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Elder Monograph (Sambucus Spp.)

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(Elder Flowers: photo by author)

Sambucus Spp.

Latin Name: Sambucus nigra, Sambucus canadensis L.

Common name(s): Elder, Elderberry, Elder flower, Black Elder, European Elder, American Elder

Family: Adoxaceae

Botany: Elders are deciduous shrubs that grow anywhere from 5 to 20 feet tall, with the European variety tending to be taller. 

Habitat: Elder likes moist, rich soils. It grows along trails and roads, near lakes and streams, and in fields.

History/Folklore: The American Elder was called the “tree of music” by some indigenous peoples, who made flutes from the branches. The European Elder has a long history of use in religious and secular storytelling. It was said that Judas of the Hebrew Bible hung himself from an Elder tree. Elders were long considered to have mystical properties, and were planted near homes to provide the dwellers good luck. Elders were also seen as the tree of witches, who were believed to live in the branches.

Parts used: flowers, berries, bark

Constituents: Sambucine, hydrocyanic acid, soft resin, Viburnic acid, volatile oil, albumen, fat, wax, tannic acid, chlorophyll, extractive, starch, gum, pectin, flavonoids

Actions: Anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, diaphoretic, purgative

Medicinal use: The strongest reputation Elder has today is as a cold and flu remedy, particularly as a preventative. Regular use of Elderberry preparations during the fall and winter months can help stave off colds and flus, as well as reduce tendencies towards reoccurring coughs, sore throats, and associated symptoms. It’s also very useful for addressing fevers, and helping to heal infections. Hot Elder flower infusions act as a diuretic, and also can be used to calm rheumatic aches and pains. Cold Elder flower infusions can be used topically as an eyewash for sore and inflamed eyes, as well as for common skin conditions like eczema and acne. Historically, some Native peoples used American Elder root and bark tea for headaches, coughs, congestion, colds and flu. Elder is often combined with Yarrow as a cold and flu preventative, especially at the first sign is symptoms.

Common preparation: Hot infusion, cold infusion, tincture, tea

Contraindications: None

Notes: Elder contains cyanide producing glycosides. The flowers can generally be used raw, while the ripe berries are generally cooked and/or dehydrated before use.

The inner bark and roots were used historically for medicine, but are not commonly used today.


Chevallier, Andrew. Herbal Remedies. 2007, Metro Books, New York.



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