Elder, Sambucus nigra
flower, berry, leaf and bark (leaf and bark best used external only)
essential oil, flavonoids (quercetin, rutin), triterpenes, phenolic acids, anthocyanins, vitamin C, free fatty acids (linoleic, linolenic, pamitic acid), tannins
flavoinoids, sugar, fruit acids, vitamins A & C
triterpines, cyanogenic glycosides (sambunigrin), flavonoids, tannins
expectorant, anticatarrhal, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, circulatory stimulant, external anti-inflammatory, very mild sedative
diaphoretic, diuretic, laxative, anti-viral, immunomodulating
Leaf and bark:
Purgative, expectorant, diuretic, diaphoretic, emollient, vulnerary
flowers and berries are bitter, drying, cool and mildly sweet
Because Elder has been shown to stimulate the immune system, some people with autoimmune disease may need to avoid it. However some herbalists feel that it is not problematic due to the fact that it is immunomodulating. Keep in mind that we all react differently and individual consideration is needed.
The leaves, bark, and berries can be toxic. Leaves and bark should be kept to external use unless under the supervision of an experienced herbalist. Bark should not be used in pregnancy. Berries should be cooked to reduce potential vomiting. Red berries are said to be more toxic and are avoided by many people in favor of the blue or purple berry.
Henriette Kress says about Elder toxicity:
The seeds of all Sambucus species contain a resin which is nauseant and diuretic; this resin is destroyed by cooking.
“It’s deadly, it contains cyanide!” say those who don’t have a clue. Yeah, right …
… cyanide is the stuff of detective stories. Cyanoglycosides are found in most if not all rose family plants, and they’re the taste behind bitter almonds and amaretto. There’s not all that much in elder: the irritation of elder is more due to the resin than the sambunigrin.
There are many legends and folklore about elder, many of which are spiritually unsound. However there are two legends that believers will be interested in. It is said that both the tree that Judas hung on and the cross Jesus was crucified on were made of Elder wood. I have not found any proof of these legends but do find them interesting.
The berries of elder are commonly used for the respiratory system, cough, asthma, and viral infections such as the flu. Studies have shown black elderberry to have antiviral properties that are effective against several flu strains. It can also reduce the duration of the flu. I personally have seen it cut my flu and cold symptoms to no more than 3 days. Berries are commonly used as a general tonic and detox taken once a day via a syrup. Benefits have also been seen when used as part of a healthy weight loss program. However the berries should not be relegated to only a cold and flu remedy. The berries are also used for gout, rheumatism, sciatica, neuralgia, and blood sugar modulation. They can be slightly laxative, but are also used to stop or slow diarrhea.
Herbalist Kiva Rose state:
Well guess what, it doesn’t just lower blood sugar, it’s capable of modulating it. I have treated about four different cases of hypoglycemia recently with Elderberry Elixir (with flower and berry) very successfully at least on a symptomatic level. Deeper underlying imbalances (like insulin resistance, food allergies and mineral deficiencies) must be addressed in order to really heal chronic hypoglycemia episodes, but Elderberry makes for an effective measure in the meantime. I have also had some results from treating elevated blood sugar with the same preparation. I expect to have more success in the future, but have had limited clinical opportunities thus far.
Elder flowers have been traditionally used as a hot infusion for fevers, measles, lung and respiratory issues, and are safe for young children. Other uses are arthritis, allergies, ear infection and candida. Taken for 6-8 weeks prior to hayfever season they can help reduce allergies.
Leaves or bark can be used to make a salve for healing of bruises. Leaves can also be powdered and used as an insect repellent or made into an infusion for the same purpose. The plant is beneficial in the compost pile to increase fermentation and eventual breakdown of waste.
This is such a great video by Jim McDonald about the immune system, fevers, and infection in general–including using Elder.
Usual Preparation and Dosage:
Dried or fresh flowers as a hot infusion, 2 teaspoons with 8 ounces boiling water, steep 10 minutes 3x a day.
Berries are boiled in water and juice expressed and mixed with honey for syrup (see video recipe below). The normal dosage is 1 tablespoon a day for prevention or 1 tablespoon an hour during acute illness.
BHP – 3-5 grams dried flowers
5-15 ml expressed juice
10-25 ml 1:5 tincture
3-5 ml 1:1 fluid extract
3x a day
Bioregion Growing and Harvesting
Elder ranges from small shrub to a tree usually 6-10 ft tall, but can reach to 30 feet depending on the species. Found throughout the U.S. and Canada. Has many small trunks with green leaves each having 5-9 leaflets. Elder trees bloom in clusters of beautiful creamy white tiny flowers about 1/5 inch across forming large umbels up to 8 inches across. Fruit forms in late summer or fall in clusters of deep blue black to purple hanging berries. S. cerulea or blue elder has dark berries covered in a blue powder, where S. racemosa or Red elder has clusters of red berries that are more toxic and are usually avoided.
Elder can be grown by soaking seeds for 2 months and planting in rich composted soil 10 feet apart in partial shade to full sun. Flowers must be harvested carefully with the entire umbel as damaged flowers will turn brown. Dried flowers should remain creamy white when dry. Berries are also harvested and dried in clusters. After dried remove the stems from both flowers and berries. Elderberries have traditionally been used in cordials, wines, pies, and jams. One thing I think would be truly amazing to try would be the battered and fried flower clusters called Hollerküchel served in Germany and Austria with cinnamon and sugar.
Recipe: Elderberry Syrup
Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, Donnie Yance
Medical Herbalism, David Hoffmann
Herbalpedia: Elder, Maureen Rogers
Materia Medica – Sambucus, Paul Bergner
Herbcraft… Elder, Jim McDonald
Elder Toxicity, Henriette Kress
Sambucus, Henriette Kress
Elderberry & Blood Sugar Modulation, Kiva Rose
Into the Forest: Exploring Elderberry, Kiva Rose
Sambucus Nigra Subsp. Cerulea, M.F. Crane
Elder (Sambucus Nigra), Michael Tierra