Sambucus nigra L.

Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family)

Common Names: Elder Tree; Common, Black or European

Parts Used: Flowers, berries, leaves

Identification:  The Elder is a deciduous shrub or a small tree, which can grow up to 10m tall. It is very common across Europe, and is now found in most temperate regions. Leaves are compound, with pinnate & serrated leaflets, each 3-9cm long. It has creamy white, and delicately scented flowers in flat topped cymes up to 20cm in diameter from May to July. The flowers turn into purple-black berries from late August to October.

Edibility & Nutrition: Elderberries are very nutritious and are a good source of vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Iron & Potassium and a very good source of fibre, vitamin C & antioxidants. They can irritate the stomach when eaten raw, so are best cooked.

Growing & Harvesting: Elder is very easy to grow, and is known by some as a ‘weed’ tree. It can tolerate most soils but prefers a moist, loamy soil and will fruit best in a sunny spot.

Medicinal Actions: Flowers: Diaphoretic, Anti-catarrhal, Alterative, Immune Building, Relaxant  Berries: As flowers, but also Tonic, Blood Building.

Qualities: Cooling, Soothing, Drying


  • Elder opens all the tubes of the body (skin, lungs, colon, kidney, blood vessels), improving oxygenation, blood flow, perspiration, and elimination by the colon and kidneys.
  • Elderflowers are primarily indicated for fevers, especially respiratory influenza. It is recommended to use at the onset of upper respiratory infections, as a diaphoretic to stimulate circulation and promote sweating.
  • Elder is especially good for clearing nasal, sinus and lung catarrh. As an anti-catarrhal it can be used for sinusitis, asthma, hayfever, and respiratory allergies.
  • Use locally as an eyewash for conjunctivitis
  • A tea of the flowers is considered relaxing in anxiety & uplifting in depression.
  • The berries can be used to prevent winter illness & respiratory infection. They activate a healthy immune system and can shorten the duration of symptoms when they arise.

History & Folklore:

  • The branches have long been used to make pipes, whistles, pop guns. It get its name ‘Sambucus’ from the sambuka – pan pipes made from its hollow stems.
  • Elder was sometimes called the ‘Hylde Moer’ or the ‘Elder Mother’ as it was believed that the ‘Little Elder Mother’ dwelled in the tree – she was the Queen of the Underworld or ‘Faery’. It was thus considered foolish to sleep under an Elder tree, and cradles were never made from Elder in case children were kidnapped by faeries, and became ‘changelings’.
  • European peasants used to place offerings to the Elder mother at spring time in hope of a year of good medicine and crops.

Preparations: The flowers are well made into an infusion, a syrup or cordial, a vinegar, a tincture and many wines & champagnes. The berries can be decocted, tinctured, made into syrup and wines/liquers. The leaves can be used in ointments and oils for wound healing

Recommended Doses:

Externally – no limit

Internally   – dry herb 5 to 25g by infusion/decoction per day

– tincture 1:3, 15-50ml per week

Constituents: Flowers contain flavonoids including rutin, triterpenes, coumarins, bitters, sterols, mucilage, tannins and volatile oils.

Leaves contain similar flavonoids and triterpenes to the flowers, and also cyanogenic glycosides. Berries contain flavonoids, anthocyanins and citric & malic acid

Cautions & Contraindications: The raw berries & berry juice can sometimes cause digestive irritation


Barker, Julian (2001) The Medicinal Flora of Britain & Northwest Europe, Winter Press

Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal Online

Rose, Frances (2006) The Wild Flower Key (2nd Edition)

De La Floret, Rosalee – Herbal Remedies Advice Online

Wood, Matthew (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, North Atlantic Books, Berkley, California

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