species, native of Central and Southern Europe, cultivated in shrubberies, which flowers in March and towards the end of summer is highly ornamental, with large oval clusters of bright scarlet berries, is so attractive to birds that their beauty is rarely seen, except when cultivated close to a house; the Red-berried American Elder (S. rubens and S. melanocarpa).

Cultivation: The Elders like moisture and a loamy soil; given these, they are not difficult to accommodate. The pruning of the sorts grown for their foliage should be done before growth recommences.

They can be easily propagated by cuttings or by seeds, but the former being the most expeditious method is generally followed. The season for planting the cuttings is any time from September to March, and no more care is needed than to thrust the cuttings 6 to 8 inches into the ground. They will take root very quickly, and can be afterwards transplanted where they are to remain. If their berries are allowed to fall upon the ground, they will produce abundance of plants in the following summer.

Herbaceous kinds like S. Ebulus may be increased by dividing the rootstocks in early autumn or spring.