DWARF ELDER: USED FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES AROUND THE GLOBE: HISTORY, USES AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF DWARF ELDER
The dwarf elder is in the same genus as the elder or common elder tree and in the Adoxaceae family of plants, although formerly it was in the Caprifoliaceae family. The Himalayan viburnums belong in the same family as does the Guelder rose (Viburnum opulis), making them relations of the European dwarf elder, which is different altogether from the plant called by the same name in the US; Aralia hispida of the Araliaceae family. This dwarf elder is native to
and mainland Britain Europe as well as to the Mediterranean and eastwards to the Himalayas. Its cooked fruit is edible, and so are the leaves as they can be made into a tisane or infusion and have been used as a tea substitute.
The Dwarf elder is also known as Danewort, Danesblood, and Walwort and there are legends surrounding these names. “Wal” means slaughter, and it was thought (or perhaps hoped) that the plant grew where the blood of invading Danes had been spilled in
. There are places called the Slaughters (Upper and Lower) in the Cotswolds and there are quite a lot of dwarf elders there still. It is also called Blood Elder or Blood Hilder and it was thought to have been brought to Britain by the Danes to lay on their graves. Britain
The berries and leaves closely resemble those of the elder tree, but this is a plant which only grows to around three feet high and it dies back in winter. The stem of this plant is not woody and the white flowers are sometimes splashed with red and they have red anthers. They bloom in July and August, and like their relatives, the Himalayan viburnums, they don’t smell pleasant. In fact the whole plant when bruised, smells obnoxious, and does not have the musky smell of the elder. It is said that the plant repels moles and mice, so perhaps the leaves repel mice too.
The plant has been found to have some anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory ones and have antioxidant properties; it is an anti-rheumatism plant and can be used as a remedy for piles according to some modern research. The flowers and berried contain essential oil. And the rest of the plant contains tannins, steroids, flavonoids, glycosides including sambunigrin and ebuloside and ebulin, along with caffeic acid derivatives and other substances. However, much more research needs to be done to find how this plant can be used effectively for human health.
In Iranian traditional medicine the plant is used to treat sore throats, and bee and nettle stings as well as arthritis. Juice from the root is used to dye hair black, in some parts of the world, and a blue dye and ink may be obtained from the berries.
In traditional medicine the root is used as a very effective and drastic purgative and this is not recommended! The leaves also can be used as a milder purgative. These have anti-inflammatory properties, can help to increase the flow of bile in the body and help remove it, act as an expectorant, and in fevers can promote sweat. They also have diuretic activities. The leaves can be placed on burns and scalds to help heal them and can also be made into a hot or warm poultice for sprains and swellings. It was thought that placing a bunch of dwarf elder leaves on the chest of someone who had just begun to get T.B. would help, and if a person had a fever, he or she might be laid on a sheet which had the leaves on it and then wrapped in a blanket to get rid of a fever. The physicians of Myddfai used it for fevers, as you can see from these ancient remedies of theirs: -
“Fevers The mugwort, madder, meadow sweet, milfoil, hemp, red cabbage, and the tutsan, all these seven herbs enter into the composition of the medicine required. Whosoever obtains them all, will not languish long from a wounded lung, or need fear for his life. Any of the following herbs may be added thereto, butcher's broom, agrimony, tutsan, dwarf elder, amphibious persicaria, centaury, round birth wort, field scabious, pepper mint, daisy, knap weed, roots of the red nettle, crake berry, St. John's wort, privet, wood betony, the roots of the yellow goat's beard, heath, water avens, woodruff, leaves of the earth nut, agrimony, wormwood, the bastard balm, small burdock, and the orpine”
This was a treatment for an intermittent fever such as malaria is: -
“Take the mugwort, dwarf elder, tutsan, amphibious persicaria, pimpernel, butcher's broom, elder bark, and the mallow, and boiling them together as well as possible in a pot, or cauldron. Then take the water and herbs, and add them to the bath.”
Nicholas Culpeper writing his herbal in the 17th century, much later than the old Welsh physicians, has this to say of the dwarf elder: -
“The dwarf elder is more powerful than the common elder in opening and purging choler, phlegm, and water; in helping the gout, piles, and women's diseases, coloureth the hair black, helpeth the inflammations of the eyes, and pains in the ears, the biting of serpents, or mad dogs, burnings and scaldings, the wind cholic, cholic and stone, the difficulty of urine, the cure of old sores and fistulous ulcers. Either leaves or bark of elder, stripped upwards as you gather it, causeth vomiting. Also Dr. Butler, in a manuscript of his, commends dwarf elder to the sky for dropsies, viz to drink it, being boiled in white wine; to drink the decoction I mean, not the elder.”
This plant has been used for centuries for various ailments, and it seems that it has far more benefits for our health than even the old herbalists gave it credit for.