Elder (Sambucus spp.)
by Krystal Thompson
“If the medicinal properties of Elder’s leaves, barks, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countrymen could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wounds.” -John Evelyn
Common Names: Sweet Elder, Black Elder, Common Elder, Pipe Tree, Bore Tree
Description/Taxonomy: Sambucus is a genus of thirty plus species of shrubs or small trees in the Adoxaceae family. It was first placed in the honeysuckle family Caprifoliaceae, but was reclassified due to genetic evidence (10). The two most frequently used species of elderberry are European black elder (Sambucus nigra), and American elder (Sambucus canadensis). European elder is much larger, typically reaching the size of a small tree, while American elder is a shrub that grows only six to ten feet high (2). The flowers are small, off-white, and in five-part cymes. European elderberries are larger than American, globular, and a much darker blackish-purple when ripe. Other species have red and even sometimes yellow or white berries (10).
American elder has branching stems covered in a rough gray bark containing a large, spongy pith. The small branches and leaf-stalks are very smooth, with opposite, pinnate, smooth, deep-green leaves typically composed in groups of five to nine. The flowers are small, white, and disposed in loose cymes.
History: The word “Elder” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld, meaning “fire.” The soft pith in young Elder branches is easily pushed out, and the hollow tubes that remain were commonly used to blow air onto fires. These tubes were also frequently used as instrumental pipes, leading to Elder’s common Anglo-Saxon name: Pipe Tree (3). Later, a small pipe made from Elder branches, known as sampogna, would become quite common to the small villages in the Italian countryside (3), and Native Americans also traditionally used Elder branches for this same purpose (9).
The generic name Sambucus appears in the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers, and is thought to be adapted from the Greek word Sambuca. Sambuca, or the Sackbut, is an ancient stringed instrument (like a small lyre) that was common among the Romans. It was said to have been constructed with the hard wood of the Elder tree, but this is disputed because as we’ve seen, the form of the Elder branches lends itself much better to wind instruments.
Elder seeds were found in Neolithic pole-dwellings in Switzerland that date back to around 2000 B.C.E! This suggests that the plant was in cultivation at that time, though much of the ancient information about Elder is in regards to ceremonial and funerary practices (9). Though it was likely also being used medicinally in those ancient times, Elder’s first recorded medicinal use is typically attributed to around the time of the Romans (1). Before refrigerators and the industrialization of food, seasonal eating was the only option, and average diets shifted dramatically between summer and winter. Winter meals consisted of primarily meat and stored grains without fresh produce, and physical activity waned due to colder temperatures and little farm work. By spring, people were often sluggish and suffering from weakened immune systems, so elderflowers’ alterative properties were sought daily to reboot the system. Elder and other plants with these types of constituents, blood cleansers, were referred to as a “spring tonics” (1).
Parts Used: The berries and flowers are the most commonly used parts, but there are also topical indications for the inner bark, leaves, and roots.
Cultivation and Harvest: American elder shrubs grow in low, moist grounds along fences, and on the border of small streams. It best thrives in moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but can tolerate a range of soil texture, fertility, and acidity (8). It’s found throughout North America, from Canada to the Carolinas, and as far west as Arizona and Texas. It flowers May-July and ripens its fruit in early autumn (2).
Elder flowers are collected at the height of full bloom in spring and early summer and shade-dried as quickly as possible. The bark and berries are best collected in August and September (7). When ripe, the entire cluster should be removed and the berries stripped individually from the cluster for use (8).
Herbal Actions: Alterative: supports the body in its natural cleansing processes. Aperiant: eases constipation. Astringent: causes the contraction of tissues, primarily the skin (the flowers are mildly so). Demulcent: soothes inflammation or irritation. Diaphoretic: induces sweating (primarily the flowers). Diuretic: promotes urination. Emollient: increases skin hydration by reducing evaporation. Expectorant: aids in expelling mucus from the airways. Laxative: loosens stools and promotes bowel movements.
Constituents: Sambucus nigra Flower: Flavonoids (primarily flavonols such as rutin and isoquercitrin), mucilaginous polysaccharides, tannins, phenolic acids, volatile oil, triterpenes, and minerals such as potassium. The fruit of the Elder plant contains similar flavonoids to those of the flower. It’s also rich in organic acids (citric and malic), and in C and B-complex vitamins (5). The berries contain a trace amount of essential oil (7), and more phosphorous and potassium than any other temperate fruit crop (8)! Elder also contains phytochemicals such as beta-carotene and quercetin, and further nutrients such as calcium and essential fatty acids. The latter are especially beneficial for combating free radicals, and the flavonoids protect cell walls against foreign substances (6).
Ethnobotany: As mentioned, there is extensive evidence for Elder use among both ancient European civilizations and Native Americans, the latter being especially diverse. Cherokees used elderberry teas and strong infusions for responding to rheumatism, and elderflower tea as a diaphoretic. Other parts of the plant (likely the leaves) were also used in salves for skin problems and infections. The Chickasaw used branch infusions applied topically for headaches, and over bruises and wounds to drain abscesses and relieve discomfort from infections. Creek Indian healers stirred pounded Elder roots into hot water and poulticed them onto swollen breasts for relief. The Lenape reportedly used elderflower decoctions for children’s colic, and elderberry decoctions for jaundice and liver complaints (10). The history of Elder use in the Native American communities is extensive and varied, as is the case for all healing plants that they were (and now too we are) lucky to have such easy access to.
Medicinal Benefits: Elder(berry) is probably most commonly thought of and utilized as a flu remedy, as it directly inhibits the influenza virus’s action. An Israeli study led by researcher Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Ph.D., discovered that “The influenza virus forms tiny spikes, called hemagglutinins, which are laced with an enzymes called neuraminidase. The enzyme helps the virus to penetrate the cell walls of a healthy organism. The virus then sets up shop in the cell, reproducing more viruses.” The active ingredients that Mumcuoglu discovered in Elder disarm the neuraminidase enzyme within 24-48 hours, effectively halting the spread of the virus (1). In other clinical trials, 20% of patients reported significant improvement within 24 hours, 70% by 48 hours, and 90% claimed a complete cure after three days. Patients receiving the placebo required six days for recovery. And as of 2001, Elderberry had been proven effective against eight different influenza viruses.
While this is impressive, viral diseases mutate often. Epidemiologists suggest that we are overdue for an influenza epidemic, which “reoccur like earthquakes as regular but not necessarily predictable intervals” (1). We rely on vaccines for many things, but the truth of the matter is that we can only vaccinate against current strains. If an influenza strain evolves, present vaccines become useless. However, and this is a very important however, most studied strains of influenza appear to use the exact same enzyme mechanism that Mumcuoglu noted to penetrate host cells. This means that Elder attacks all influenza strains by the same means, regardless of mutation, and therefore could arguably be the most efficient post-mutated influenza vaccine currently available to us.
While we are obviously grateful for Elder’s protection against influenza, American herbalist Paul Bergner suggests that this use often overshadows its broader potential as an immune-enhancer or blood cleanser. The same Israeli trial noted above also discovered increased antibody production, in addition to combating flu cases, within three days of Elder use. Elder’s alterative properties are further sought for eczema, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, and sore throats. It is particularly effective in cases such as these because it helps to detoxify extracellular fluid (1). Elder berries are also beneficial for inflammatory cases of the genitourinary and gastrointestinal tracts, and as mentioned have laxative properties to benefit the latter. As we’ve seen, both the fruit and the berries are excellent choices for many different types of inflammatory conditions. It is however most commonly indicated for those of the upper respiratory tract.
Elderflower is commonly used in bronchial and pulmonary affections, as well as for eruptive diseases such as scarlet fever and measles. Elderflower Tea is used to promote expectoration in pleurisy, and its gentle laxative and aperient properties are considered excellent for inducing free perspiration (3).
Elderflower also has topical and external benefits. It can be used as a mouthwash or gargle for oral inflammation and as a wet compress for minor skin inflammations (5). The leaf is also sometimes used topically for bruises, sprains, and wounds (4), and has been reported as a useful ointment for tumors (7).
Allies: Interestingly, there is a fungus commonly found on Elder called fungus sambuci that has been used in local applications in conjunctivitis (2). Elderflower was historically paired with Peppermint and sometimes Yarrow in a strong infusion at the onset of influenza and hay fever (3,7). Hoffman also suggests combining it with Boneset for influenza, and with Goldenrod and Wild Indigo for catarrhal states (7). An infusion made of Elderflower, St. John’s Wort, and Soapwort Root exhibited antiviral activity against influenza types A and B both in vivo and in vitro (4).
Cautions and Contraindications: Raw Elderberries can cause gastrointestinal irritation (nausea, vomiting) if not well processed (5). Elder leaves, twigs, branches, seeds, and roots contain cyanide-inducing glycosides, and ingesting these parts of the plant in large quantities can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body (10).
Culinary: In the wildharvesting world, Elderberries are common in jellies, jams, and pies, and add a unique sweet and earthy taste to these common recipes. Both the berries are the flowers are used in home brews such as wine, mead, and kombucha.
Dosage and Method of Delivery: The flowers yield their active properties to water by infusion, and when distilled release a small amount of volatile oil. Both water and alcohol are effective for berry extraction (2), though Bergner suggests that Elderberry tea or juice is superior to the tincture (1). Hoffman suggests an infusion of the flowers: a cup of boiling water onto two teaspoons of dried or fresh blossoms allowed to infuse for ten minutes, drunk hot three times a day (7). This same preparation can be chilled and used as a daily tonic to achieve the “spring medicine” benefits mentioned.
Elderflower water has historically been used as part of a woman’s beauty regimen to keep fair skin, and for use after sunburn or exposure to the ocean. It is also a common vehicle for eye and skin lotions for its gentle anti inflammatory support (3). The leaves can also be made into a quick ointment (3 parts leaves to 6 parts melted vaseline), heated together until the leaves are crisp, strained, and stored for future use (7).
Elderflower teas for colds and sore throats are best taken hot before bed. The flowers’ diaphoretic properties will induce perspiration, which combined with a good night’s sleep is extremely beneficial in the process of battling a virus.
- Bergner, Paul. “Sambucus: Elderberry,” Medical Herbalism: Materia Medica and Pharmacy, 2001.
- Remington, Joseph, and Horatio Wood. The US Dispensatory, 20th ed. 1918.
- Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Mrs. M Grieve, 1931.
- Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Inner Traditions/ Bear & Co, 2003.
- Skenderi, Gazmend. Herbal Vade Mecum. Herbacy Press, 2003.
- Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 5th ed. Avery, 2010.
- Hoffman, David. The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, 1998.
- “Minor Fruits: Elderberries” (2015) in Cornell Fruit Resources, Department of Horticulture, Cornell University.
- Amidon, Caroline. “History and Lore of Sambucus,” The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry, 2013.
- Kavasch, E. Barrie. “Ethnobotany of Elderberry,” The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Elderberry, 2013.