Elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra)

The elder tree is a small, deciduous flowering tree in the Caprifoliaceae family native to Europe, where it is steeped in folklore. It has pinnate and serrated, opposite leaflets, and sweet scented showy umbels of cream white clusters of flowers that mature into deep reddish-purple berries. Both its flowers and fruits are attractive to wildlife and encourage local pollinators to frequent the area. It thrives in the understory and in shady, moist woods and hedgerows, as well as in areas with disturbed soils where water collects, such as roadsides, clearings, and forest edges. It is now widely cultivated in temperate areas and requires little maintenace, tolerating both wet and dry soils as long as the soils are rich in nutrients. The flowers are harvest in the late spring and the berries in the summer and early autumn. Often, the medicinal jelly ear fungus is found growing on the elder tree.

Parts Used
Flower, leaves, bark, and berries

Medicinal Uses
A excellent spring tonic, elder flowers are a cooling diaphoretic, alterative, and stimulant. They’re useful for boosting the immune system and treating and speeding recovery from colds and flus, as well as clearing the skin. They are very helpful in relieving mucus buildup in the upper respiratory tract associated with colds, coughs, hay fever, and sinusitis. The flowers also reduce inflammatory conditions and ease arthritic conditions. Externally, the flowers can be used in salves to treat burns, rashes, wrinkles, and minor skin conditions. The aged bark is a cathartic laxative, useful for treating constipation, and the berries are high in vitamin A and C, antioxidants, and act as blood purifiers and anti-rheumatics. The roots are used to treat lymphatic and kidney ailments. In an Israeli study, elderberry extract has shown to help patients recover up to three times faster from the flu than those given placebos. The berries, if eaten in large amounts, can have a slight laxative effect. The leaves can be good detoxifying agents for salves and are useful for treating bruises, sprains, sunburns, and minor wounds. In Chinese medicine, the leaves, stems, and roots are used to treat fractures and muscle spasms.

Folk Uses
Once, chopping the branches from an elder tree was considered dangerous, as it was inhabited by Mother Elder who had a notable wrath. To avoid the anger, a poem was recited by any woodcutters daring to take branches. Because of this, elder wood furniture is considered very unlucky, especially in Denmark, where superstition has it that Mother Elder will strangle children sleeping in cradles made of her wood. The berries and flowers, on the other hand, are often used in cordials, champagnes, candies, wines, and jams. They can be made into a healthy, immune boosting syrup or jelly. Try simmering elder berries, a pinch of cayenne, lemon juice and ginger for fifteen minutes, then strain. Add pectin, then stir in raw honey to taste (after removing from the heat). Add to teas, deserts, or toast. Native Americans also used local varietals of elder berries (Sambucus canadensis)for a black dye in basketry, and the flowers as an antiseptic skin wash. The leaves can also be used as an insecticide and the scent of the berries is said to repel flies, mites, rats, and mice, and are often huge throughout orchards and barns to deter them.

Flavor Profile and Energetics
Acrid, bitter, cool, floral, pungent

An infusion of 2 tsp of dried flowers per cup of water, drunk three times daily. 2-4ml of tincture, three times a day. Externally, use salve or oil as needed.

Infuse equal parts elder flowers, peppermint, yarrow, a few slices of fresh ginger, and 1/4 part licorice at the early stages of colds and flus. Equal parts elder flowers and sassafras are useful for clearing the skin of blemishes and acne. For excessive mucus, combine with goldenrod.


Toxicity notes
Only the berries of black elder, Sambucus nigra, are safe for consumption after being cooked. If eaten or taken as a raw juice, they can cause bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. The berries of red elder, Sambucus racemosa, are toxic. The bark, if not properly aged, can be a toxic laxative and can cause cyanide poisoning, so be sure to age the bark for at least a year or more before using. All parts of Sambucus canadensis can cause poisoning.

(s)1, 3, 7, 8, 12, 15, 19

A cluster of cream white elder flowers in the spring.

A cluster of cream white elder flowers in the spring.

The deep purple summer berries of the elder tree.

The deep purple berries of the elder tree.

An black elder shrub.

An black elder shrub.