Elderberry and Elderflower

the elder plant

Elderberry and Elderflower

The elder tree is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia and elderberry and elderflower has been known since Egyptian times. There is hardly any other member of the plant kingdom which can rival the elder tree for superstition and diversity of uses for all its parts.

The young shoots have a soft pith, which is easily pushed out to form a hollow tube, hence the name pipe tree or bore tree. These were used for making pipes and the old English herbalist Culpepper, referred to their appeal to small boys who would make them into pop-guns. The wood was made into musical instruments.


One theory which supports the plethora of superstition surrounding the elder tree is because it is the wood from which the crucifixion cross was made and the type of tree from which Judas hanged himself. Perhaps it was this belief that made the elder tree a symbol of death, sorrow and misfortune. Shakespeare refers to elder as a symbol of grief in Cymbeline.Elder shoots were buried with the dead to protect them from witches and also used in making hearse driver’s whips.

In medieval times, hedgecutters would avoid attacking its rampant growth, gypsies would not burn it on camp fires and in many parts of Europe it was associated with magic, especially black magic! Therefore it is somewhat puzzling that a tree with such a dark reputation should also have been used so much, for practical, medicinal and culinary purposes. A blue coloring substance from the berries has been utilized as a kind of litmus paper, as it turns green with alkalis and red when detecting acid.

Habitat and Description

Elder trees are not to be confused with the dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus) which has fruit that is poisonous and violently purgative. The tree usually grows 4 to 5 meters tall (13′ to 16″) though it can reach 10 meters (33′) under favorable conditions. Its stem and branches are covered in a greenish-ashen bark, having a white herbage in its interior. The leaves have cogged margins and the flowers are white with a pleasant smell.

The fruits are small, black and shiny, with 3 longish seeds inside. The plant can be found in mountainous areas, and in river valleys where the sun rays don’t shine directly. The flowers are harvested when more than two thirds of them have blossomed, the fruits are only harvested on autumn when they are black. The parts used from this plant are its elderberry and elderflower and bark. Because many cane-like shoots come up and spread out around the base, the appearance is often more hedge-like than treelike.

Elder trees have dark green, spearmint-shaped leaves 1h,_34 in. (4-8 cm) long with finely jagged edges. When bruised, the leaves of elder have a nondescript, faintly grassy aroma.

Elderflowers form in large, creamy-white, flattopped clusters, over 3 in. (7 cm) in diameter, that look as though they have been painstakingly crafted in lace and designed to support the hoards of bees working busily over them. These fresh flowers have a somewhat bitter taste and sweet, less than appetizing aroma to some, however it is after processing into products such as elder flower cordial, that the more pleasant attributes of elderflower becomes apparent.

After flowering, the very dark purple, almost black berries develop and when fully ripe are 1/3 in. (8 mm) in diameter. Fresh elder berries should not be eaten raw as they are somewhat bitter, and the overall taste effect is not appealing, however upon drying the flavor becomes more agreeable. Although the flowering season is a relatively few short weeks in its native Europe, elder trees growing in the warmer parts of Australia may be in flower for a couple of months. The vanilla-scented panicles of creamy blossom are picked when fully open on a fine, dry, sunny day and left for a month, spread thinly in an airy room to become dry and crumbly. They are then rubbed and shaken to separate the flowers from the stalks which are discarded.

In Europe the elder flowers are thrown into heaps where they are left to warm for a few hours. This loosens the petals, which are then separated from the stalks and stems by sifting.

To dry your own elder flowers, pick them early in the morning before the heat of the day has diminished their potency. Place the flower heads on clean paper in a warm, dark, dry place for a few days.

The flowers are then used like tea leaves to make a delicate tisane which can be flavoured with lemon and honey, or added to lemon marmalade for extra piquancy.

The blue-black berries can be boiled with equal amounts of vinegar and sugar, strained, bottled and left to mature for several years into a rich relish which goes well with beef, pork or poultry.

The minute flower petals are used for making infusions like elder flower cordials and herbal teas, in Europe the elder flowers are picked in full bloom and thrown into heaps where they are left to warm for a few hours. This loosens the petals, which are then separated from the stalks and stems by sifting. To dry your own elder flowers, pick them early in the morning before the heat of the day has diminished their potency. Place the flower heads on clean paper in a warm, dark, dry place for a few days.

Culinary Uses of Elderberry and Elderflower

The most popular parts of elder for culinary uses are the elderberry and elderflower. Both are used for making wines and is used to color conventional wines (particularly port produced in Portugal). Elderflowers make a refreshing drink when soaked in lemon juice overnight, and the flower heads, dipped in a light batter and fried, make an unusual accompanying vegetable. The blossoms give a muscatel grape flavor to gooseberry, apple or quince jelly when tied in a muslin bag and boiled in the fruit syrup for three to four minutes at the end of cooking time.

Elizabethans made delicious pancakes from fresh-picked plate-like heads of blossom, dipped in batter, fried and sprinkled with Sweet Cicily (Myrrhis odorata) or even the rare treat of sugar. Elderberries, which taste a little like blackcurrants, are made into conserves and jams, they go well with apples and can be dried and put into pies in the same way as currants.

Health Benefits of Elderberry and Elderflower

Traditionally, elderberry leaves are considered purgative, expectorant, diuretic, and diaphoretic. Boiled with linseed oil, elder leaves have been used as a treatment for hemorrhoids in England. And elder leaf ointment is another traditional English remedy for wounds and bruises, and good rubbed on the back to promote easier breathing from colds and flu. To make this elder ointment, heat 4 ounces of green elder leaves in 1 pint olive oil for about an hour (low heat). Then strain and discard the herb. Mix the oil with 1 1/2 ounces of beeswax. Stir until it cools and thickens. Store in the refrigerator in a wide-mouth jar.

Elderberries have been a traditional remedy for constipation, colic, diarrhea, colds, and rheumatism. The berries contain viburnic acid, which promotes perspiration. Elderberry tea is an old effective remedy for coughs, sinus congestion, and reducing swelling of sore throat.

Elderberry also promotes the removal of waste products from the body, and is considered a powerful immune stimulant. Elderflower water, used as a skin lotion for its mild astringent properties, is still sold in old-fashioned pharmacies to this day.

Other Names

black elder, bore tree, common elder, elderberry, pipe tree

FRENCH: baie de sureau
GERMAN: holunderbeere
ITALIAN: bacca di sambuco
SPANISH: baya de sauco

Scientific Name

European elder: Sambucus nigra
American elder: Sambucus canadensis
Family: Sambucaceae