Elder - Elderflowers and Elderberries

Botanical Name
Sambucus nigra
Elder’s botanical name Sambucus is from the Greek musical instrument the sambuke, made from the hollow stems of elder wood.
Common Name
Elder, black elder, blue elderberry, bore tree, bourtree, common elder, elderberry, elkhorn, sweet elder.
The name elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld, which means fire, as young elder branches were used to build up fires by blowing through the hollow stems.
Parts Used

The flowers: dried for tea, extracted in tincture, made into wine, cordials, champagne and jelly.

The berries: dried for tea, extracted in tincture, made into syrup, wine, cordials, champagne and jelly. Slightly toxic if raw. 

The leaves: dried for tea 

The bark: used for its purgative, emetic and duiretic actions but toxic if prepared wrong

Native To
Europe, parts of Asia and part of Africa
Botanical Description
Elder trees can grow between 10-30 feet tall. They have compound leaves comprised of 5-11 serrated oblong leaflets with an extra leaflet on top. The leaves grow opposite each other along the stem, which is hollow and has a pithy core.
The flowers are creamy white consisting of hundreds of tiny, fragrent, five-petaled flowers.
The fruit come in branching clusters of glossy dark purple or black berries.
There are two forms of elder, those with black berries and those with red berries (Sambucus racemosa); the red are smaller and somewhat toxic, while the black berries are slightly larger and edible once cooked.
Where It Grows
It particularly likes its feet in moist soil near a brook, river or wetlands, but it also grows in forest gaps, fields, roadsides, farmyards, and gardens.

Season To Harvest

Flowers - Summer

Berries - Autumn (late August/September)


Key Constituents

Berries: vitamin C, anthocyanins, flavonoids.

Flowers: mucilage, flavonoids, volatile oil, quercetin, free fatty acids, triterpenes, phenolic acid, minerals, sterols, sugars, tannins.

Leaves: Cyanogenic glycosides.


Harvesting Guidelines

Flowers: can be removed from the base of the flower cluster stalk. Only remove a few clusters from a tree, so that the flowers can turn into berries later in the year. Insects also use flowers for food.

Berries: should be fully ripe before harvesting. Separate the berries from the stems before using. Stems, unripe and uncooked berries are slightly toxic and can cause nausea and an upset belly. Heat berries to get rid of cyanogenic glycosides present in the berry before consuming. A few raw berries may be fine. 

Elder bark, leaves, roots, seeds: contain alkaloids and cyanogenic glycosides, which may cause nausea and vomiting.

Note that the red elder (Sambucus racemosa), which is a different species, contains higher levels of cyanogenic glycosides than the black elder.



Energetically, elder is cool, pungent, slightly astringent and slightly sweet.

Berry: exceptional allies during colds, flu, and respiratory infections due to their diaphoretic, immune boosting and antiviral actions. High in vit C. 

Flower: anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal and expectorant. Helps in cases of colds, sinusitis and sinus allergies like hayfever. Helpful for colds and flu's as also antiviral. Also supports the nervous system in times of stress as is soothing for nerves, anxiety, and depression.

Leaves: fresh leaves are used externally as a poultice or an oil infusion for bruises, sprains, and wounds as they are vulnerary (tissue healing) and astringent (toning).



The elder is known as the 'witches tree' and it is said that witches could turn themselves into elder trees and they often used its wood for the making of broomsticks and wands. Others say the spirits of deceased witches occupy elder. For this reason it is wise to ask permission of an elder tree before you cut it and it is deemed as disrespectful to use it's wood for a fire. 

Elder trees are planted out the front of houses for protection and a lucky self-sewn elder should be left to grow. It may be a witch protecting your land. 

Another lore about the tree states that sitting under the tree at midsummer would enable you to see the fearies. Perhaps even see them going to their midsummer feast. The danger here is of falling asleep under the tree and being transported into their realm without knowing how to return.

Elder is certainly associated with a spirit or spirit beings, and all of the stories give her a feminine energy.