Botanical: Sambucus nigra

Family: Adoxaceae

parts used: berries, flowers, leaves, root, stems

energetics: cooling, drying

actions: adaptogen, alterative, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, antioxidant, astringent, decongestant, diaphoretic (flowers), diuretic, laxative (flowers), relaxing nervine

used for: cold and flu, ear infections, fever, herpes, strengthens eyes(flowers), gentle astringent for the skin (flowers)

common names: European elderberry, black elder, black elderberry, or just Sambucus

Elderberry or Sambucus is a flowering plant from the Adoxaceae family. It grows in subtropical regions and is more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere. The plant is cultivated for its ornamental leaves and flowers, but has also been a part of natural medicine for centuries.

The Latin name nigra means ‘black’, and refers to the color of the berries. [1] The English term for the tree is not believed to come from the word “old” but from the Anglo Saxon æld, meaning fire, because the hollow stems of the branches were used as bellows to blow air into a fire. [3]

Elder has a very well documented history of use in folk remedies. In the Middle Ages the Elder was considered a Holy Tree, capable of restoring good health, keeping good health, and as an aid to longevity. Hippocrates referred to elderberry as “nature’s medicine chest”. All parts of the elderberry plant are considered a valuable healing plant in many folk and native medicine traditions. [5,6,7,8]


Elder is used in Native American Herbalism (including internal and external applications, as well as food). This and other Sambucus species were used extensively by the Cherokee and many other tribes across North America. [18]

The flowers are used externally to aid in complexion beauty, tone and soften the skin, and lighten freckles or spots. The elder flower juice made into salve aids burns and scalds [5]. Elderberry flowers contain flavonoids and rutin, which are known to improve immune function, particularly in combination with vitamin “C.” The flowers also contain tannins, which account for its traditional use to reduce bleeding, diarrhea, and congestion.

Elder is among the oldest healing plants in the world. Even science has confirmed its powerful abilities in the last few decades after a long time of ignoring it. Most of the research on elderberry has been focused on its effect on colds, the flu, cough and similar problems. Several studies have shown that elderberry extract is just as effective as Tamiflu, (the usually prescribed medication for swine flu) without the side-effects of the drug.

Elderberries have twice the Vitamin C of oranges and 3 times the anti-oxidants of blueberries. They are high in polyphenols and bioflavonoids. Use of the elderberry and elderflower is common and widespread in Europe. Modern science is now beginning a serious study of the plant’s nutritional properties and uses.

While elderberry is used in Ayurveda and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Traditional Western Herbalism is where Elder medicine has been best documented and most used. According to Mathew Wood, all parts of the Elder were used in Traditional Western Medicine, leaves, bark, and root included. [2]

[bctt tweet=”Hippocrates referred to elderberry as “nature’s medicine chest.”]

Growing Elder

Like any other plant, the elder shrub has its own distinct conditions it needs to thrive. It is adaptable to almost any soil type, and can grow very well in very wet soils, however this plant is not drought tolerant. The best soil to grow Elder in is well-drained loamy soil. This plant prefers to be in areas with full sun exposure, however it can still thrive in areas with only partial sun (less than 6 hours per day). It can also thrive in areas with almost any soil pH. The Elder tree is most often found near farms and homesteads and often close to water.

This plant should be first planted early in the spring time. When planted in rows, each row should be about 13 to 16 feet apart, to give each plant enough room to grow. The plant should flower throughout the summer, and the actual elderberries will begin to form between July and August. The berries form once the plant is finished flowering and will take about two weeks to fully ripen. There may not be very many berries in the plants’ first year, however the second year after being planted should yield a much better crop.

Culinary Uses for Elder

Both the flowers and the berries have a long tradition of culinary use, primarily for cordials and wine. In south-western Sweden, it is traditional to make a schnapps liqueur flavored with elderflower. Elder flowers are also used in liqueurs such as St.Germain, and in a mildly alcoholic sparkling elderflower ‘champagne’.

In Beerse, Belgium, a variety of Jenever called Beers Vlierke is made from the berries.

Can anyone say jelly? I don’t use much jelly or often, but when I do, this is the one I reach for first. Elderberry jelly is simply full of purpley goodness. Sometimes, I simply want to make biscuits so I can eat elderberry jelly, but I discovered that it is good with anything. It is important to use ripe berries and remove the seeds and residue. Elderberry seeds can be toxic and should be avoided.

The flowers are used as flavor in numerous food products, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, frozen dairy desserts, candy, baked goods, and gelatins and puddings. The highest concentrations of flowers are known to be in nonalcoholic beverages. (0.05%) [4]

elderflower sambucus nigra
The Elder in bloom

Cosmetic Uses for Elder

Elderflowers’ benefits are more than skin deep and as with any edible herb, you can make your inside as beautiful as your outside with Elder berries and flowers.

Natural health advocacy website Natural News cited a 2000 study published by Free Radical Biology and Medicine that showed elderflower promotes blood circulation and is packed with vitamins A, B, C, and E — all of which are excellent for skin care.

Elder flowers, especially, are used cosmetically in many ways. They can be infused into oil and made into a face cream, a hair serum, or body butter!

Elder flower water can be used as an effective skin toner. It can help lighten skin and was used to help fade unwanted freckles.

Elderflower Tea Toner


  • 2 Tbsp Elderflowers
  • tea bag
  • essential oil(s) for your skin type


  1. Put 2 Tbsp elder flowers in tea bag
  2. Steep in a cup of boiling water
  3. After reaching room temperature add your essential oil(s) note:this can help preserve your new toner for longer too

Other Uses for Elder

The strong-smelling foliage was used in the past, tied to a horse’s mane, to keep flies away while riding. The leaves and juice from them can be used to repel insects, and the bruised leaves can be rubbed on the skin to protect from insect bites. In the 17th century it was believed that if other crops were whipped with bunches of elder laves no blight would attack them. If you take a handful of fresh bruised leaves and pour a pint of boiling water on them and leave this to cool, you can strain then bottle it and use on the skin as an insect repellent. Who knew?

Elder twigs and fruit are employed in creating dyes for basketry. These stems are dyed a very deep black by soaking them for a week or so in a wash made from the berry stems of the Elder. [19] The Cahuilla split basketry materials from the aromatic sumac (Rhus trilobata). Elderberry branches were used to make the shaft of arrows. Flutes and whistles were constructed by boring holes into stems hollowed out with hot sticks.

Clapper sticks were made by splitting the stem and clapping the two halves against each other. Clapper sticks were used ceremonially in the round-house to accompany singing and dancing. The pith of the stems was used as tinder, and the stem itself was employed as a twirling stick for starting the fire. Hollowed-out elderberry stems can be made into squirt guns.

Using Elder for Wellness

This plant is used as a medicinal plant by native peoples and herbalists. [14, 15] Stem, bark, leaves, flowers, fruits, and root extracts are used in bronchitis, cough, upper respiratory cold infections, and fever. Sambucus nigra fruits and flowers have been used in traditional Austrian medicine – internally (fruits as tea, jelly, juice, or syrup; flowers as tea or syrup) for treatment of disorders of the respiratory tract, mouth, gastrointestinal tract, and skin, and for viral infections, fever, colds, and influenza. [16] The first book about the medicinal properties of the plant was written by German physician Martin Blochwich in the 1620s.

Properties of Elder

Berries are a rich source of anthocyanins and other phenolics and nutrients. Several species of Sambucus produce elderberries with similar chemical compositions including American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) and Blue Elder (Sambucus caerulea), but European Elder (Sambucus nigra) is the type most studied and used in supplements.

Leaves: tannins, flavonoids, essential oil, mucilage, triterpenes

Flowers: are antispasmodic and astringent to the gut, protecting it against irritation and inflammation. Elder is useful for heartburn, indigestion, gastritis, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, colic and wind. [9]

The plant’s powerful diuretic properties can help ease many kidney and urinary tract problems.

Dose: Infusion: add ½ to 1 tsp of flowers in 6oz of boiling water in a cup; strain after 10 minutes. Take three times daily. Tincture (1:5, 25% alcohol): 10 to 25 mL per day. [10, 11, , 12] Another source [13] reports that the tincture is pre-pared in 45% alcohol and the dosage is 5 to 8 mL per day.

Topical Use: Infusion of the flowers is used as a wash or compress for improving oily skin or acne, or for treating injured tissues. Tincture of 3 to 5 mL diluted in 240 mL of water can be used for the same purpose. [10] There are lotion and cream formulations of the flower extracts also.

everything elderberry
To find out more about what science tells us about the benefits of Elder’s flower and berry, expert growing advice, plus 62 delicious recipes, grab a copy of Everything Elderberry by Susannah Shmurak. It involved months of research, dozens of interviews, and a ton of kitchen experiments. It contains information on Elder’s berries and flowers you can’t find anywhere else. This book is for everyone from novices to advanced herbalists and contains everything you need to know to source elderberries and make the most potent and delicious natural remedies and treats.


Benefits of Elderberries

“There should, of course, be an elder tree in every herb garden; for have not herbs since time immemorial been under the protection of the spirit of the elder tree?”
~ Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, A Garden of Herbs, 1936


  • To the best of our knowledge there are no published data showing that there are contraindications in the use of Elderberry, it is considered GRAS.
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), multiple sclerosis (MS), or other conditions: Elderberry might cause the immune system to become more active, which could increase the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. If you have one of these conditions, it’s best to avoid using Elderberry.
  • Raw or unripe elderberries contain toxic compounds known as cyanogenic glycosides and must be cooked sufficiently to avoid risk of cyanide toxicity. Elder leaves and stems also contain these compounds and should not be ingested at all. Consuming elder bark, leaves and raw elderberries have caused poisoning and hospitalization.

John Evelyn, writing in praise of the Elder, says:
“If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness, or wounds.” Maude Grieves A Modern Herbal

elder leaf - herbs for lungs
Our elder stand at Bushyhead Botanicals

The following are links to recent elderberry research information and news:

Can elderberry help treat colds and flu?


Standardized Elderberry Syrup Shortens the Severity and Duration of Influenza in Adults

Antibacterial activity of elder (Sambucus nigra L.) flower or berry against hospital pathogens

Elderberry cms.herbalgram.org/heg/volume7/files/Elderberry.pdf

Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro

Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama

The American Botanical Council Clinical Guide to Elder Berry cms.herbalgram.org/press/files/elderberry-scr.pdf


  1. Parker, Peter (2018). A Little Book of Latin for Gardeners. Brown Little. 2018 Print.
  2. Wood, Matthew “The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants” North Atlantic Books; 46555th edition (June 3, 2008) Print.
  3. “Elder (Sambucus nigra) – British trees” –. Woodland Trust. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  4. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics. New York,NY: A Wiley-Interscience Publication, Wiley, Inc.: 1996:220–222
  5. Hutchens, A.R. 1991. Indian Herbalogy of North America. Shambhala Books, Boston and London. pp 114-117.
  6. Walker, P.L. & T. Hudson 1993. Chumash Healing. Changing Health and Medical Practices in an American Indian Society. Malki Museum Press, Banning, California. 161 pp.
  7. Barrett, S.A. & E.W. Gifford 1933. Miwok material culture. Indian Life of the Yosemite Region. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California. 387 pp.
  8. Clarke, C.B. 1977. Edible and useful plants of California. University of California Press. 280 pp
  9. Anne McIntyre, The Herbal Tutor Gaia, 2010
  10. World Health Organization. WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants. Vol. 2. Geneva: World Health Organization,2002:269–275.
  11. Bradley PR. British Herbal Compendium. A Handbook of Scientific Information on Widely Used Plant Drugs. British Herbal Medicine Association 1992:84–86.13.
  12. Hoffmann D. Medical Herbalism, the Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press,2003:580–581.
  13. Cech R. Making Plant Medicine. Williams, Oregon: A Horizon Herbs Publication, 2000:137–138.
  14. “Sambucus nigra Elderberry – European Elder, Black elderberry, American black elderberry, Blue elderberry, Europea PFAF Plant Database”. Pfaf.org. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  15. “Mojave Desert Large Shrubs and Vines”. Offroadinghome.djmed.net. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  16. Vogl S, Picker P, Mihaly-Bison J, Fakhrudin N, Atanasov AG, Heiss EH, Wawrosch C, Reznicek G, Dirsch VM, Saukel J, Kopp B (7 October 2013).
  17. “Ethnopharmacological in vitro studies on Austria’s folk medicine – An unexplored lore in vitro anti-inflammatory activities of 71 Austrian traditional herbal drugs”.
  18. Native American Ethnobotany DB. 2003-2018. Native American Ethnobotany Database (NAEB, 21 November 2018). Dearborn, MI 48198 USA.
  19. Barrows, D.P. 1967. Ethno-botany of the Coahuilla Indians. Malki Museum Press. Banning, California. 82 pp.