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Elder

Latin Names: Sambucus nigra, Sambucus canadensis, Sambucus spp.

Other Names: Hollunder (German); Sureau (French); Sambucco (Italian); Sauco (Spanish); Soc (Romanian)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Caprifolaceae (Honeysuckle family)

Part Used: Berries, flowers, leaves, bark, juice, fresh shoots.

Basic Qualities: slightly Cooling, moderately Moistening (berries); moderately Heating and Drying (dried flowers, bark, leaves).

Other Qualities: softening and emollient (berries); loosening and opening (dried flowers); cooling, dispersing and sedating (fresh young shoots).

Taste: Sweet, tart, pungent (berries); pungent, acrid, aromatic (flowers).

Humoral Dynamics: The humoral dynamics of Elder depends on which part of the plant you are using.  The berries improve the vital and immune function of the blood and stimulate its circulation and capillary perfusion; they also have a soothing, moistening emollient effect on the mucous membranes of the GI tract, nourishing their Phlegmatic secretions.  The berries are also useful for cooling chronic heat or consumptive fevers in the blood.  The flowers also stimulate the circulation, vital and immune function of the blood, although much less than the berries; they act as a stimulating diaphoretic or sudorific to open the capillaries and pores, and provoke sweating to break fevers, as well as colds and flu.  The bark is a purgative and diuretic that eliminates the excess fluids of edema, or dropsy.  The leaves have a marked diuretic effect that drains off fluids and dampness.

Tropism: Berries – the lungs and respiratory tract; the blood and lymph; the blood vessels and capillaries; the stomach and intestines. Flowers – the skin and pores; the blood vessels and capillaries; the blood and lymph. Bark – the muscles, bones and joints; the blood and lymph. Leaves – the kidneys, bladder and urinary tract; the blood and lymph.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The active constituents of Elder depend, in a large measure, on what part of the plant you are using, and the variety of different therapeutic uses for the different parts of the Elder tree are explained by this variety of active constituents.  The berries contain the flavonoids rutin and quercetin, as well as the anthocyanins cyanidin-3-glucoside and cyanidin-3-sambucoside.  They also contain the hemagglutinin protein Sambuccus nigra agglutinin III (SNA III); cyanogenic glycosides, including sambunigrin; viburnic acid, and vitamins A and C.  Mrs. M. Grieve says that they also contain malates of potash (potassium) and lime (calcium).  Other constituents of the berries include invert sugar, fruit acids, pectin and tannin.  The flowers contain up to 3% flavonoids, mainly rutin, isoquercitrine and kaempherol; phenolic acids and triterpenes; the hydrocyanic glycoside sambunigrine; traces of a semi-solid volatile oil; mucilage and tannins; minerals, especially potassium; and essential oil, consisting of palmitic, linoleic and linolenic acids.  The bark contains phytohemagglutinins; an alkaloid, sambucine; resin, viburnic acid, volatile oil, fat, wax, chlorophyll, tannic acid, gum, starch and pectin.  The leaves contain triterpenes; cyanogenic glycosides, including sambunigrin; the flavonoids rutin and quercetin; fats, fatty acids, sugars, alkanes, tannins, vitamins and resins.  Although there are many similarities and common themes running through the vital constituents of different parts of the Elder tree, there is enough variation, not only in the constituents themselves, but in their relative concentrations, to endow these different parts with different therapeutic properties.

Medicinal Properties: Berries – Alterative, antiscorbutic, antiviral, aperient, blood tonic, demulcent, emollient, febrifuge, immunostimulant, immunomodulatory, vasotonic, vulnerary. Flowers – Alterative, antiallergenic, diaphoretic, expectorant, vasotonic, vulnerary. Bark – Purgative, diuretic. Leaves – diuretic, vulnerary.

Cautions and Contraindications: The Elder tree and its parts are generally mild, of low toxicity, and rich in nutrients as a food source. Nevertheless, a few precautions are in order. The berries should never be eaten fresh or raw; they should be lightly steamed and dried before use. Excessive use of an infusion of the flowers as a diaphoretic can provoke excessive sweating, with the potential to lead to prostration and excessive electrolyte loss. Similarly, excessive ingestion of the dried flowers in powder form is also to be avoided, as the flowers can be a powerful blood cleanser. The leaves are a powerful diuretic, and should also be used sparingly. The bark is a strong purgative. Because of their purgative action, the bark and leaves of Elder should not be taken internally during pregnancy. Topical use of Elder in all its parts is a lot safer, and there are no restrictions on its use. Of all the parts of the Elder tree, the steamed, dried berries are generally the mildest and safest for internal consumption, followed by the flowers. For these reasons, it is mainly the berries and flowers of the Elder tree that are used by herbalists today.

Medicinal Uses: The berries are best known and used as an immunostimulant and antiviral in colds and flu; as an intestinal demulcent in colic and indigestion, and as a mild aperient laxative in light constipation and sluggish bowels; the berries also have mild diuretic properties to relieve edema and fluid retention, and a mild antirheumatic effect.  The berries are also a good blood tonic and vascular tonic to improve circulation and enhance the vital principles in the blood.  The flowers stimulate and open up the capillary circulation, and are a stimulating diaphoretic or sweating agent in colds and flu; soothing, cooling summer drinks are also made from the fresh flowers, sweetened with a little sugar or honey.  The dried powdered flowers are a powerful blood cleanser and vascular tonic, toning the blood vessels and stimulating circulation. Elder flowers are also effective in treating the symptoms of respiratory allergies and hay fever.  The bark is diuretic and antirheumatic, and an infusion of it is used to purge the watery humors of dropsy or edema, and is considered to be one of the best botanical medicines for this purpose.  The leaves are a diuretic when infused as a tea, also relieving fluid retention and dropsy, and are more purgative in nature than the bark.  Healing balms, oils and salves are made from the fresh green leaves of the Elder.

Other Uses: The main other uses of the Elder, mainly its berries, are primarily culinary and gastronomic.  Wines and liqueurs are made from the berries, either by fermenting the pressed juice, or by infusing the steamed, dried berries in wine or alcoholic spirits.  The steamed, dried berries can be used as an ingredient in Sangrias to add a zesty, fruity flavor to the mix.  Blending the berries into lemonade is also a good idea.  Because of its dispersing, cooling properties and nature, the fresh flowers and shoots can be made into a refreshing summer drink, by infusing and macerating them in hot water, adding honey or sugar as a sweetener, then cooling it to room temperature or cooler.  This is a very popular summer drink in Romania, and in other parts of Europe.  Elder berries can also be boiled down into jams and preserves, and sweetened to taste if desired.  Elder berries are a good source of iron, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, rutin, and other nutrients, so they make a good herbal superfood.  Italians make a liqueur from the Elder flowers.  An infusion of dried Elder flowers has been used for cosmetic purposes, as an external wash to maintain a clear, beautiful complexion.  Even the wood has its uses.  The wood of older, more mature trees is hard, fine grained and takes a high polish; therefore, it is used for many articles that have to be made with durability and precision in mind, such as combs and mathematical instruments.  The young branches of the Elder tree have a soft, pithy interior that can easily be extruded; the hollow stems can then be made into shepherds’ flutes of various kinds.

Preparation and Dosage: Of all the parts of the Elder tree, the berries are generally the mildest, but even here, they have to be lightly steamed and dried to prepare them for medicinal use; otherwise, they can be too purgative.  The berries can be infused as a tea, decocted, either singly or in combination with other herbs, or made into a syrup, by making a concentrated decoction and then blending it with sugar or honey.  Jams and preserves can also be made from the steamed, dried berries.  The flowers need to be dried quickly in the sunlight, otherwise they will spoil or rot, turning dark brown; the proper color of the dried Elder flowers is vanilla or cream colored.  Elder flowers are usually infused in the ratio of a heaping tablespoon per cup of hot water and drunk hot, to provoke sweating and break the fevers of colds and flu.  The dried flowers can also be powdered and used in standard doses, either singly or in combination with other herbs in equal parts.  The bark is usually prepared as an infusion in the ratio of one ounce (28 gms.) of the cut and sifted bark per pint of hot water and taken in wineglassful doses throughout the day.  The green Elder leaves can be prepared into a healing ointment called Unguentum Sambuci Viride, or Green Elder Ointment.  Mrs. M. Grieve gives the following recipe:  Take three parts of fresh Elder leaves, four parts of lard and two parts of prepared suet.  Heat and melt these together with the fresh leaves until the green color is fully extracted, and press the melted fat through a linen cloth until it is fully extracted.  Allow to cool and solidify before use.  It is used as a domestic remedy for bruises, sprains and chilblains, as well as an external emollient.

Herbal Formulation: Elder berries, although quite versatile in its formulation potential, combine best with herbs of a light, dispersing pungent nature due to the heavy unctuousness of its moistening, emollient nature. The sweet berries also complement bitter tonic herbs like Gentian quite well, and soften their bitterness. The flowers are generally used with other diaphoretics in herbal infusions designed to provoke sweating, but since the flowers can potentially provoke giddiness and nausea due to their cleansing, dispersing nature, they are best combined with diaphoretics that have a soothing, settling action on the stomach and digestion. The bark and leaves are usually used singly as herbal simples.

Classic Combinations: Elder berries combine quite well with Fresh Ginger (Zingiber officinale) in herbal decoctions to treat colds and flu; you can sweeten this brew with lemon and honey.  As an alterative or blood cleanser and an immunostimulant  for colds and flu, Elder berries combine well with Echinacea root (Echinacea angustifolia) and bitter tonics like Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis).  As a soothing tonic for infantile colic, Elder berries combine very well with Dried Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare) or Anise (Pimpinella anisum).  As a stimulating diaphoretic to break the fevers of colds and flu, Elder flowers combine very well with Peppermint (Mentha piperita).  For respiratory allergies, Elder flowers combine very well with Linden flowers (Tilia europea).

Description: Sambucus nigra, popularly known as Black Elder, European Elder or Common Elder, has a long history of use in European folk medicine for a variety of purposes.  Virtually every part of this healing tree is used, and each part has a different therapeutic use and purpose.  Elder trees put forth their fragrant blossoms in June, around the summer solstice, and soon thereafter follow the dark black berries.  The fresh flowers and tender young shoots are made into a soothing, cooling summer drink, sweetened with a little sugar or honey; the young shoots can also be steamed and eaten as a vegetable.  The medicinal use of Elder dates back all the way to Hippocrates, and many other old European herbalists and natural historians, such as Pliny and Culpeper, held it in the highest esteem.  Poets have also sung forth its praises, and an extensive body of myth and lore surrounds this legendary plant.  In ages past, the bark and the leaves of the Elder were used medicinally, but these have fallen out of favor in modern times, due to their purgative properties, and now the main parts of the Elder that are most commonly used are the safer and more innocuous parts – the berries and flowers.

Nicholas Culpeper had this to say about Elder:

The first shoots of the common Elder, boiled like Asparagus, and the young leaves and stalks boiled in fat broth, doth mightily carry forth phlegm and choler.  The middle or inward bark boiled in water and given in drink worketh much more violently; and the berries, either green or dry,  expel the same humour, and are often given with good success in dropsy; the bark of the root boiled in wine, or the juice thereof drunk, worketh the same effects, but more powerfully than either the leaves or fruit.  The juice of the root taken, causes vomitings and purgeth the watery humours of the dropsy. 

From this little excerpt one can see that there are many parts of the Elder tree that were used by the herbalists of ages past that are no longer in use today; one can also see the great degree to which purgatives were used in the herbal medicine of Olde England.  Herbalists of today generally favor a gentler, milder approach to their art.  Nevertheless, the medicinal use of this great healing tree has persisted down into modern times, and is being validated by modern science in clinical studies.  But today, it’s mainly the flowers and berries that are used, and which are available in herb and health food stores.  The berries are best known as a remedy for colds and flu, with modern clinical research validating their antiviral properties.  And the flowers are used primarily as a diaphoretic or sweating agent to break the fevers of colds and flu, and also to treat allergies. 

Culpeper tells us that Elder berries, either green or dry, expel the excess fluids of dropsy or edema, but modern herbalists use the lightly steamed and dried ripe berries.  Preparing Elder berries in this way changes them from a diuretic purgative into a valuable tonic and stimulator of the immune system in colds and flu.  Steamed, dried Elder berries are an herbal superfood that works mainly on the blood or Sanguine humor, by improving its circulation and vital immune function.  The berries contain abundant potassium and other minerals, and act as a blood tonic; they are also good for rheumatism and fluid retention.  The berries are a moistening demulcent and emollient, and have a mild laxative or aperient effect that gently lubricates and relaxes the bowels, being commonly taken as a tea with herbs like Fennel seed for digestive colic and irritable bowel.  The antiviral properties of Elder berries are due to the hemagglutinin proteins they contain, which deactivate viruses by binding to their receptor sites.

Elder flowers are used mainly as a stimulating diaphoretic to break the fevers of colds and flu.  Because they can be quite stimulating and cleansing in nature when used by themselves, they can provoke giddiness and nausea; for this reason, they are usually combined with other diaphoretic herbs that have a soothing and settling action on the stomach and digestion, like Peppermint.  Elder flowers have a lot of the same flavonoid content as the berries, which tone the blood vessels, although in not as concentrated form; in their overall nature and energetics, Elder berries are more tonic and moistening, whereas Elder flowers are more dispersing in nature.  A hot infusion of Elder flowers, in addition to provoking abundant perspiration, will also strongly open up and stimulate the peripheral capillary circulation.  Elder flowers can also detoxify the upper respiratory tract to relieve the symptoms of respiratory allergies.  Women in Olde England used to use an infusion of Elder flowers as an external wash to keep their skin and complexion young and beautiful; undoubtedly, this magic still works today.  But whatever you do, only use dried Elder flowers that are light or cream colored in color; those that are a dark brown color have not been dried properly, and have been allowed to spoil or rot.

An infusion of the dried inner bark of the Elder tree is one of the finest remedies known in the herbal kingdom for purging and draining the watery humors of dropsy, or edema; its use in this manner dates back to Hippocrates.  Mrs. M. Grieve, in her herbal, states that an infusion of the dried bark has even proved to be useful in cardiac and renal dropsies.  To prepare this infusion, take one ounce (28 grams) of the dried inner bark and steep it in one pint of boiling water.  Strain, and drink it throughout the day in wineglass sized doses.  In large doses, this infusion can be used as an emetic and a purgative.  Elder leaves can also be employed as a diuretic, and similarly as an emetic and purgative in larger doses, but their most common use is used fresh as an ingredient in healing unguents and salves, like the Unguentum Sambuci Viride, whose recipe is given above in the Preparation and Dosage section.  This is a valuable home remedy for bruises, sprains, contusions and trauma.

To sum things up, the legendary Elder tree is a veritable treasure chest that has a number of valuable medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and other uses.  It is one of the most versatile healing plants known, and herbal wines, jams, jellies, syrups, vinegars, teas, unguents and balms have been made from its various parts.  Mrs. Maude Grieve in her herbal supplies us with a number of fine recipes, all made from the versatile Elder tree.  Although its medicinal use is best known in Olde English herbalism, the Elder tree is also known, loved and used as food and medicine throughout the European continent.  Its healing legends and lore form the heart of old European herbal healing.

Related Species: Closely related to the Common Elder is the Dwarf Elder (Sambucus ebulus).  Its therapeutic properties and uses are quite similar to those of the Common Elder, but its purgative properties are said to be stronger.  Mrs. M. Grieve gives its medicinal properties as being expectorant, diaphoretic, diuretic and purgative.  The roots and leaves of the Dwarf Elder are the parts used medicinally, and occasionally the berries.  Dwarf Elder tea, which is considered to be one of the best herbal remedies for dropsy or edema, is prepared from the roots, which are either cut and sifted, or powdered; Father Sebastian Kneipp, who is widely considered to be the father of naturopathy, is said to have used it quite frequently.  The juice of the fresh roots has been used to dye the hair black.

Sources: Herbal Study

Sambucus nigra

A Modern Herbal, Vol. 1 by Mrs. M. Grieve, pp. 265 – 278.  @ 1971 by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.  Originally published by Harcourt, Brace & Co. in 1931.

The Little Herb Encyclopedia, Third Edition by Jack Ritchason, ND, pg. 78.  @ 1995 by Jack Ritchason.  Published by Woodland Health Books, Pleasant Grove, Utah.

DISCLAIMER:  The information contained on this page is intended for educational purposes only, to inform the reader as to the traditional uses of the herb or medicinal substance, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or medical condition.  The author advises the reader to consult with his or her physician before use.