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DISCLAIMER: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.

aka Black elder, Bore tree, Bountry, Common Elder, Elderberry, Ellanwood, Ellhorn, European elder, Pipe tree, Sweet elder
(Sambucus nigra)

For an extensive discussion on the history and uses of elder see A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve available from Dover Publications.


No part of this plant should be used in its fresh state as all parts can cause poisoning. Leaves, root, and bark should not be used internally. Excessive doses of bark can be emetic and purgative. Leaves contain toxic cyanogenic glycosides (also found in Prunus sp). Leaves and raw berries are harmful if eaten (berries toxic when raw, but safe when cooked). Bark preparations are not taken during pregnancy. Juice should not be taken fresh.

FYI A shrubby tree native to Europe found growing along roadsides, waste places, woodlands in moist areas, and rainage ditches. Stems are stiff and pithy. LEAVES are smooth, segmented, and toothed, being dull green in color. FLOWERS are white and wheel-shaped and 1/4-inch in diameter; they appear in June in zone 5 on saucer-like umbels, being small with tiny bracts, 5-toothed sepals, a corolla with a short tube, and 5 stamens. FRUIT appears in clusters of deep black or purplish berries being 1/4-inch in diameter and containing 8 small seeds.

Was a favorite remedy of European gypsies. Astrologically ruled by Venus §

CONTAINS: Volatile oil (flowers); falconoid; rutin; vitamin C (berries); sambunigrin (glycoside); amygdalin, choline, malic acid, Vitamin B-17, choline, acetic acid (combats virus and flu), potassium chloride (endocrine balance), potassium sulphate (fluid balance), magesium phosphate, calcium phosphate (ease tension and spasm in muscles and organs), potassium nitrate (mild heart stimulant).
PROPAGATION By SEED in autumn (slow process); by STEM CUTTINGS of leafless shoots in autumn; by SOFTWOOD CUTTINGS in summer and HARDWOOD CUTTINGS in winter; by ROOT DIVISION in young plants.
NEEDS Ornamental grown in sun or part shade and with adequate water. Susceptible to aphids and Arabis mosaic virus.
PART USED Flowers, berries, leaves, inner bark, and buds. Those grown for their ornamental leaves should be cut back in late autumn nearly to the ground. Those grown for flower and fruit should not be cut back so severely.
HARVEST: BUDS and FLOWERS in spring (cut off whole head and hang to dry; flowers may also be fresh frozen). Flowers should be dried quickly to avoid discoloration (temp at no more than 95F), then the individual flowers separated from the head. RIPE BERRIES when available in late summer or autumn; either dried or squeezed fresh for juice. BARK in early spring before the leaves appear; inner bark is taken by lightly scraping off the outer bark of the stem to expose the bright green surface which is scraped off into a container and used dried. LEAVES are taken in summer.
FLOWERS: Small and white in umbrels appearing in July.
FORM Infusion, Decoction, Oil, Ointment, Syrup, Floral water, Tincture, Liquid extract.
RELATED SPECIES AMERICAN ELDER (Sambucus canadensis): Used the same as S. nigra; berries were eaten and a beverage made of the flowers by the Native Americans of the Iroquois Nation as well as natives of Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
WESTERN (or Blueberry) ELDER (S. caerulea): A tree to 30 feet and native to the western coast of North America. Flowers are yellowish followed by blue-black berries with a waxy coating. Berries were eaten fresh, dried, or cooked by the Native Americans of California, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Oregon, and British Columbia.
BLACKBEAD ELDER (S. melanocarpa): The boiled fruits were eaten by natives of British Columbia.
MEXICAN ELDER (S. mexicana): Berries eaten by natives of New Mexico.
RED ELDER (S. pubens): Has poisonous red berries.
WHITE ELDERBERRY (S. gaudichaudiana): Native to Australia.
YELLOW ELDERBERRY (S. Australasica): Native to Australia.
DWARF ELDER aka Wild Elder, Danewort, Walwort (S. ebulus): Native to Europe, having 5 to 9 leaflets; flowers are creamy-white with a pink tinge and have purple anthers; berries are black and poisonous. Root and bark were once used as a laxative and diuretic; a tsp of the root and bark to a cup of boiling water and taken cold 1 or 2 cupfuls a day, a large mouthful at a time; or 1/2 to 1 fl dram of the tincuture. Has been used for dropsy in dogs and cats.
VARIETIES S.nigra 'Aurea', S. nigra purpurea, S. nigra laciniata, S. nigra marginata, S. nigra Argenteomarginata
In herbalist tradition, the elder is considered 'hot' and 'dry'.
Bitter, pungent; FLOWERS are expectorant, diaphoretic (in hot infusion), circulatory stimulant, expectorant, decongestant, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, relaxant, emollient; affects blood, circulation, lungs, bowels, liver, skin. BERRIES are laxative, diaphoretic, diuretic; BARK (rarely used today) is liver stimulant, purgative, emetic (large doses), diuretic, topically emollient; LEAVES are antiseptic.
The flower tea is considered calming, soothing, tonic and relaxing and has been used as a nightcap and for depression and to calm nerves.
The cooked berries (pies, jams, etc) have been included in the diet for HIV. Research on this topic is ongoing.
Elder flowers have been used for fevers, feverish conditions, sub-feverish conditions, chronic infections, respiratory problems, bronchial conditions, coughs, hacking coughs, hay fever, excess mucous, colds, flu, pneumonia, sinusitis, earache, hay fever, asthma, ulcers, burns, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, stomatitis, skin eruptions, chilblains, edema, congestive heart failure, fluid retention, kidney stones, rheumatism (berry), arthritis (bark), grout, constipation (bark), psoriasis (wash), and eczema (wash).
Has been combined with equal parts yarrow and peppermint for colds and with 2 parts elderflowers and 1 part peppermint for chesty conditions. Has been combined with an equal part of peppermint for early stages of colds and flu and taken hot (1 oz herb per 1 pint water) while in the bath or in bed so it can be 'sweated out'; has also been combined in equal part with hyssop for colds. A wash of elderflowers has been used to bring down a fever or an infusion added to the bath water for the same purpose. Induces a cooling sweat and reduces fevers by increasing elimination of wastes. Shortens duration of colds, especially if taken when symptoms first appear. Has also been used to treat congestive lungs, bronchial conditions, pneumonia, sinus, ear, hayfever, and asthma.
A tea of the flowers has been taken for twitching eyelids, kidney problems, liver problems, headaches due to colds, palsy, rheumatism, scrofula, syphilis, epilepsy, and chronic diseases.
A tea has been made from the dried berries and used to treat cholera and diarrhea.
Leaves and bark have been used externally for bruises, sprains, wounds, minor burns, and chilblains. Leaves in ointment form have been used for tumors.
Has been used externally for conjunctivitis and sore eyes (as a wash; a strong tea is passed through a paper filter), for irriated/inflamed skin, mouth ulcers and minor injuries. Has been used in ointment/salve form for burns, rashes, and minor skin problems. Has been combined with equal parts sassafras for blemishes and acne. The homemade oil has been used for chapped hands and chilblains.
Has been combined with Bogbean and White willow for rheumatism.
Leaves were once used to make 'green elder ointment' which was used to treat bruises, sprains, wounds, hemorrhoids, and as a chest rub for colds and flu.
Muffled hearing due to congestion has been treated with an infusion of the flowers.
Extract has been used as a mild astringent and toning lotion for the skin (also for cases of sunburn and mild skin infections).
The juice of the berries has been used for tonsillitis as a gargle.
Writing in 1653, Nicholas Culpeper recommended a decoction of the root as a cure for the bite of an adder.

!All others buy commercial preparations and follow directions carefully!
GRAINS (flower) = 30 to 60
FLOWER INFUSION = 2 tsp dried flowers in 1 cup water just off the boil; steeped 8 minutes; taken 1 cup 3 times daily
BARK/ROOT BARK INFUSION = 1 level tsp to 1/2 cup boiling water taken no more than 1 cup a day, a mouthful at a time
COLD EXTRACT = 1 tsp leaves to 1 cup cold water allowed to stand for 8 to 10 hours
OINTMENT #1 = Steep FLOWERS in a little olive oil in a warm place for 2 or 3 days, then strain through muslin; heat oil with enough beeswax to achieve the consistency of ointment; add 1 drop of tincture of benzoin per 1 oz of product as a preservative; used for burns, cuts, and scratches. The oil, by itself, can be used for chapped hands and chilblains
OINTMENT #2 = 3 parts fresh leaves to 6 parts olive or sunflower oil and 1/2 oz beeswax (or melt petroleum gel in top of a double boiler); add leaves; heat until leaves are crisp (also see the Basics pages for easiest methods and specifics); strain and store; used as needed. An ancient technique for making ointment was to rub as many flowers as possible into a piece of pure lard; the mass was put into a baking tin and placed into a moderate oven until the flowers were brown; the whole was strained through muslin and stored in small jars
TINCTURE = 2 to 4 ml three times daily; 20 to 40 drops in water, 3 or 4 times daily
FLOWER GLYCERITE = 1 tsp taken 3 times daily in warm water
MEDICINAL WINE = Flowers soaked in white wine for 2 weeks
SYRUP = Made with flowers infused in concentrated sugar solution. Also with berries: boiled in a little water for a few minutes, then press the juice out and add sugar or honey
ELDERFLOWER WATER = Place 3/4 cup (180 g) elderflowers and 1/4 cup (60 g) lavender flowers in a pan and cover with 1 pint (500 ml) of boiling distilled water; allow this flower tea to sit until cooled; then add 1 oz (30 ml) of vodka and 1 oz (30 ml) of vegetable glycerin; let stand for 12 hours, then strain and bottle. Used as a skin wash

ALSO SEE: Cooking with Herbs and Wild Foods.
Young flower buds are pickled
Flower heads are used to make a white wine and elderflower 'champagne'. They are also fried in batter for elderflower fritters: blend 1 egg yolk and 5 oz (150 ml) of water into 1 cup (225g) flour; add 2 tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil and fold in the stiffly beaten egg white from your yolk; dip flower heads into batter and fry in hot oil; drain on paper towels; serve immediately.
Flowers are used in wines, mainly to add a muscatel flavor, and to flavor sherberts, stewed fruits, and tea.
Berries are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, jams, ketchup, chutneys, vinegars, pies (one recipe for apple pie calls for 1 cup of elderberries).
Fruit juice is boiled with sugar for a cordial called elderberry rob and is flavored with ginger and cloves.
ELDERBERRY WINE = Gather ripe berries on a dry day. Separate them from the stems and put in an earthenware crock. Cover with boiling water to the amount of one gallon of water to every 2 gallons of berries. Press berries into the water with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Cover and let stand for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve, mashing out all possible juice. measure the juice and add 3 lbs of sugar to each gallon of juice. Toss in a small handful of cloves and a little grated fresh ginger. Pour back into the crock and add one pkg dry yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup of the juice. Cover, let stand until it stops working (bubbling). Strain through cheesecloth and bottle in gallon jugs. After 2 months decant into wine bottles and cork tightly.
ELDERFLOWER WINE = Put one quart of fresh flowers into an earthenware crock. Pour over them 3 gallons of boiling water in which 9 lbs of sugar have been dissolved. Allow to cool. Add juice of one lemon, 3 lbs of raisins, and one pkg of dry yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup of lukewarm juice. Let stand in a crock until it stops working (about 10 days). Strain through cheesecloth and bottle in a gallon jug. After 3 months decant into wine bottles and cork tightly.
ELDERBERRY JELLY = Cook ripe berries and strain through jelly bag. Cook tart crab apples, mash and strain through jelly bag. Combine 1/2 cup of crab apple juice to each cup of elderberry juice. Add 3/4 cup of sugar to each cup of juice. Bring to a brisk boil and then boil gently until the amount that will stick to the spoon thickens when it cools. Have sterilized jars ready and pour the jelly. Seal and process in water bath according to USDA guidelines.
Good skin herb: softens complexion; infusion of flowers used as lotion to soften and whiten skin, also as face compress and a pack for wrinkles.
Elder cream is used for the skin and especially good for aged skin.
Elderflower water makes a gentle and softening cleanser for dry to normal skin.
Excellent bath herb.The flower water was historically known as Aqua Sambuci.
Tea as a splash or toner is used after a shower.
Trunks and stems have a white pith which in the small branches is easily blown out; these hollow stems were used by Native Americans in Basket makking, to make wind instruments, and blowguns. These same whistles and blowguns were also known to make children ill as the plant contains cyanogenic glycosides (these are mainly present and more dangerous in the roots, leaves, and stems).
Berries produce deep blue with no mordant; lavender or violet with alum mordant; on wool produces lilac with an alum and salt mordant; blue-gray with tin mordant; blue with chrome mordant.
Leaves produce soft yellow with alum; deep yellow with chrome
Bark produces gray with iron.
Fly repellent. Leaves are insecticidal, being boiled to make a spray.
Once called the 'medicine chest of the people'.
Is associated with the Jewish Kabbalah.
In some European countries the wood was used to drive off evil spirits and harmful creatures.
In England it was grown as a protection against witches, some say in the belief that Christ was crucified on a cross of elder wood, thus conferring miraculous properties to the tree itself. It was also gathered on the last day of April and placed over windows and doors to ward off witches.
To dream of an elder was believed to point to an illness on the way.
Was once used to dye hair black.
In Earth religions it is considered an herb of magic and protection. It is also used in funeral rites. Two small pieces of elder tied together with red yarn have been attached to barns or stables to protect livestock. For protection in the home, equal-armed crosses of elder wood are placed in each room.
Is associated with the Moon card of the Marjor Arcana of Tarot.

©2001 & 2007 by Ernestina Parziale, CH