Sambucus is a broad genus of flowering plants in the family Adoxaceae. It contains between 5 and 30 species of deciduous shrubs, small trees and herbaceous perennial plants. They bear large clusters of small white or cream-colored flowers in late spring; these are followed by clusters of small black, blue-black, or red berries (rarely yellow or white).
Sambucus Nigra is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 6 m (20 ft) tall and wide (rarely 10m tall). The bark, light grey when young, changes to a coarse grey outer bark with lengthwise furrowing. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, 10–30 cm long, pinnate with five to seven (rarely nine) leaflets, the leaflets 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm broad, with a serrated margin.
The hermaphrodite flowers are borne in large, flat corymbs 10–25 cm diameter in late spring to mid summer, the individual flowers ivory white, 5–6 mm diameter, with five petals; they are pollinated by flies.
The fruit is a glossy dark purple to black berry 3–5 mm diameter, produced in drooping clusters in late autumn; they are an important food for many fruit-eating birds, notably blackcaps.
Elderberries contain organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitaman A and B and a large amount of vitamin C. They are also mildly laxative, a diuretic, and diaphoretic. Flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to account for the therapeutic actions of the elderberry flowers and berries. According to test tube studies these flavonoids include anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants and protect cells against damage.
Chemicals in both the flowers and berries may help diminish swelling in mucous membranes like sinuses and help relieve nasal congestion. Herbalists still use it to soothe children’s upset stomachs and relieve gas. Elderberries are reputed to have diuretic and detoxifying properties, and therefore considered good for weight management.
Nutritional value per 100 g of raw Elderberries
Energy 305 kJ (73 kcal)
Dietary fiber 7 g
Fat 0.5 g
Protein 0.66 g
Vitamin A equiv. (4%) 30 μg
Thiamine (B1) (6%) 0.07 mg
Riboflavin (B2) (5%) 0.06 mg
Niacin (B3) (3%) 0.5 mg
Pantothenic acid (B5) (3%) 0.14 mg
Vitamin B6 (18%) 0.23 mg
Folate (B9) (2%) 6 μg
Vitamin C (43%) 36 mg
Calcium (4%) 38 mg
Iron (12%) 1.6 mg
Magnesium (1%) 5 mg
Phosphorus (6%) 39 mg
Potassium (6%) 280 mg
Zinc (1%) 0.11 mg
Water 79.80 g
The ripe, cooked berries (pulp and skin) of most species of Sambucus are edible. However, most uncooked berries and other parts of plants from this genus are poisonous. Sambucus nigra is the only variety considered to be non-toxic, but it is still recommended that its berries be cooked slightly for culinary purposes. The leaves, twigs, branches, seeds, and roots of Sambucus plants can contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside (a glycoside which gives rise to cyanide as the metabolism processes it). Ingesting a sufficient quantity of cyanide-inducing glycosides can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body.
The berries are useful as a diaphoretic, diuretic and laxative. 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. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhea.
The flowers contain essential oils containing free fatty acids, linolenic and palmeitic acids and alkanes, triterpenes which include ursolic acid, 30-b-hydroxyursolic acid, rutin, quercitin, mucilage, and tannins in addition to miscellaneous amounts of phenolic acids, e.g. chlorogenic acid, pectin, sugars, etc. The flowers can be used as a diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal and anti-spasmodic.
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. They are often used to make a sparkling wine. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers.
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.
The leaves contain triterpenes similar to those found in the flowers; cyanogenetic glycosides like sambunigrin, flavonoids including rutin and quercitin and miscellaneous amounts of fatty acids, alkanes, and tannins. The leaves are externally used for an emollient and vulnerary, internally as purgative, expectorant, diuretic and diaphoretic.
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. They can also be used as an insect repellent, very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance. The leaves are also used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats.
The bark contains phytohaemagglutinins. 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, arthritic conditions, asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark.
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.
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 can be powdered and placed among 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.
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
In some areas, the “elder tree” was supposed to ward off evil influence and give protection from witches, while other beliefs say that witches often congregate under the plant, especially when it is full of fruit.
If an elder tree was cut down, a spirit known as the Elder Mother would be released and take her revenge. The tree could only safely be cut while chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother.
As a moniker, the term “elder” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “aeld,” meaning fire, because the hollow stems of this plant were used to gently blow on flames to intensify the fire. “Sambucus” is a Greek word meaning “wind instrument.” Native Americans once used elderberry branches to make flutes, so the tree was sometimes called “the tree of music.”
In Tyrol elder was planted on graves, if the plant flourished with berries it is believed that the dead person is happy in the other world after passing.
30 elderflower heads
1.7litres/3 pints boiling water
900g/2lb caster sugar
50g/2oz citric acid (available from chemists)
2 unwaxed oranges, sliced
3 unwaxed lemons, sliced
Gently rinse over the elderflowers to remove any dirt or little creatures.
Pour the boiling water over the sugar in a very large mixing bowl. Stir well and leave to cool.
Add the citric acid, the orange and lemon slices, and then the flowers.
Leave in a cool place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
Strain through some muslin and transfer to sterilised bottles.
Add equal parts of mashed fresh elderberries and blueberries to your favorite balsamic vinegar, shake well.
Elderberry Iced Tea
Equal parts frozen Blueberry and Elderberry (seeds strained)
Juice of 1/2 fresh Lemon
Approx 6 heaping tablespoons Green Tea (or other favorite tea)
Boil 3 cups water in a small pan. When it reaches boil, turn off the heat and add green tea. let steep for about 10 minutes. Strain and add to pitcher. Puree frozen berries in lemon juice, add to pitcher. Fill with water and ice, chill. Add honey or stevia to taste. (you can also used the dried berries and steep them like a tea, use the fresh blueberries for the puree)
Collect lots of elderberries (several big grocery bags full, if you want to make a five-gallon batch).
Clean and de-stem your elderberries. De-stemming can be tedious. Some people use a fork or you can freeze the clusters, once they’re frozen, they come off the stems more easily.
Measure your berries and write down how many gallons you have?
Now, put your berries in a large crock or bucket something big enough to hold them, with several inches left over at the top for foam. Pour enough boiling water over the berries to barely cover them. Cover the crock with a towel and leave it to steep for a day or so.
After the berries have had time to steep, add a packet of wine yeast. Stir well.
Measure out 3 pounds of sugar for every gallon of elderberries you had. Put the sugar in a pot with about a cup of water per pound of sugar. Heat until the sugar is entirely melted into a syrup. Cool the syrup and add it to the berries. (some suggest leaving the berries to ferment on their own for a few days before adding the sugar.)
Ferment the wine for four or five days, or until major bubbling has subsided. Stir it every day, several times a day or as often as you remember.
When it’s ready, strain the wine into a carboy or another container that will take an airlock. Make sure to squeeze all the juice out of the berries. Put an airlock on the carboy, and put the whole thing somewhere dark and not too cold. Leave it for a couple of months.
When you’re ready, siphon it into a clean carboy, leaving the “lees” (yeast residue) behind. You can taste it at this point, but it’ll likely be a little harsh. It needs a good six months or a year to mature. Leave it in a cool closet somewhere. (Don’t forget to check the airlock every once in a while to see if the water needs to be replenished.)
Bottle your wine in time for the following winter.
115g / 4 oz golden caster / super fine sugar
100 ml / ½ cup water
Juice of half a lemon
7 sheets of gelatine leaves (see note below)
175ml / 3/4 cup Elderflower Cordial
450 ml / 2 cups sparkling wine (Prossecco, Champagne etc)
250g / 2 cups summer fruits eg: strawberries (these should be roughly chopped), raspberries. blueberries etc
- Place the sugar, water and lemon juice into a small saucepan, and stir. Slowly dissolve the sugar over a low heat. Once dissolved, simmer for a few minutes then remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
- Snap the gelatine leaves roughly into small pieces, cover with cold water and leave for 5 minutes. Lift the leaves from the water, squeeze lightly, then add to the warm sugar syrup and stir until thoroughly dissolved.
- Pour the sugar syrup and gelatine mix into a large bowl. Add the Elderflower cordial and sparkling wine to the bowl and stir gently. Do not over stir or you will flatten the wine.
- Place the bowl over a bowl of iced water and leave to cool until the jelly is just starting to set which takes about 30 minutes. Stir the jelly from time to time as this will speed up the setting process.
- Once the jelly begins to set (do not let the jelly set completely, it should be thick and wobbly) add the summer fruits, stir to distribute the fruit through the jelly.
- Pour the wobbly jelly into glasses or bowls and place in the refrigerator to set, preferably overnight.
See more recipes with elderberries here.