Elder Tree



Sambucus nigra

Family:  Adoxaceae
Genus:   Sambucus
Species:  nigra


Synonyms and Common names.     Sambucus, European elder, Black elder, Black-berried elder, Pipe tree, Common elder, Bore tree, Boor tree, Bourtree, Bountry, Ellanwood, Ellhorn, German elder, and Aeldrum.

Introduction: The Elder tree is a veritable medicine chest by itself.

The leaves are used primarily for bruises, sprains, wounds, and chilblains.  It has been reported that Elder leaves may be useful in an ointment for tumours.

Elderflowers are ideal for the treatment of colds and influenza.  They are indicated in any catarrhal inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, such as hay fever and sinusitis.  Catarrhal deafness responds well to Elderflowers.

Elderberries have similar properties to the flowers, with the addition of the usefulness to rheumatism.

Description and Habitat:
Elder is common throughout most of Europe and grows in hedgerows, woods, coppices, and waste places.

Elder is a wide-branched shrubby tree growing up to ten meters in height with a trunk diameter of up to thirty centimetres. The bark is light grey when young, and changes to a coarse grey outer bark, with lengthwise furrowing as the tree ages.

The opposite, oval pointed buds are covered in the tree’s lower part, with reddish-brown scales, from which green buds protrude. The opposite, odd-pinnate, and petiolate leaves have two or three pairs of lateral leaflets, which are oval to tapering and are coarsely-toothed, usually narrowing downwards into a wedge shape.

The stalk has small glandular stipules at the base.

Elder’s bisexual flowers appear in early summer and are arranged in rich, flat cymes. They have a short, bell-shaped calyx, and a rounded corolla composed of creamy oval petals, which have five stamens. The ovary has a sessile stigma divided into three to five lobes, maturing into globular, glossy, blackish-purple drupes containing the seeds


Parts used:   Dried flowers, berries, inner bark, and leaves.

Collection and preparation:     The flowers are gathered in spring and early summer and should be dried as quickly as possible, and in shade or darkness. The berries are collected in August and September. The bark should be taken from young branches in early spring before the leaves appear.

Flowers: flavonoids, including rutin, isoquercitrine and kaempherol, , the hydrocyanic glycoside sambunigrine, tannins, and a small quantity of essential oil.

Berries: Invert sugar, fruit acids, pectin, tannin, vitamin C, and vitamin A.

Leaves: triterpenes, cyanogenetic glycosides (sambunigrin), flavonoids rutin, and quercetin, fats, fatty acids, sugars, alkanes, tannins, vitamins, and resins.

Bark: phytohaemagglutinins, an alkaloid (sambucine), resin, viburnic acid, volatile oil, fat, wax, chlorophyll, tannic acid, gum, starch, and pectin.

Diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, and pectorial.

Berries: Diaphoretic, diuretic, and laxative.

Leaves: When used externally emollient and vulnerary.  When used internally as a purgative, expectorant, diuretic, and diaphoretic.

Bark:Purgative, emetic, diuretic.


Indications & Therapeutics:
The fresh flowers are a diaphoretic when given as a hot infusion. This action is less marked in dried flowers, due to the loss of a great deal of the volatile oil component. The bioflavonoids stimulate the circulation, and Elderflowers, combined with Yarrow and Mint, are specific for the treatment of colds and influenza.

Elder is indicated in any catarrhal inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, for example, allergic rhinitis or sinusitis, and, taken as a preventative early in the year, the herb strengthens the upper respiratory tract before the pollen count rises. The action of the Elder in the upper respiratory system is further enhanced by its anti-inflammatory action.

A cold, strained infusion of the flowers is a soothing remedy for inflamed eyes and can be used as a gargle for mouth ulcers and tonsillitis.

The flowers also have an expectorant action, thereby alleviating lung congestion.   They also have a direct action one of the mechanisms involved in the production of mucus, so that excess catarrh is checked.

Elder is therefore beneficial in bronchitis and even in pneumonia. The flowers are mildly relaxing and can be used where there is agitation and restlessness.  There is a direct effect on the nervous system inducing relaxation of all visceral functions. Topically, flowers are often used in skin creams, and for chilblains.

An infusion made from Elderflowers and St John’s wort when combined has exhibited anti-viral activity against influenza, and the herpes simplex virus.

The berries have similar properties to the flowers. They are rich in Vitamin C, and syrup may be made from them to be taken as a preventative against winter colds, and giving a boost to the immune system before cold season sets in. Combined with expectorant Thyme, the berries are also useful in the treatment of coughs.  Elders' diuretic and anti-inflammatory activity help explain its use in rheumatic and arthritic conditions. The leaves, bark, and berries having a greater diuretic activity than the flowers.

The berries and bark have a long-established effect in regulating bowel activity, moderating extremes of diarrhoea, but also encouraging a substantial movement if that is what is needed.  The leaves are used topically to treat bruises, sprains, wounds, burns, and chilblains, and may also be used as a mouthwash. Recent research suggests that they may be of use in an ointment for the treatment of tumours.


Contraindications:  The bark, unripe berries and seeds contain small amounts of substances known as lectins, which can cause stomach problems if too much is eaten.  In addition, the elderberry plant contains substances called cyanogenic glycosides, which can release cyanide in some circumstances. This is a toxin also found in apricot seeds and almonds.   Stick to the recommended dosage, and as a rule of thumb, always try a little of any herb before commencing with its healing properties.  As always, common sense needs to prevail.


Preparation and dosage:
Infusion:  Pour a cupful of boiling water over two teaspoonfuls of dried flowers, and leave for ten to fifteen minutes and drink hot three times daily.

Juice of berries:  Boil fresh berries in water for two to three minutes, pass through a fine sieve and either keep in the fridge or use straight away.   Honey can be added if required to sweeten the medication.  Take one glass diluted with hot water twice daily.

Ointment:  Three parts of fresh Elder leaves, and pour over six parts of melted petroleum jelly until the leaves are crisp, strain and store.

Tincture:  Take two to four millilitres of tincture which has been made from flowers, and take three times a day.


Additional comments and Folklore:

The elder is an ancient hedgerow plant, which is native to Britain. It is steeped in mystery and superstition, and a number of powers and properties have been attributed to the herb, with its frothy, saucer-sized mass of white flowers and dark blackberries.

The elder was long regarded as sacred, protected by the Elder Mother who lived in its trunk. Many country folk would not cut or burn the wood for fear of upsetting her. Moreover, the elder was thought of as a protective tree, it was believed to keep evil spirits from entering the house if grown outside the door. Elders were also said to protect people from lightning when they sheltered under them from a storm.   Legend has it that Christ’s cross was made from elder wood.   And if you want to see fairies, all you need to do is stand under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve, but be careful not to fall asleep, because they’ll carry you off!

Elder is a traditional symbol of sorrow and death because it is the wood from which the crucifixion cross was made, and the type of tree from which Judas hanged himself.

It has magical associations throughout Europe, where it is widely believed that burning elder wood brings bad luck, but that elder sprigs hung in houses provide protection from witches.

Shakespeare refers to the elder as a symbol of grief in Cymbeline.

The Romans used elderberry juice as a hair dye, and elderflower water used in the 18th century to whiten the skin and remove freckles. Elder produces green, violet, and black dyes.

An infusion of the leaves is quite an effective insecticide.

The flowers and berries are widely used to make wines, cordials, desserts, jams, and chutneys, and elderflower juice, or wine, is often taken in rural areas as a spring tonic.

The Chinese prescribe elder for bone pain, swelling of the legs, muscular spasms, and traumatic injuries.