“Mister Elderberry, how are you today”, said the wayfaring man walking along the path. “I’m actually feeling quite well indeed, is there anything I can help you with, as those in the know, know I have so much to offer” replied Mr Elderberry. “Oh really!?” said the wayfaring man, “Yes, I am the ‘Poor Man’s Pharmacy” declared Mr Elderberry.
Elder, has been in use since the ancients Egyptians and has not been out of use right up until today, and since colds and flus are just so common these days, it should be in everyones ‘medicine cabinet’, or at least growing somewhere in the backyard.
Elder was once known by the ‘ancients’ as “rixus, ixus or akte”, but was later on called Sambucus, which dates from the early Greek times who called it Sambuke, coming from the name of a harp made from the wood and was then to become part of its botanical name.
The term Elder, is said to come from the Anglo Saxon words ‘Ellaern or Aeld’, which mean either fire or kindle, due to the fact that the stems could be hollowed out and used to start fires.
Elder, especially the common Elder – Sambucus nigra, is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, and don’t forget the American Elder – Sambucus canadensis, a native to North America, was used by the first nation peoples there.
It is thought that the original pipes of pan were made from Elder, as the common Elder can be easily hollowed out, if it can’t, you have the wrong variety. Plus, the English boys of old used to hollow out its stems to make a ‘pop gun’, as Mr Nicholas, mentions in his book stating,
“I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder:”
He does go on to speak on behalf of Dwarf Elder, but this must only be handled by a experienced herbalist, as it is much stronger than the common Elder.
The book “Memoirs Illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn“, written by John Evelyn in the 17th century, mentioned Elder by saying,
“If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, 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.”
The Weed File
There are two types of Elder bush or shrub that are considered when thinking ‘Elder’, and they are the European or Common Elder – Sambucus nigra or the American Elder – Sambucus canadensis. The European variety grows to a height of 7m / 22′ tall and the American variety grows to a height of 3m / 11′ tall, both have value.
There is the lesser known Golden Elder – Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’, known for its golden yellow leaves.
Ultimately, there are many other varieties, but a couple you may need to be careful of are the Dwarf Elder – Sambucus ebulus, as all parts are somewhat poisonous, and the Red Elder – Sambucus racemosa, as the seeds are poisonous until properly cooked.
How To Use Elder
Medicine, cosmetics and cooking are the three main ways the Elder and its various parts get used.
Medicinally in infusions, decoctions, syrups and tinctures, which are used either directly for specific conditions, or they are used in combination with other treatments, such as compresses, poultices, lotions, ointments, creams, salves and washes and soaks.
For cosmetics, it has being shown that the flower is good for the skin, which can be used in some kinds of creams or lotions, but even the infusion of the flower can help simply as a skin cleanser, especially for greasy skin. An extension of this could be to use the flower in poultices and compresses, or even a soaking bath, which sounds good to me!
The Elderflower can make an interesting flavoured cordial or an iced Elderflower water, also the berries and flowers can be used in pancakes, fritters, cakes, tarts and fruit minces, added to jams and jellies or even added to salads. Let alone in chocolate custard, hot beverages, soups, gingerbread men, and vinegars. Plus, the berries can be used as a replacement for capers or raisins.
Teas are one of my favourite ways to consume most herbs, and here you can use the flower in a tea, which makes a great night cap. Plus, they ensue many of its other benefits, as well as being enjoyable.
Simple Elder Tea
- Place 1 to 2 teaspoons of the flower into a cup (Less, if using dried flowers)
- Pour in boiling hot water and cover
- Allow to infuse for 5 minutes
- Either strain or drink as is
Good to drink 3 times per day, but if you are after more therapeutic value, then you’ll need to drink it every 2 hours until things settle down.
If you drink the tea ‘hot’, then it tends to have an excitable stimulating affect, but if you allow it to go cold, then it is more sedative and can have a laxative affect. You can also use cold tea to soothe and help to heal chapped skin and infected or sore eyes.
Customised Elder Teas
Simply by adding a little lemon juice, steeping with lemon grass or adding peppermint, can really excite you Elderflower tea. Plus, you could also add Lemon balm, Chamomile, Rose petals or Lavender.
To make a more interesting tea, and make it more therapeutic, you can use it with equal parts of peppermint and yarrow. This is great for preventing hayfever and reducing fevers.
There are many traditional recipes using its berries and flowers, so I am sure a little searching in the internet, should pull up a few very tasty treats.
The Elderberry is not eaten raw, but is used in some form of cooking process, such as making fruit mince pies (from dried berries) and tarts (with apple), jellies and jams go well with crabapple and in chutneys.
Being a berry, it can be mixed with any of the other berries, such as, blackberry, and raspberry, or frankly any other dried fruits such as raisins or sultanas.
Make a batter by combining 1 cup of flour, 1 beaten egg yoke, and add just a small amount of water until you have a smooth batter. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and add it to the mix, and finally, fold in 1 stiffly beaten egg white.
Dip the Umbels – Flower heads into the mix and fry in hot oil. Once fried, remove and place them on a rack to drain. Serve them up immediately, with a gentle dash of your favourite sweetener.
Health Uses of Elder
Those who know something about Elder, know that it is excellent for coughs, colds and flus, but it also helps in their prevention, so here, it is especially great for children, being a powerful antiviral, as they just seem to pick up everything.
You can it for sinusitis, and for hayfever, and many other fevers and causes of fevers. Plus, when added to fennel, it can be a help to those with sciatica.
For hayfever, you can drink three cups of Elderflower tea each day, several months before the hayfever would normally begin. Also, if you are already suffering, you can eat the flowers straight to get some relief.
Externally, you can make washes for the mouth and sore eyes, or make a warm or cold compress to put on the eyes to sooth them. If you add it to a cream, it can be used on sore, inflamed and irritable skin, chapped lips and hands or itchy ‘nether regions’.
A very common issue with children and medicines is that it is ‘yucky’, but if you make an Elderberry Rob, you can add it to the medicine, to greatly improve its flavour.
Elderberry Rob is great for adding to cough and cold medicines, or simply as a flavouring in a suitable meal, dessert or drink.
- Collect enough Elderberries to produce 500ml / 1 pint of Elderberry juice
- 1 teaspoon of Allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon of Ginger powder
- Squeeze all the juice out of the berries
- Compost the seeds and the skins
- Place the juice and the spices into a heavy bottomed saucepan
- Under a low heat reduce down until it is a very thick consistency
- Scrap into a clean sterile jar, label and store in a cool dry place
Should keep for 6 months.
Elder leaf ointment is useful for painful piles, and similar swellings and swollen joints, plus, it can be used in poultices and compresses.
- 1/4 cup of Beeswax
- 1/2 cup of Olive oil
- 1/3 of a cup of Elder leaves (heaped)
- Gently melt the beeswax in a double boiler until clear
- When thoroughly melted, add the olive oil and stir in
- Now add the leaves and heat (don’t boil) until the leaves are crisp
- Remove from the heat, finely strain and place in a shallow wide mouth jar
- Seal and label
Should keep up to 6 months.
- Place 1 cup of dried Elderberries into a bowl with 2 cups of water and cover and allow to soak over night or at least 8 hours
- After soaking, put them into a blender and smash them up
- Put this into a cloth and press out the juice, such as a tincture press
- You only want the juice, so the skin and seeds can be sent to the compost bin
- Put this juice into a saucepan and gently simmer down until about half
- Either add 1 cup of vegetable glycerine or 1 cup of honey
- When thoroughly mixed, strain or filter out any final particles
- Pour into a dark coloured bottle, label and date
Store in the fridge and it should last about a year.
Oil of Elder
The essential oil can be used in petaled perfumery, added to body oils, and blend well with many other essential oils. Such as, Chamomile, Jasmine, Rose, Linden Flowers, Neroli, Ylang ylang, Geranium, Vanilla, Lavender, Lemon balm, Frankincense, Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lemon, and Lime.
Gardening Uses of Elder
Elder has such wonderful and delightful sprays of flowers that visually they make good additions to the garden, let alone its powerful smell. But it should be remembered that it is only the European variety that has the strong fragrance, not the American variety.
If you don’t want a solid fence, then Elder is an excellent plant to use as a hedgerows, for either privacy screening, wind protection or just to hide an ugly structure or object.
Apart from being used in hedgerows, two of the main reasons to grow Elder is its flowers, which have a beautiful scent, that can hang around for up to two months, starting in early summer. The berries, which can arrive early summer and into the autumn, have many uses or even just to feed the birds, if you’re too slow at picking them. They also help to attract both butterflies and bees, which many are welcome in the garden.
An interesting gardening use for Elder is where you make a strong decoction from the leaves, which becomes a contact insecticide for greenfly, aphids and caterpillars.
You can spray a decoction from the leaves on yourself to repel mosquitoes and flies.
Dyeing with Elder
- If your after a black dye, you can use the bark of the tree
- The root and leaves with alum supplies a green colour
- The berries give a purple to blue colour
It is said that if any livestock, which has ‘foot-rot’, eats the bark and leaves of the Elder, then they should soon be on the way to healing.
How to Grow Elder
The Elder loves full sun and doesn’t mind ‘moist soils’ and isn’t very fussy where it grows so long as it is ‘reasonable’ soil. If you are short on space you can use pots, and container growing is possible, but, not the best way to go, so getting a ‘large’ pot would be helpful. If you do have a small garden, but don’t want to use pots, it can be used as a hedge, so as to block nosey neighbours or fill a ugly corner.
Elder is a deciduous perennial shrub/bush or tree, that depending on your variety can grow from 2 to 7m / 6.5′ to 23′. That develop sprays or umbels of beautiful white to cream flowers, that are 0.5cm / 1/4″ in diameter, and star shaped.
Elderberries can just about grow anywhere decent but prefer, sunny to partially shaded areas, mildly acidic (5.5 to 6.5) fertile soils that are well drained.
Tip: Cross pollinated flowers tend to produce bigger berries.
Yes, you can grow from seed, but, on the whole, this is a much slower way to propagate. And honestly, I wouldn’t bother, for several reasons. 1) It takes a very long time from start to getting your first crop. 2) The germination rate is very poor, sometimes complete failure, and 3), there is no consistency with what you end up with and its parents.
- Gather your berries mid to late summer, once the fruit has ripened. Place them into a bucket and smash them up a bit to allow the seed to separate and cover them with water.
- Allow them to stand for 24 hours stirring them from time to time, shaking the seeds loose. Anything that floats to the surface is of no good, so throw that away. After the 24 hours decanter anything that floats off the top and collect the seeds at the bottom.
- Clean up the seeds so that there is no fruit pulp left. Fill up some small pots with equal parts of course sand and clean potting mix. Place a few seeds in each.
- Place the pots in plastic bags and keep the pots slightly moist and warm for at least 2 months by either keeping them in a hot house/ glass house, sun room or near a sunny window, so long as they stay between 24 to 27 C / 75 to 80 F.
- Now you need to reduce the temperature to at least 4 C / 40 F for 3 to 5 months to copy what would happen in winter. (Cold scarifying)
- After this period, remove the plastic and keep them warm in between 20 to 30 C / 68 to 85 F for 1 to 2 months. Keep the soil slightly moist and hopefully something might come up.
- If more than one seedling comes up, pluck out the weaker ones and keep the healthiest. You can allow the soil to become a ‘little’ drier to prevent any rot etc.
- Once the seedlings have become well established, and have become somewhat hardened, especially if the roots start popping out the bottom, transplant them out into your garden at about 2 to 3m / 6 to 10′ apart.
The best time for cuttings is late summer to autumn, you can use root cuttings as well, but these seem to be more difficult to do.
To do a cutting, choose a soft branch that is going from green to brown and hardening up. Cut it up into 10 to 15cm / 4 to 6″ lengths, remove most of the leaves from the bottom up, but leave a few on top.
You can then choose to use water or potting mix.
Place these cuttings into a glass jar and fill until the cuttings are about halfway up. Leave this jar in a sunny area for 1 1/2 to 2 months, changing the water regularly. Occasionally spray a mist over these to help prevent them from drying out. By about 2 months you should start seeing roots forming, but wait until they look strong and healthy before attempting to plant them into the ground.
Before putting your cuttings in soil, first give them a soak for 12 to 24 hours. Then make up a mix of equal parts of sand and peat moss, and dampen this mix but not soaking wet. Place this moist mix into 5 to 10cm / 2 to 4″ pots and then place your cuttings into these pots to about a depth of 1/3. Place these pots either into a hot house/glass house or cover them with a clear plastic bag and tie them with a rubber band. Keep them in a well lit area but not in direct sunlight. Keep the potting mix only slightly moist.
After a month and a half, the roots should be starting form, and once roots just start to come out of the bottom. Remove the plastic and allow the plants to harden for a week in sunlight and then transplant them out into your garden.
For Elder, it is best to mulch instead of digging out the weeds, as digging them out can damage the roots. If any weeds do get through, then get a sharp pointy object, like a Philip’s screwdriver, and dig down beside the weed and wiggle him out.
Elder likes about 2.5 to 5cm / 1 to 2″ of water per week, so make sure you keep up the water to them and watch out for dry spells, as they don’t like drought.
For the first 1 to 2 years, do not prune them, but allow them to grow wild, even allow the first crop to fall to the ground, as this allows them to get firmly established, then your harvests will be better.
There are two times when you can prune the Elder, and that is in late autumn or early spring before any growth starts and the sap really gets going.
Pest and Diseases
On the whole, Elder doesn’t get too many issues so long as you follow its basic needs, such as good rich mulching, regular watering, good sun, slightly acidic soils that are well drained, but they can get a few issues.
They do suffer from iron deficiency, so if you see yellowing leaves it may be an idea to check the levels of iron.
Also, Verticillium wilt can affect them from time to time, and the other is leaf spot, and they can get attacked from black fly.
Harvest the flowers once they come out in full, and have had enough time to dry off from the morning dew, and be careful not to bruise them. Make sure that they are free from damage and foreign particles and any bugs of course.
The berries are harvested in the autumn, once they are shiny and of a deep purple to black colour. Do not eat the Sambucus canadensis – American Elderberries raw, only cooked.
To dry the flowers, you place the umbels or flower heads upside down on fine mesh or netting, and keep them from touchy each other. Make sure that there is plenty air circulation, in a shady spot that is dry. Once the flowers are fully dry, you can just rub the flowers off their stems and place them into air tight containers for later use.
When properly dried, which may take up to a week, they should look and smell the same as before you dried them, but they will be a bit smaller.
To dry the berries, make sure that there completely dry and have no damage or foreign matter in or on them, watch out for insects and their eggs etc, and make sure to remove any unripe berries.
Usually the best time to harvest Elderberries, is about mid morning on a cloudy day. Place your berries on clean dry paper, or fine stretched out mesh or dry towelling and spread them out to prevent them from touching each other, or at least move them around regularly to get even drying.
Try to dry them on days of low humidity and at least 25 to 32 C / 75 to 90 F and receiving direct sunlight is good, but watch out for birds and insects which may want to eat or ruin them. You can put a clear glass or plastic cover above them to protect from birds, bugs, and dust etc.
Drying time normally takes three days, but may take longer depending on the climate etc. So pick hot dry days for drying and to test them for readiness is just to pinch them and feel if they are still soft and moist, if they are, just leave them for a few days longer. In the end they should look like a lot like raisins.
The best way to store the blossoms and berries is to use dark coloured glass jars that seal very well, and keep them in a cool, dry and dark place. If stored properly, they should last up to a year, or at least until next harvest.
The information below is for informational and education purposes only. So please do not “self-treat”. When seeking any ‘therapeutic’ advice always see a Qualified Health Care Professional first.
Elder, Common Elder, Elderberry, Elderflower, Sambuco, Pipe tree and Black Elder
Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis
Flower, berry, leaf or outer and inner bark
Daily minimum to maximum dosage: 6.0 – 12.0 grams (Varies on which part.)
- Berry – Antiviral, anti-inflammatory, immune enhancing, antioxidant, diaphoretic, laxative, diuretic (urinary antiseptic)
- Flower – Diaphoretic, emollient, anti-catarrhal, astringent
- Bark – Laxative
- Inner bark – Hydragogue / cathartic (purgative), emetic
- Berry – Influenza, common cold, all other acute viral infections.
- Flower – Common cold, influenza, acute sinusitis – all acute doses, acute infections with fever, pleurisy, acute bronchitis, measles – all acute doses, chronic sinusitis, hay fever, otitis media – bacterial or serous, pharyngitis, laryngitis, nasopharyngeal catarrh, catarrhal deafness, sinus headache.
- Flower – Asthma with sinusitis
- Bark and berry – Constipation
- Berry – Anthocyanins – sambucin, sambucyanin, flavonoids – rutin and quercetin; astragalin, isoquercitrin; essential/volatile oil, ascorbic acid, pectin, tannins, sterols.
- Flower – Flavonoids, phenolic acids, triterpenes, essential/volatile oil.
- Leaves – Sambunigrin
- Bark – Resins
- Seeds and Bark – Cyanogenic glycosides
- Herbal preparation of the Berries – Safe for children. Anthocyanin constituent unstable in liquid form, although use caution with pregnancy and when lactating.
- Berry – None known.
- Flower – Sambucus ebulus
Please remember, this blog cannot and should not replace a health care professional, and is for informational and educational purposes only and is not for medical advice or treatment, and no cure is implied in any way. If you have a known serious condition, or are pregnant, please consult your health care professional, before use.
Russell a.k.a Herbal Panda
“Berries are the lollies of creation, if only we would stay off the man made ones”Herbal Panda