The truly remarkable Elderberry

This remarkable tree has many therapeutic uses, from relieving symptoms of bronchitis to minor burns.

Botanical Name: Sambucus nigra

Plant Family: Caprifoliaceae

Common Names: Black Elder, Black-berried European Elder, Boor Tree, Bore Tree, Bountry, Common Elder, Ellanwood, Ellhorn, European Elder, German Elder, Holunder, Pipe Tree

Origins and history

The Elder Tree is found throughout Europe, Asia, North Africa, and has been naturalized in the United States.

The word Elder comes from the Anglo-saxon word aeld meaning ‘fire’. The tree has been called ‘the medicine chest of the common people’ and has been used in traditional folk medicine for centuries. The generic name Sambucus occurs in the writings of Pliny, and is adapted from the Greek word Sambuca, ‘an ancient musical instrument made from the wood of the tree’.

  • Egyptians discovered that applying its flowers improved the complexion
  • The Greeks used a tea from the root as a laxative
  • In the 17th century the British often drank home made wine and cordials that were thought to prolong life and cure the common cold
  • Many early Indian tribes used Elder berries in teas and other beverages and the flowers for medicinal purposes
  • Gypsies used Elder flowers as an eyewash
  • Tradition: This herb has a long history dating beyond the stone ages:
  • Judas was thought to have hanged himself from an Elder Tree
  • In the Middle Ages it was thought that the Elder tree was home to witches (in Denmark a ‘dryad’) and that cutting down the tree would bring on the wrath of those residing in the branches
  • Shakespeare refers to it as a ‘symbol of grief’.
  • An old custom among gypsies forbids them from using its wood in their fires
  • The Russians and the English believe that Elder trees ward off evil spirits
  • It is considered good luck to plant a tree near your home as the Elder will offer protection to the dwellers
  • Sicilians think that sticks of Elder wood can kill serpents and drive away thieves
  • It is used at weddings to bring good luck to the newlyweds

In Wicca rites:

  • The branches of the sacred Elder are used to make magical wands for Wicca rituals
  • Scattering the leaves in the four winds will bring protection
  • Flutes made form t he branches are used to bring forth spirits

Medicinal Parts Used


  • amino acids
  • bioflavonoids
  • carotenoids
  • flavonoids
  • sugar
  • tannins
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin B
  • vitamin C [the berries contain more vitamin C than any other herb except Rosehips and Black Currant]


  • alkaloids
  • betulin [fresh leaves]
  • cane sugar [fresh leaves]
  • flavenoids rutin and quercertin
  • free fatty acids [fresh leaves]
  • hydrocyanic acid [fresh leaves]
  • invertin [fresh leaves]
  • potassium nitrate [fresh leaves]
  • sambunigrin, a cyanogenic glucoside
  • vitamin C

Bark and Roots

  • diuretic [an agent that increases the volume and flow of urine which cleanses the urinary system]
  • cathartic [an agent producing evacuation of the bowels]
  • emetic [an agent that causes vomiting]
  • purgative [an agent that produces a vigorous emptying of the bowels, more drastic than a laxative or aperient]

Leaves and Shoots

  • diuretic [an agent that increases the volume and flow of urine which cleanses the urinary system]


  • alterative [an agent capable of favorably altering or changing unhealthy conditions of the body and tending to restore normal bodily function, usually by improving nutrition]
  • aperient [a mild stimulant producing a natural movement of the bowels; a gentle purgative]
  • diuretic [an agent that increases the volume and flow of urine which cleanses the urinary system]


  • expectorant [an agent that promotes the discharge of mucous and secretions from the respiratory passages]
  • diaphoretic [an agent that promotes perspiration]
  • laxative [an agent promoting evacuation of the bowels; a mild purgative]
  • mild astringent [a binding agent that contracts organic tissue, reducing secretions or discharges of mucous and fluid from the body]
  • Blood Conditions
  • builds the blood
  • strengthens the walls damaged blood vessels

The berries are used for:

  • Brain and Nervous System Conditions
  • nerve disorders
  • neuralgia

Elder Flowers are used for

  • epilepsy
  • Gastrointestinal Conditions

The berries are used for:

  • laxative for small children
  • irritated and inflamed intestines

Elder Leaves are used for:

  • constipation
  • Genitourinary Conditions

The berries are used for:

  • reduces inflammation of the urinary tract and bladder

Elder Leaves are used for:

  • kidney problems
  • urinary problems
  • increasing the production of urine
  • eliminating excess water from the body
  • Inflammatory Conditions

The berries are used for:

  • arthritic and rheumatic complaints

Elder Flowers are used for:

  • nasal or bronchial catarrh
  • Respiratory Tract Conditions

The berries are used for:

  • colds
  • influenza
  • relieves asthma and bronchitis
  • sore throat

Elder Flowers are used for:

  • bronchitis
  • fighting influenza and colds as an excellent internal cleanser, mixed with Peppermint and Yarrow
  • quick recovery form the common cold and flu
  • sinusitis
  • soothing sore throats
  • soothing the respiratory system

The flowers can be used as a gargle for

  • sore throats
  • tonsillitis
  • Other

The berries are used for:

  • back pain
  • induces perspiration to reverse the effects of a chill
  • lumbago
  • sciatica

Elder Flowers are used for:

  • fevers
  • inducing sweat
  • obesity
  • cleansing the body
  • rheumatic complaints


  • The berries if eaten raw can cause diarrhea and vomiting
  • The roots and bark can cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract when taken in excess doses
  • The seeds are toxic and may induce vomiting and nausea
  • Elder can be toxic (especially the fresh stems as these contain cyanide)
  • Elder should not be used internally by pregnant or lactating women /li

Externally the flowers have been used:

  • as an excellent eye wash when strained, especially for conjunctivitis
  • for freckles
  • for rashes
  • for skin ailments, especially dry skin
  • for sunburn
  • in skin washes to refine the complexion
  • to heal burns
  • to help relieve acne (with sassafras), eczema, psoriasis
  • to relieve headache (compress)

Elder flowers, Elder flower water and Elder flower oil have been used in a variety of ways topically and as a tonic mixture. The leaves and flowers are a common ingredient in ointments and poultices and are used externally for:

  • burns
  • chapped skin (the oil)
  • cuts
  • scalds
  • scrapes
  • swelling

The fruits have been used to make:

  • conserves
  • elderberry wine
  • hair dye
  • jams
  • pies

The flowers have been used:

  • in cosmetics
  • in perfume

The bark of the tree is used in making:

  • fishing rods
  • musical instruments
  • toys, pegs, skewers

The leaves, when bruised:

  • keep away flies
  • are offensive to most insects
  • is used in a decoction to sprinkle on plants to keep away aphids
  • can be used as an antiseptic poultice for external wounds
Source: Global Herbal Supplies, which has Elder Tree available as Elder Flower Extract and Dried Elder Berries

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