Sambucus nigra-Elder

Family: Caprifoliaceae

Other Names: Elder flower, Black Elder, European Elder,Sweet Elder, Tree of Doom, Pipe Tree, Witch’s Tree, Old Lady, Devil’s Eye, Sambucus graveolens, Sambucus peruviana.

Elder has a very long history of household use as a medicinal herb and is also much used by herbalists. The plant has been called ‘the medicine chest of country people’. The flowers are the main part used in modern herbalism, though all parts of the plant have been used at times. Stimulant. The inner bark is collected from young trees in the autumn and is best sun-dried. It is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark. The leaves can be used both fresh or dry. For drying, they are harvested in periods of fine weather during June and July. The leaves are purgative, but are more nauseous than the bark. They are also diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic. The juice is said to be a good treatment for inflamed eyes. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains, chilblains, wounds etc. The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of ‘Elder Flower Water’. The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactogogue and pectoral. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation. Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds, scalds etc. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit. The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds. The root is no longer used in herbal medicine but it formerly had a high reputation as an emetic and purgative that was very effective against dropsy. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of young branches. It relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Sambucus nigra for cough and bronchitis, fevers and colds.

hazardsmallThe leaves and stems are poisonous. The fruit of many species (although no records have been seen for this species) has been known to cause stomach upsets to some people. Any toxin the fruit might contain is liable to be of very low toxicity and is destroyed when the fruit is cooked.

Habitat: Europe, including Britain, from Scandanavia south and east to N. Africa and W. Asia.Hedgerows, scrub, woods, roadsides, waste places etc, especially on disturbed base-rich and nitrogen rich soils.


Sambucus nigra is a deciduous Shrub growing to 6 m (19ft) by 6 m (19ft) at a fast rate.
It is hardy to zone 5 and is not frost tender. It is in leaf 11-Mar It is in flower from Jun to July, and the seeds ripen from Aug to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Flies.It is noted for attracting wildlife.

Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and can grow in heavy clay soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils and can grow in very alkaline soils.
It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil. The plant can tolerate maritime exposure.
It can tolerate atmospheric pollution.


A very easily grown plant, it tolerates most soils and situations, growing well on chalk, but prefers a moist loamy soil. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Tolerates some shade but fruits better in a sunny position. Tolerates atmospheric pollution and coastal situations. Another report says that it is intolerant of very smoky atmospheres. The elder is very occasionally cultivated for its edible fruit, there are some named varieties though most of these have been developed for their ornamental value. The sub-species S. nigra alba has white/green fruits that are nicer than the type species and are quite nice raw. The elder also has a very long history of folk use, both medicinally and for a wide range of other uses. All in all it is a very valuable plant to have in the garden. The leaves often begin to open as early as January and are fully open in April. The leaves fall in October/November in exposed sites, later in sheltered positions. Young stems can be killed by late frosts but they are soon replaced from the ground level. Very tolerant of pruning, plants can be cut back to ground level and will regrow from the base. The flowers have a sweet, almost overpowering smell, not exactly pleasant when inhaled near to for it has fishy undertones, but from a distance its musky scent is appealing. Very resistant to the predations of rabbits. The flowers are very attractive to insects. The fruit is very attractive to birds and this can draw them away from other cultivated fruits. The elder is an early colonizer of derelict land, the seed arriving in the defecations of birds and mammals. It is a very good pioneer species for re-establishing woodlands. Plants in this genus are notably resistant to honey fungus.


Seed – best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame, when it should germinate in early spring. Stored seed can be sown in the spring in a cold frame but will probably germinate better if it is given 2 months warm followed by 2 months cold stratification first. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. If good growth is made, the young plants can be placed in their permanent positions during the early summer. Otherwise, either put them in a sheltered nursery bed, or keep them in their pots in a sheltered position and plant them out in spring of the following year. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 7 – 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame. Cuttings of mature wood of the current season’s growth, 15 – 20cm with a heel, late autumn in a frame or a sheltered outdoor bed. Division of suckers in the dormant season.

Collection: The flowers are collected in spring and early summer and dried as rapidly as possible in the shade. The bark and berries are best collected in August and September.

elder berries when ripeCulinary uses of Elder:

Edible Parts: Flowers;  Fruit.
Edible Uses: Colouring;  Tea.

Fruit – raw or cooked. The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to many tastes, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies and so forth. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys etc, it is also often used to make wine. The fruit is about 8mm in diameter and is borne in large clusters. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity.

Flowers – raw or cooked. They can also be dried for later use. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy, they have an aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack on a summers day, though look out for the insects. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam). They are often used to make a sparkling wine. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers. As a child a German neighbour of mine used to treat us to Elderflower fritters, loaded with sugar and fat but delicious! The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats.

Sambucus_Nigra_botanicalMedicinal uses of elder:
Actions: Different parts of this plant have different uses.
  • Bark: purgative, emetic, diuretic.
  • Leaves: Externally emollient and vulnerary, internally as purgative, expectorant, diuretic and diaphoretic. 
  • Flowers: Diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, anti-spasmodic. 
  • Berries: Diaphoretic, diuretic, laxative.

Part Used: Bark, flowers, berries, leaves.


The Elder tree is a medicine chest by itself! The leaves are used for bruisessprainswounds and chilblains. It has been reported that Elder Leaves may be useful in anointment for tumours. Elder Flowers are ideal for the treatment of colds and influenza. They are indicated in any catarrhal inflammation of the upper respiratory tract such as hayfever and sinusitisCatarrhal deafness responds well to Elder Flowers. Elder Berries have similar properties to the Flowers with the addition of their usefulness in rheumatism.

Priest & Priest tell say it is a “mild diffusive &relaxing diaphoretic with alterative properties, indicated for children subject to frequent febrile reactions. Relaxing to the eliminative organs, soothing tothe nervous system and gently laxative.” The indications are: Colds & `flu with dry, hot skin; chronic nasal catarrh or sinusitis; dry coryza; spasmodic croup; weakening nightsweatsskin eruptions from metabolic disturbance; eczemadermatitis.

Kings’ Dispensatory describes the uses of a related species S.canadensis thus: “In warm infusion, Elder Flowers are diaphoretic &gently stimulant; in cold infusion they are diuretic, alterative & cooling, & may be used in all diseases requiring such action, as in hepatic derangements of children, erysipelas. The expressed juice of the berries evaporated to the consistence of a syrup is a valuable aperient and alterative; l ounce of it will purge. An infusion of the young leaf-buds is likewise purgative, and sometimes acts with violence. The flowers and expressed juice of the berries have been beneficially employed in scrofulacutaneous diseasessyphilisrheumatism. The inner greenbark is cathartic; and infusion of it in wine or cider, or the expressed juice, will purge moderately, in doses of from 1/2 to 1 fluid ounce; large doses produce emesis; in small ones, it proves an efficient deobstruent, promoting all the fluid secretions, and is much used in dropsy, especially that following scarlatina, and other febrile and exanthematous diseases, as well as in many chronic diseases.”


For colds and fevers it may be used with Peppermint, Yarrow or Hyssop. For influenza combine it with Boneset. For catarrhal states mix it with Golden Rod.

Preparations & Dosage of Elder:

Infusion: 1 cup of boiling water onto 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried or fresh blossoms and infuse for 10 minutes. Drink hot 3 times a day.

Juice: boil fresh berries in water for 2 to 3 minutes, then express the juice. To preserve, bring to the boil with 1 part honey to 10 parts of juice. Take 1 glass diluted with hot water twice a day.

Ointment: take 3 parts of fresh Elder Leaves and heat them with 6 parts of melted vaseline until the leaves are crisp. Strain and store.

Tincture: take 2-4 ml of the tincture (made from the flowers) three times a day.

Other uses:

Compost,  Cosmetic,  Dye,  Fungicide,  Hedge,  Hedge,  Insecticide,  Litmus,  Microscope,  Musical,  Pioneer,  Pipes,  Repellent,  Wood

The plant is a valuable addition to the compost heap, its flowers are an alternative ingredient of ‘QR’ herbal compost activator and the roots of the plant improve fermentation of the compost heap when growing nearby. The leaves are used as an insect repellent, very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance. They can be powdered and placed amongst plants to act as a deterrent, or made into a spray when they act as an insecticide. This is prepared by boiling 3 – 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew.The dried flowering shoots are used to repel insects, rodents etc. The flowers are used in skin lotions, oils and ointments. Tolerant of salt-laden gales, this species can be grown as a shelter hedge in exposed maritime areas, it is rather bare in the winter though. This is an excellent pioneer species to use when re-establishing woodlands. It is very tough and wind-resistant, grows quickly and provides shelter for longer-lived and taller woodland species to establish. It will generally maintain itself in the developing woodland, though usually in the sunnier positions. A dye is obtained from the fruit and the bark. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant. The berries yield various shades of blue and purple dyes. They have also been used as a hair dye, turning the hair black. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus to test if something is acid or alkaline. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution. The pith in the stems of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been used as pipes for blowing air into a fire. They can also be made into musical instruments. The pith of the wood is used for making microscope slides and also for treating burns and scalds. The mature wood is white and fine-grained. It is easily cut and polishes well. Valued highly by carpenters, it has many used, for making skewers, mathematical instruments, toys etc.

Elder berry fairyEsoteric uses of Elder:

Sleep, releasing enchantments, protection against negativity, wisdom, house blessing and business blessing. Elder flowers are useful in dream pillows. Wear to provide protection against evil, negativity, attackers, and the temptation to commit adultery. Used in rites of death & dying to protect the loved one during transport to the Otherworld.

The Chemistry:
  • Triterpenes including ursolic acid, 30-[[beta]]-hydroxyursolic acid, oleanolic acid, [[alpha]]- and[[beta]]-amyrin and free and esterified sterols
  • Fixed oil, containing free fatty acids; mainly linoleic, linolenic &palmitic acids, alkanes
  • Flavonoids, including rutin, quercitin and kaempferol etc
  • Miscellaneous; phenolic acids, e.g. chlorogenic acid, pectin, sugars etc.


  • Triterpenes similar to those found in the flowers
  • Cyanogenetic glycosides, e.g. sambunigrin
  • Flavonoids inchuding rutin and quercitin
  • Miscellaneous, fatty acids, alkanes, tannins.

Bark contains phytohaemagglutinins.

ActionsBark: purgative, emetic, diuretic. Leaves: Externally emollient and vulnerary, internally as purgative, expectorant, diuretic and diaphoretic. Flowers: Diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, anti-spasmodic. Berries: Diaphoretic, diuretic, laxative.