- Family Caprifoliaceae
- Sambucus canadensis (Elder, American Elder, Elderberry, Sweet Elder)
- Sambucus ebulus (Dwarf Elder, Dane’s Elder, Viking Elder, Danewort, Walewort, Blood Elder, Blood Hilder)
- Sambuscus nigra (Black Elder, Black-berried Alder, European Elder/Alder, Common Elder, Boor Tree, Elder, Bountry, Ellanwood, Ellhorn)
- Sambucus mexicana, S. racemosa (Saúco, Flor Saúco, Azumiate, Guarico, Negrito, Tápiro, Xúmetl (Nahuatl), Tlsolos-ché (Maya)
- Do not take any parts of elder if a pre-existing condition would be worsened by further drying or fluid depletion.
- Do not use the bark in pregnancy as it is a strong purgative.
- Large quantities of the raw berries from the dwarf elder should not be consumed as they can lead to serious side effects.
- Infusions can be made from the flowerheads, but great care must be taken as a number of species are poisonous.
- Since the leaves, stems, and outer bark contain enough cyanide to kill small children quickly, they should be handled with extreme caution and by only knowledgeable professionals. They are safe when used externally as a skin preparation to relieve inflammation and swelling. The flowers and berries are safe.
Native to almost all of Europe, the elder tree is now found in most temperate zones, thriving in woods, hedges, on wasteground, and is often cultivated. The dwarf elder is also found from southern Sweden, throughout central and southern Europe, northern Africa, western Asia, Iran, and North America. There are more than a dozen varieties native to North America.
The elder is generally a deciduous tree, growing from seventy inches (dwarf elder), to ten feet (American elder) to thirty-three feet (European elders). Elder plants often contain a profusion of woody stems coming out of a central root, much like some of the sumacs. The branching stems spread about fifteen feet in the larger trees and are covered with a rough bark while the inner, larger stems, are smooth. The plant produces oval, serrated leaves, clusters of star-shaped, creamy flowers, and, eventually, blue-black juicy berries. The flowers have a strong, somewhat numbing, perfume, and are harvested in late spring, while the berries are picked in early autumn.
In folk legend, it is often described as being a “complete medine chest” and, with continued use, would heal all the ills a person is likely to have in a lifetime, thus promoting longevity and giving rise to its name of “elder”.
Since ancient times, the flowers, berries, and inner bark have been used medicinally. The berries have also been used to make dyes, wines, jams, perfumes, and cosmetic creams and lotions.
Galen classed it as a “hot and dry” herb used for such cold, damp conditions as phlegm and excessive mucus and was a favourite 17th century remedy for such conditions.
Elderflower water was much used in the 18th century for whitening the skin and removing freckles.
Chopping the branches was considered dangerous in rural England because it was believed that the tree was inhabited by the Elder Mother; and, to avoid her wrath, woodcutters would recite a placatory rhyme.
The Aztecs used the leaves in poultices for headaches, nosebleeds, wounds, and skin ulcers.
The Cherokee drank an elderberry infusion to treat rheumatism.
- circulatory stimulant
- promotes sweating
- reduces phlegm
- promotes sweating
- emollient (topical)
- promotes vomiting (in large doses)
- volatile oil (mainly 65% essential fatty acids and palmitic acid)
- flavonoids (up to 3% mainly rutin, isoquercitrin, quercitrin, hyperoside, astagalin, nicotoflorin)
- vitamins A and C (berries)
- anthocyanins (berries)
- cyanogenic glycoside (leaves)
- viburnic acid
Flowers, berries, bark, leaves, roots
The triterpenes, in the flowers, may have anti-inflammatory action similar to steroids.
It is believed that elder’s most common medicinal use is that of inducing perspiration. This action is thought to be caused by flavonoids and viburnic acid since these substances have produced similar effects when isolated from other plants.
One small study done by a company in Skokie, Illinois, that sells neutraceuticals, reported that elderberry capsules shortened the duration of flu symptoms in the majority of patients. The capsules were taken at the first sign of flu symptoms and generally recovered in two to four days compared to an average of six day for those on a placebo. An Israeli study, using different elder products, produced similar results. The active ingredients in elderberry are thought to inactivate an enzyme that normally allows the flu virus to penetrate cell walls.
- Infusions as a hot drink fare taken for feverish and mucus conditions of upper respiratory tract, including hay fever. They can be combined with yarrow, boneset, and peppermint.
- Tinctures are taken for colds and influenza or in early spring to help reduce later hay fever symptoms.
- Creams are applied to chapped and sore hands or to chilblains.
- Eyewash is used from the cold, strained infusion to treat inflamed or sore eyes.
- Mouthwash and gargle are made from the infusion for mouth ulcers, sore throats, and tonsillitis.
- Syrup is made from a decoction and taken as a prophylactic for winter colds or in combination with other expectorant herbs, such as thyme, for coughs.
- Tinctures are used in combination with other herbs, such as willow, for rheumatic conditions.
- Itis rarely used today, but in times past it was an effective liver stimulant and taken for stubborn constipation.
The dried flowers can be made into emollient creams, infusions, flower water, tablets, teas, and tinctures. The flowering tops are ideal for coughs, colds, and the flu.
A hot infusion of the flowers is considered to be a general stimulant for the body; but, when prepared in cold water, it becomes a good laxative and an effective diuretic. A relaxing infusion can produce a mild perspiration that helps reduce fever.
The flowers seem to tone the mucous membranes of the nose and throat, thereby increasing resistance to infection. They are often prescribed for chronic congestion, allergies, ear infections, and candidiasis. They can also reduce the severity of hay fever attacks if taken some months before the onset of the season.
A flower tincture will help clear mucous conditions in the upper respiratory tract, reduce inflammation, and speed healing.
Because it is able to encourage sweating and urine production, elder flowers promote the removal of waste products from the body and are valuable in arthritc conditions.
The berries are taken for rheumatism and erysipelas (a skin infection). They are also mildly laxative, but still able to help control diarrhea. The berries also make excellent jam, but should be eaten only when ripe and cooked slightly. Otherwise, they cause diarrhea and vomiting.
The leaves and stems contain cyanide and should not be ingested. However, they do contain substances that may be helpful in the form of salves, or emollients to reduce swelling and inflammation of sprains, bruises, and arthritis. The flowers and leaves are often used in salves for wounds, soften the skin, and help in general healing.
An oil extracted from the seeds may be massaged onto painful joints to relieve the pain of arthritis.
Because the bark is so strong, it is advisable to become informed in the use of the plant before using it too freely.
A compress soaked in elder flower tea can be applied directly to the skin. The fresh or dried leaves may be used to make a poultice.