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Herbal A-Z: Elderberry
By Meagan - November 06, 2015

Herbal A-Z: Elderberry

Elderberry. Sambucus nigra L.... from the plant family Adoxaceae (formerly Caprifoliaceae). Also known as black elder, blue elderberry, common elder, sweet elder, lady elder, and pipe tree among other names.


. It is also has a rich folklore and many legends are associated with it, good and bad. One legend says that Judas Iscariot, after he betrayed Jesus Christ, hanged himself from an elder tree and therefore, its wood was never used to make household goods as it was bad luck, and it was never to be brought in the home as it would bring bad luck with it. Elder wood was also never used to spank children as it was thought to dwarf them, and if a person was wounded by elder wood, it was believed to be fatal. On the other hand, elder is commonly planted near homes to ward off evil spirits, or its branches are nailed over doorways in the shape of a cross to protect those inside from evil. Knots of elder wood are also worn to protect a person from spirits, and its leaves are carried in pockets as a protective charm. (Rogers, 2006).

Plant Description

Elder trees can grow anywhere from 10-30 feet tall. It's made up of many small trunks that rise up out of the ground. Older bark is smooth and gray while bark on stems is often times bumpy. Leaves are a dull green and grow opposite each other on stems. Stems are hollow with a pithy core. Flowers are small and white to off-white in color and bloom in June. They grow in clusters of flat umbels up to 8 inches wide. The flowers eventually turn into clusters of berries around late July. Berries are dark purple, black, round fruits.

Growing Your Own

Elder is a perennial and grows best in zone 5. Germination takes 10-20 days. Seeds should be soaked for up to 2 months at 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit before being stratified and sprouted at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Start seeds outdoor pots and plant seedlings directly in the ground when big enough. Space plants 10 feet from one another and plant in 65-70 degree Fahrenheit soil. Plants prefer nitrogen rich, moist soil with partial shade or full sun. Harvesting Elderberry Flowers are harvested in early summer, just as they are starting to open. Snip flower clusters off with sharp scissors, but don't take too many or there will be no berries. When harvesting elder flowers, only take 1/3 of what you see blooming. Flowers should be dry when harvested and handled with care to prevent them from bruising which makes them turn brown or black. Dry carefully for 7-10 days before removing flowers from peduncle and store appropriately. Berries are harvested just like flowers, only in late summer or early autumn. Again, it's recommended to only harvest 1/3 of each plants berries. Berries are removed from peduncle after drying and stored. (Rogers, 2006).

Nutritional Benefits

  • Flowers: vitamin C
  • Berries: vitamins A and C and iron

Plant Constituents

  • Berries: Vitamin C, anthocyanins, flavonoids, tannins, and sambunigrine.
  • Flowers: mucilage, flavonoids, volatile oil, quercetin, free fatty acids, triterpenes, phenolic acid, minerals, sterols, sugars, tannins, the hydrocyanic glycoside sambunigrine.
  • Leaves: Cyanogenic glycosides
(Herbarium, 2014).


  • Leaf: purgative, expectorant, diuretic, diaphoretic (internal); emollient, vulnerary (external)
  • Flower: diaphoretic, anticatarrhal, antispasmodic
  • Berry: diaphoretic, diuretic, laxative, antirheumatic
  • Bark: purgative, emetic, diuretic (internal); emollient (external)
(Hoffman, 2003). (Rogers, 2006).


  • Flowers and berries: cool and dry with sweet flavor
  • Bark: hot, drying, bitter

Medicinal Uses

Elderberry is said to be its own medicine chest as it, and every part of the plant can be used medicinally. However, the flowers and berries are most commonly used and the least toxic. Elder leaves, bark, and roots are used less often in small doses and only by experienced herbalists. Some of the most common used for elder is as follows: Viral Infections Studies have shown that elderberry increases cytokine production as well as strengthens cell membranes to prevent viral penetration. It's most often used as a syrup in large, frequent doses at the first signs of cold or flu to be most effective. (Hoffman, 2003). Numerous studies have been conducted on elderberry to find out how it works and how effective its antiviral properties are. Fever Elder flowers have long been used in combination with peppermint and yarrow to promote sweating in order to lower fevers. It's most often used as a hot infusion. Elder flowers also have relaxing properties which help when fevers are creating a lot of tention in the body. Catarrh Elder flower can be used inflammation and excess mucus production in the upper respiratory tract like hay fever or sinusitis. It works to decrease inflammation and move congested mucous. To use elder flower for seasonal allergies, it's recommended to drink daily infusions for several months before allergy season arrives. Elder flower tincture can also be used in acute situations. (Herbarium, 2014). Minor Skin Ailments Elder leaf has long been used in ointments, salves and poultices due to its emollient and vulnerary properties for minor skin ailments like burns, bruises, sprains, and rashes. (Hoffman, 2003). (Tierra, 1998).


  • Infusion: 2 teaspoons of dried elder flowers per 8 ounces of boiling water, steep 10 minutes, drink hot 3 times a day.
  • Tincture: 2-4 mL elderflower tincture as a 1:5 in 40%, 3 times a day.
  • Syrup: 2-3 teaspoons elderberry syrup, taken 3-4 times per day.
  • Salve: 3 parts elder leaf infused in 6 parts oil and thickened with beeswax.
(Hoffman, 2003)


"None reported with flowers or berries. Raw or unripe parts of plant contain a chemical called sambunigrin, which can induce diarrhea or vomiting if consumed in excess." (Duke, 2000). REFERENCES:
  • Buhner, Stephen. (2013). Herbal Antivirals. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
  • Duke, J. (2000) The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.
  • Herbarium at HANE (2015). Echinacea Monograph. Retrieved September 25, 2015.
  • Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
  • Rogers, M. (2006). Herbalpedia. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
  • Tierra, M. (1998). The Way of Herbs. New York: Pocket Books.
Stay tuned for more posts this month that feature elderberry, including a recipe for an elderberry tincture and how to make Berry Herbal Brew.
Share with us in the comment section below. What's your favorite way to use elderberry?


  1. Michelle
    Are the dosages for adults? How would you adjust for children? I've only made elderberry syrup. Really look forward to the post on how to make a tincture!
    1. Meagan
      Yes Michelle, most dosages are geared toward at 150 lb. adult, so you would decrease it for your children. To figure out dosages, you can read a post I wrote on it here, but mainly you follow a dosing formula to calculate a child's dose or you titrate the dose for them. I hope it helps you!