This genus of about 25 species of small deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials occurs in most temperate and subtropical regions. Sambucus nigra (common elder) is a useful, attractive shrub for woodland and hedgerows but is seldom grown in borders, having been superseded by cultivars with more interesting foliage that can be used in the same ways. Elder has been called "the medicine chest of the people", providing remedies for most common complaints. It is revered by gypsies, associated with the Jewish cabbala, and is steeped in superstition and folklore. Traditionally, the cutting of elder required an apology to the Elder Mother, and her permission. All parts of S. nigra are used medicinally but modern usage favors the flowers. They contain many complex substances, such as flavonoids (including rutin, as found in Rutin graveolens , See, Rue), tannins, volatile oil, and phenolic acids. The berries are also rich in flavonoids, and vitamins A and C. The leaves contain toxic cyanogenic glycocides (as found in Prunus species, See, Almond). Sambucus is from the Greek sambuke, "a musical pipe", for which the hollowed out shoots of elder bushes were traditionally used.

Much folklore is associated with this European plant
that is also known as "bourtree". Pre-Christian documents
attributed protective, healing powers to the black elder, and in
England it was believed bad luck to cut its branches for fear of showing
disrespect to the mother elder, who was thought to inhabit the tree.

The black berries taken from the European elder tree, also known as elderberries, have long been used as a remedy for colds, the flu, and sinus infections. During a flue outbreak in the early 1990s, elderberry extract was compared to a placebo in a group of people living in a farming community. In just two to three days, the elderberry extract produced a significant improvement in fever and other symptoms in nearly 90 percent of those taking it, compared to the six days it took to see similar results among those taking the placebo.

Large deciduous shrub with corky gray-brown bark, and pinnate leaves, to 25cm (10in) long, divided into 5 ovate, toothed leaflets, to 9cm (3½in) long. The foliage has an unpleasant smell when crushed. Tiny scented cream flowers are borne in flat-topped clusters, 10-20cm (4-8in) across, in early summer, followed by globose black berries, about 7mm (¼in) in diameter.

Common Name:
Other Names:
Black Elder, Bore Tree, Boor Tree, Bourtree, Common Elder, Elderberry, Ellanwood, European Elder, Pipe Tree, Sambucus, Sweet Elder.
Botanical Name:
Sambucus nigra
Native Location:
Europe, W A and N A and central Asiafrica
Plant Facts:
The elder is a member of the honeysuckle family and can grow to a height of 33 feet. The sweet-smelling, spicy but somewhat bitter-tasting flowers produce blackish-purple fruits with an aromatic, tart taste. The stalk and branches contain a white fluffy pulp.
Another of the ancient trees, the majestic, musk-scented elder has been found in excavations of Stone Age dwellings. Not surprisingly for such an old tree, so much myth and legend has sprung up around elder through the millennia that they could fill their own book. Simply put, the tree was both venerated and reviled. For many people, elder possessed great protective powers, and it was common practice to plant an elder tree near one's home. So wondrous were the tree's beneficent properties, in fact, that even today, in European countries, people tip their hats or bow their heads when they pass an elder tree. But for many other people, the elder tree was a symbol of death, suffering, and evil mischief. These same people believed that the tree provided shelter for ghosts and magical dryads. In a famous Danish folk legend, one such dryad, Hylde-Moer, was so attached to her elder tree that if it was cut down and made into furniture, she followed the furniture right into the owner's house and promptly began haunting the place. Hylde-Moer was especially affronted by cradles made from elder wood. And if she found a child in one of these cradles, she would pull on its toes until the parents removed the tortured infant and formally asked Hylde-Moer for her permission to keep the wood! Shakespeare mentioned elder in several of his plays, and in Love's Labor Lost, he claimed that "Judas was hanged on an elder"—a common belief during the Middle Ages. Elderberry wine, a famous brew made from the tree's berries, was comically immortalized in a modern-day play (and film)—Arsenic and Old Lace—in which two dotty old sisters spike their homemade elderberry wine with arsenic, the better to put their elderly gentlemen boarders out of their misery (and give their equally dotty brother something to bury in the basement).
The elder is native to Europe, North Africa,and western and central Asia. It thrives throughout lowland forests and along roads and fences and is very often found in farmhouse gardens.
The black-elder flowers contain flavonoids, rutin, mucins, and tannins and a large portion of organic acids and calcium. The berries contain fruit acids, vitamins B1 and C and folic acid, as well as essential oils.
Described as a "complete medicine chest", black elder induces perspiration. When you have a feverish cold, take it in the form of a hot drink. Elder also promotes expectoration, which makes it a good treatment for coughing and bronchitis. The pulp of the berry and the freshly pressed juice have a diuretic and laxative effect on the body. Avoid the red berry species of elder, as it can irritate the digestive system and make you feel nauseous.
Extra Tip:
A folk remedy for burns is a paste made of elder and milk. Boil freshly picked, chopped flowers in enough milk to make a thick paste. Allow to cool and apply to the affected part of the skin.
East, North, South, West
Methods of Administration:
  • Tea Flowers:
    {our about 1 cup of boiling water over 2 heaping tsp. of dried elder flowers. Strain after 10 min. Drink 1-2 cups of freshly prepared tea several times daily. For best results, drink the tea as hot as you can tolerate it.

  • Tea From Berries:
    Add enough cold water to cover approximately 3 heaping tsp. of dried elderberries and allow to stand for several minutes. Then slowly bring the water-berry mixture to a simmer. Gently simmer for 10 min., and then strain and drink.

  • Juice, Syrup:
    Remove the stems from 4 lb. of ripe berries. Squeeze the juice from the berries into a saucepan and add about 1 lb. sugar. Boil for 5 min. Skim the foam from the surface, fill canning jars with the syrup and seal while hot. Prepared syrup is available from pharmacies and health-food stores if you don't want to make your own. To prevent or to treat a cold, drink the heated juice or syrup dissolved in hot water.

  • Purée:
    Boil about 1 lb. of ripe elderberries with 1 cup of water and 2 diced apples. Put through a sieve and sweeten to taste.
Rich, moist, neutral to alkaline soil in sun or partial shade. Cut back almost to ground level during winter to ensure large, colorful leaves in ornamental varieties. Do not prune hard if flowers and fruits are required. Elders are prone to blackfly in poor conditions.
By seed sown in autumn (species only); by greenwood cuttings in early summer; by hardwood cuttings in winter.
Leaves are picked in summer and used fresh. Bark is stripped in late winter, before new leaves appear, or in autumn before leaves change color, and dried for decoctions. Fully open flower heads are collected and dried whole; flowers are then stripped off for infusions, floral water, liquid extracts, ointment, and tinctures. Fruits are harvested when ripe, separated from stalks, and used fresh or as juice, or dried for use in decoctions, syrups, and tinctures.
Leaves and raw berries are harmful if eaten.
6-10m (20-30ft)
3-6m (10-20ft)
(Golden Elder)

Has bright yellow-green young leaves, becoming lime-green in summer.
Height: 6m (20ft)
Width: 6m (20ft)
Has yellow-margined leaves.
Black Beauty
Has very dark purple leaves and pink flowers.
Guincho Purple
syn. S. nigra 'Purpurea'
(bronze elder)

Has dark purple-bronze foliage and pink-stamened flowers.
Height: 6m (20ft)
Width: 6m (20ft)
f. laciniata
(Fern-leafed Elder, Parsley-leafed Elder)

Has deeply dissected leaves.
syn. S. nigra 'Albovariegata', S. nigra 'Argenteomarginata'

Has cream-edged leaves.
Has white-spotted foliage.
Parts Used:
Leaves, bark, flowers, fruits, and root.
The flowers and ripe berries are used medicinally. The flowers should be harvested as the plant begins to blossom.
Bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, and roots. The dried flowers are most frequently used medicinally and contain the most therapeutic properties. The fresh leaves are diuretic but also toxic; they are primarily used in insecticides. The bark and roots have purgative properties and are used infrequently. The raw fruits are toxic but perfectly safe to use when cooked or dried; they are mildly laxative and often used to make sauces and wines.
A bitter, pungent, cooling herb that lowers fever, reduces inflammation, soothes irritation, and has diuretic, alterative, and anti-mucus effects (flowers, fruits); leaves are insecticidal, antiseptic, and healing.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for influenza, colds, mucus, sinusitis, and feverish illnesses (flowers, fruits), rheumatic complaints (fruits), and constipation and arthritic conditions (bark). Externally for minor burns and chilblains (leaves, bark); sore eyes, irritated or inflamed skin, mouth ulcers, and minor injuries (flowers). Combined with Achillea millefolium (See, Yarrow), Hyssopus officinalis (See, Hyssop), Mentha x piperita (See, Peppermint), or Tilia cordata (See, Small-Leafed Linden) for upper respiratory tract infections (flowers, fruits); with Menyanthes trifoliata (See, Bogbean) or Salix alba (See, White Willow) for rheumatism (fruits).
To treat colds, laryngitis, shortness of breath, and inflammtion.
Elder has alterative, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, diuretic, expectorant, fever-reducing, immune-stimulating, and wound-healing properties. Clinical studies strongly suggest the herb additionally has antibacterial and antiviral actions. Elder is also rich in vitamins A and C and the B vitamins. It is taken internally for bronchitis, colds, congestion, fevers, flu, and sinus infections. It is applied externally for minor burns, skin infections and inflammations, and wounds.
Elder is widely available as dried herb (flowers) and in capsules, lotions, teas, and tinctures. To make a tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of dried herb and steep for 5 minutes. Strain, and drink up to 3 cups a day.
Typical Dose:
A typical daily dose of European elder is approximately 10 to 15 gm taken as a tea.
The fresh leaves and fruit are toxic.
Possible Side Effects:
European elder's side effects include dizziness, convulsions, vomiting, and rapid heart rate.
Drug Interactions:
Taking European elder with these drugs may reduce or prevent drug absorption:
Ferric Gluconate, (Ferrlecit)
Ferrous Fumarate, (Femiron, Feostat)
Ferrous Gluconate, (Fergon, Novo-Ferrogluc)
Ferrous Sulfate, (Feratab, Fer-Iron)
Ferrous Sulfate and Ascorbic Acid, (Fero-Grad 500, Vitelle Isopran)
Iron-Dextran Complex, (Dexferrum, INFeD)
Polysaccharide-Iron Complex, (Hytinic, Niferex)
Culinary Uses:
Flower heads are fried in batter (elderflower fritters). Flowers are made into cordials, summer drinks, and "champagne"; also used to give a muscatel flavor to stewed fruit, jellies, and jams (especially gooseberry). Dried flowers are made into tea. Fruits are made into sauces, jams, jellies, wine, chutneys, and ketchups; also used to flavor and color stewed fruit and jellies (dried fruits are less bitter). Juice is boiled with sugar to make a cordial (elderberry rob), flavored with ginger and cloves.
Economic Uses:
Flowers are used in skin lotions (elderflower water, or Aqua Sambuci), oils, and ointment; also commercially to make white wine, cordial, and sparkling elderflower drinks. Leaves are boiled and strained to make a natural insecticidal spray.
Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright © 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited. Pp 356-357
The Complete Guide to Natural Healing Group 1 Card 7.
The Cherokee Herbal by J.T. Garret Copyright ©2003 by J.T. Garret pps. 70, 122, 169, 217, 253-254, 257, 259, 261-262, 267-268, 271
The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide by Geo. T. Grossberg,MD and Barry Fox,PhD Copyright©2007 Barry Fox,PhD. Pp 209-210
The Modern Herbal Primer by Nancy Burke Copyright©2000 Yankee Publishing, Inc. pp. 139-140