Elderberry (sambucus nigra)

Both the European elder (Sambucus nigra) and North American elder (S. canadensis) grow naturally along riverbanks and in moist woodland thickets. A shrub or small tree, the elder bears flat-topped masses of sweetly scented, cream-colored flowers that are followed by purplish blue edible berries.

In many of the folk tales of northern Europe, the elder held supernatural powers and was believed to ward off evil. The name Sambucus is similar to the name of an ancient musical instrument and could refer to the traditional use of the plant’s hollow stems as a whistle or flute.


Plant profile

Common Names: Black Elder, Elderberry

Description: Shrub or small tree, up to 12 feet tall; compound, opposite leaves; flat-topped clusters of creamy white flowers followed by small, seedy berries ripening to a deep purple-black

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Adoxaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Bark, flowers, and fruit

Range/Habitat: European elder is native to Europe, American elder is native to eastern and central North America; found in moist or wooded areas

Culinary use

You can use fully ripe elderberries to make delicious juice, wine, and preserves. Mix the flowers into pancake batter; coat them with milk and eggs and then cook them to make fritters; or use them to make tea, wine, or vinegar.

Caution: Unripe fruits of Sambucus can be mildly toxic.

Medicinal use

Elderberry has been called “the medicine chest of the people” because of the plant’s many therapeutic uses. The herb has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, and the flowers have a long history of use for relieving the symptoms of sinusitis, colds, fever, and flu. Commercial syrups and extracts made from elderberry fruit are widely available in health food stores. Studies have shown that elderberry syrup and extracts can reduce flu symptoms and duration, as compared to a placebo. Elderberry is also believed to have diuretic and diaphoretic (sweat-promoting) activity; herbalists recommend warm elder flower tea to promote sweating and reduce fever.

Other uses

The berries produce a deep blue dye. The leaves can be used to make a green dye.

How to grow it

Grow elder in rich, moist soil and full sun or partial shade. Amend the site with compost or aged manure before planting, and water the plants regularly until they’re established. Harvest the flowers in spring and early summer; harvest fully ripe berries in late summer. To propagate elderberry shrubs, take softwood cuttings in summer or hardwood cuttings in winter.

Caution: Be careful when harvesting elderberry. While reports of poisoning are rare, the leaves, stems, roots, and unripe fruit of European and American elderberry can be toxic. Also be careful if you’re harvesting berries from wild plants; similar-looking species have highly toxic berries.