Sambucus nigra

Edible Uses

Edible Parts: Flowers, fruit.

Edible Uses: Colouring, tea.

Fruit - raw or cooked. The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to many tastes, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies and so forth. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys etc, it is also often used to make wine. The fruit is about 8mm in diameter and is borne in large clusters. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Flowers - raw or cooked. They can also be dried for later use. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy, they have an aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack on a summers day, though look out for the insects. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam). They are often used to make a sparkling wine. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers. The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats.

Flower heads are used to make a white wine and elderflower 'champagne'. They are also fried in batter for elderflower fritters: blend 1 egg yolk and 5 oz (150 ml) of water into 1 cup (225g) flour; add 2 tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil and fold in the stiffly beaten egg white from your yolk; dip flower heads into batter and fry in hot oil; drain on paper towels; serve immediately. Flowers are used in wines, mainly to add a muscatel flavor, and to flavor sherberts, stewed fruits, and tea. The young flower buds are pickled.
Berries are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, jams, ketchup, chutneys, vinegars, pies (one recipe for apple pie calls for 1 cup of elderberries). Fruit juice is boiled with sugar for a cordial called elderberry rob and is flavored with ginger and cloves.

Elderberry Wine = Gather ripe berries on a dry day. Separate them from the stems and put in an earthenware crock. Cover with boiling water to the amount of one gallon of water to every 2 gallons of berries. Press berries into the water with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Cover and let stand for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve, mashing out all possible juice. measure the juice and add 3 lbs of sugar to each gallon of juice. Toss in a small handful of cloves and a little grated fresh ginger. Pour back into the crock and add one pkg dry yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup of the juice. Cover, let stand until it stops working (bubbling). Strain through cheesecloth and bottle in gallon jugs. After 2 months decant into wine bottles and cork tightly.

Elderflower Wine = Put one quart of fresh flowers into an earthenware crock. Pour over them 3 gallons of boiling water in which 9 lbs of sugar have been dissolved. Allow to cool. Add juice of one lemon, 3 lbs of raisins, and one pkg of dry yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup of lukewarm juice. Let stand in a crock until it stops working (about 10 days). Strain through cheesecloth and bottle in a gallon jug. After 3 months decant into wine bottles and cork tightly.

Elderberry Jelly = Cook ripe berries and strain through jelly bag. Cook tart crab apples, mash and strain through jelly bag. Combine 1/2 cup of crab apple juice to each cup of elderberry juice. Add 3/4 cup of sugar to each cup of juice. Bring to a brisk boil and then boil gently until the amount that will stick to the spoon thickens when it cools. Have sterilized jars ready, pour the jelly, and seal.


Medicinal Uses

Flowers: expectorant, diaphoretic (in hot infusion), circulatory stimulant, expectorant, decongestant, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, relaxant, emollient; affects blood, circulation, lungs, bowels, liver, skin. Berries: are laxative, diaphoretic, diuretic; Bark: (rarely used today) is liver stimulant, purgative, emetic (large doses), diuretic, topically emollient; Leaves: antiseptic.

Elder has a very long history of household use as a medicinal herb and is also much used by herbalists. The plant has been called 'the medicine chest of country people'. The flowers are the main part used in modern herbalism, though all parts of the plant have been used at times. Stimulant. The inner bark is collected from young trees in the autumn and is best sun-dried. It is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark. The leaves can be used both fresh or dry. For drying, they are harvested in periods of fine weather during June and July. The leaves are purgative, but are more nauseous than the bark. They are also diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic. The juice is said to be a good treatment for inflamed eyes. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains, chilblains, wounds etc. The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of 'Elder Flower Water'.

The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactogogue and pectoral. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation. Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds, scalds etc. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit. The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds. The root is no longer used in herbal medicine but it formerly had a high reputation as an emetic and purgative that was very effective against dropsy. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of young branches. It relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children.

The flower tea is considered calming, soothing, tonic and relaxing and has been used as a nightcap and for depression and to calm nerves. The cooked berries (pies, jams, etc) have been included in the diet for HIV. Elder flowers have been used for fevers, feverish conditions, sub-feverish conditions, chronic infections, respiratory problems, bronchial conditions, coughs, hacking coughs, hay fever, excess mucous, colds, flu, pneumonia, sinusitis, earache, hay fever, asthma, ulcers, burns, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, stomatitis, skin eruptions, chilblains, edema, congestive heart failure, fluid retention, kidney stones, rheumatism (berry), arthritis (bark), grout, constipation (bark), psoriasis (wash), and eczema (wash).

Has been combined with equal parts yarrow and peppermint for colds and with 2 parts elderflowers and 1 part peppermint for chesty conditions. Also with an equal part of peppermint for early stages of colds and flu and taken hot (1 oz herb per 1 pint water) while in the bath or in bed so it can be 'sweated out'; has also been combined in equal part with hyssop for colds. A wash of elderflowers has been used to bring down a fever or an infusion added to the bath water for the same purpose. Induces a cooling sweat and reduces fevers by increasing elimination of wastes. Shortens duration of colds, especially if taken when symptoms first appear. Has also been used to treat congestive lungs, bronchial conditions, pneumonia, sinus, ear, hayfever, and asthma.

A tea of the flowers can be taken for twitching eyelids, kidney problems, liver problems, headaches due to colds, palsy, rheumatism, scrofula, syphilis, epilepsy, and chronic diseases. A tea is made from the dried berries and used to treat cholera and diarrhea. Leaves and bark have been used externally for bruises, sprains, wounds, minor burns, and chilblains. Leaves in ointment form have been used for tumors.

Can be used externally for conjunctivitis and sore eyes (as a wash; a strong tea is passed through a paper filter), for irriated/inflamed skin, mouth ulcers and minor injuries. Has been used in ointment/salve form for burns, rashes, and minor skin problems. Has been combined with equal parts sassafras for blemishes and acne. The homemade oil has been used for chapped hands and chilblains. Has also been combined with Bogbean and White willow for rheumatism.

Leaves were once used to make 'green elder ointment' which was used to treat bruises, sprains, wounds, hemorrhoids, and as a chest rub for colds and flu. Muffled hearing due to congestion has been treated with an infusion of the flowers. Extract has been used as a mild astringent and toning lotion for the skin (also for cases of sunburn and mild skin infections). The juice of the berries has been used for tonsillitis as a gargle. A decoction of the root can be used as a cure for the bite of an adder.


Flower Infusion = 2 tsp dried flowers in 1 cup water just off the boil; steeped 8 minutes; taken 1 cup 3 times daily.
Bark/Root Bark Infusion = 1 level tsp to 1/2 cup boiling water taken no more than 1 cup a day, a mouthful at a time.
Cold Extract = 1 tsp leaves to 1 cup cold water allowed to stand for 8 to 10 hours.

Ointment #1 = Steep Flowers in a little olive oil in a warm place for 2 or 3 days, then strain through muslin; heat oil with enough beeswax to achieve the consistency of ointment; add 1 drop of tincture of benzoin per 1 oz of product as a preservative; used for burns, cuts, and scratches. The oil, by itself, can be used for chapped hands and chilblains.
Ointment #2 = 3 parts fresh leaves to 6 parts olive or sunflower oil and 1/2 oz beeswax (or melt petroleum gel in top of a double boiler); add leaves; heat until leaves are crisp (also see the Basics pages for easiest methods and specifics); strain and store; used as needed. An ancient technique for making ointment was to rub as many flowers as possible into a piece of pure lard; the mass was put into a baking tin and placed into a moderate oven until the flowers were brown; the whole was strained through muslin and stored in small jars.

Tinture = 2 to 4 ml three times daily; 20 to 40 drops in water, 3 or 4 times daily
Flower Glycerite = 1 tsp taken 3 times daily in warm water
Medicinal Wine = Flowers soaked in white wine for 2 weeks
Syrup = Made with flowers infused in concentrated sugar solution. Also with berries: boiled in a little water for a few minutes, then press the juice out and add sugar or honey

Elderflower Water = Place 3/4 cup (180 g) elderflowers and 1/4 cup (60 g) lavender flowers in a pan and cover with 1 pint (500 ml) of boiling distilled water; allow this flower tea to sit until cooled; then add 1 oz (30 ml) of vodka and 1 oz (30 ml) of vegetable glycerin; let stand for 12 hours, then strain and bottle. Used as a skin wash

Cosmetic: Good skin herb: softens complexion; infusion of flowers used as lotion to soften and whiten skin, also as face compress and a pack for wrinkles.
Elder cream is used for the skin and especially good for aged skin.
Elderflower water makes a gentle and softening cleanser for dry to normal skin.
Excellent bath herb.The flower water was historically known as Aqua Sambuci.
Tea as a splash or toner is used after a shower.

Other Uses

Compost, cosmetic, dye, fungicide, hedge, insecticide, litmus, wood.

The plant is a valuable addition to the compost heap, its flowers are an alternative ingredient of 'QR' herbal compost activator and the roots of the plant improve fermentation of the compost heap when growing nearby. The leaves are used as an insect repellent, very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance. They can be powdered and placed amongst plants to act as a deterrent, or made into a spray when they act as an insecticide. This is prepared by boiling 3 - 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew.The dried flowering shoots are used to repel insects, rodents etc. The flowers are used in skin lotions, oils and ointments. Tolerant of salt-laden gales, this species can be grown as a shelter hedge in exposed maritime areas, it is rather bare in the winter though. This is an excellent pioneer species to use when re-establishing woodlands.

It is very tough and wind-resistant, grows quickly and provides shelter for longer-lived and taller woodland species to establish. It will generally maintain itself in the developing woodland, though usually in the sunnier positions. A dye is obtained from the fruit and the bark. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant. The berries yield various shades of blue and purple dyes. They have also been used as a hair dye, turning the hair black. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus to test if something is acid or alkaline. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution. The pith in the stems of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been used as pipes for blowing air into a fire. They can also be made into musical instruments. The pith of the wood is used for making microscope slides and also for treating burns and scalds. The mature wood is white and fine-grained. It is easily cut and polishes well. Valued highly by carpenters, it has many used, for making skewers, mathematical instruments, toys etc.

Craft: Trunks and stems have a white pith which in the small branches is easily blown out; these hollow stems were used in Basket makeing, to make wind instruments, and blowguns. These same whistles and blowguns were also known to make children ill as the plant contains cyanogenic glycosides (these are mainly present and more dangerous in the roots, leaves, and stems).

Dye: Berries produce deep blue with no mordant; lavender or violet with alum mordant; on wool produces lilac with an alum and salt mordant; blue-gray with tin mordant; blue with chrome mordant.
Leaves produce soft yellow with alum; deep yellow with chrome
Bark produces gray with iron.
Fly repellent. Leaves are insecticidal, being boiled to make a spray.

Cultivation details

A very easily grown plant, it tolerates most soils and situations, growing well on chalk, but prefers a moist loamy soil. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Tolerates some shade but fruits better in a sunny position. Tolerates atmospheric pollution and coastal situations. Another report says that it is intolerant of very smoky atmospheres. The elder is very occasionally cultivated for its edible fruit, there are some named varieties though most of these have been developed for their ornamental value. The sub-species S. nigra alba has white/green fruits that are nicer than the type species and are quite nice raw. The elder also has a very long history of folk use, both medicinally and for a wide range of other uses. All in all it is a very valuable plant to have in the garden. The leaves often begin to open as early as January and are fully open in April. The leaves fall in October/November in exposed sites, later in sheltered positions.

Young stems can be killed by late frosts but they are soon replaced from the ground level. Very tolerant of pruning, plants can be cut back to ground level and will regrow from the base. The flowers have a sweet, almost overpowering smell, not exactly pleasant when inhaled near to for it has fishy undertones, but from a distance its musky scent is appealing. Very resistant to the predations of rabbits. The flowers are very attractive to insects. The fruit is very attractive to birds and this can draw them away from other cultivated fruits. The elder is an early colonizer of derelict land, the seed arriving in the defecations of birds and mammals. It is a very good pioneer species for re-establishing woodlands. Plants in this genus are notably resistant to honey fungus.


Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame, when it should germinate in early spring. Stored seed can be sown in the spring in a cold frame but will probably germinate better if it is given 2 months warm followed by 2 months cold stratification first. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. If good growth is made, the young plants can be placed in their permanent positions during the early summer. Otherwise, either put them in a sheltered nursery bed, or keep them in their pots in a sheltered position and plant them out in spring of the following year. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 7 - 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame. Cuttings of mature wood of the current season's growth, 15 - 20cm with a heel, late autumn in a frame or a sheltered outdoor bed. Division of suckers in the dormant season.