Elder (Sambucus nigra) is an extremely valuable herb to have on hand during cold and flu season for immune support. Learn how the elder plant works, potential side effects and safety considerations, and how you can use this plant in your home.
Elder has a long history of use as a remedy for colds and flu, as well as many other conditions. The flowers and berries can also both be used in the kitchen, so it need not be relegated only to the medicine chest.
With its extensive historical use and documented evidence of safety and efficacy, elder is an herb that I try to always keep on hand. It’s a great way to gently keep our families healthy during the fall and winter months!
Basic Elder Plant Information
Elder Botanical Name
Sambucus nigra (European elderberry)
Subucus nigra var canadensis (American elderberry)
There are additional elder plant species around the world, many of them used medicinally. In the Western world, European elderberry is most often used, particularly in standardized products you can purchase in stores.
Image courtesy Sebastian Maćkiewicz on Wikimedia Creative Commons
Elder Plant Description
- Elder is a low maintenance plant that typically grows as a shrub or small tree between 5 and 10 feet in height.
- The leaves grow in compound groups of slightly toothed leaflets joined along a middle stem in groups of 5 to 11.
- The small, white flowers form wide, flat clusters called umbels set atop hollow stems.
- These flowers later mature into the dark purple, almost black, small berries of the plant which hang down in clusters.
Some plants and plant parts can look similar to elder plants. Pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) berries are sometimes misidentified as elderberries, but the plant structures are quite different. Queen Anne’s lace/wild carrot (Daucus carota) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) flowers are sometimes confused for elderflowers, but again, the overall plant structure of elder is very different than both wild carrot and poison hemlock.
If you forage for elderflower or elderberry, always be certain you have correctly identified the plant. Misidentifying a plant can result in unintended consequences like poisoning.
Elder Plant Parts Used
The flowers and berries are most frequently used today, though all parts of the shrub were used in the past. The bark and root have fallen out of favor because they can produce emetic (vomiting) and purgative (diarrhea) actions, though some experienced herbalists continue to use carefully crafted preparations made with the bark and roots. The leaves are sometimes used, usually in topical preparations.
Elderberry & Elderflower Uses
Actions in the Body
- Both the flowers and the berries are diaphoretics, which means that they increase perspiration in the body. This can be beneficial during fevers and to expel toxins.
- The flowers offer anticatarrhal properties, helping the body eliminate mucus.
- Both flowers and berries have recognized anti-viral and immune-stimulating properties.
- Leaves, though rarely used, have vulnerary (wound-healing) properties.
Elderberry & Elderflower Suggested Uses
Elderberries are most often prepared into a syrup. First, you make a strong decoction with dried berries. After straining out the berries, you sweeten the decoction with honey, sugar, or your sweetener of choice. You can find a safe, effective, and delicious elderberry syrup here.
Elderflowers may be used in herbal infusions and tinctures without additional cooking or preparation. You can steep one to two teaspoons of dried flowers in 1 cup of boiled water for about 15 minutes, then drink it as a hot tea during respiratory infections. You can find a cold and flu support tea with elderflower here.
You can use elderberries and elderflowers in kitchen recipes, like elderflower fritters and elderberry jam.
Leaves are occasionally made into a healing oil or salve by infusing carefully dried leaves into oil with warm heat, straining out the leaves after 2-3 hours, and then thickening with wax as desired.
Elderberry & Elderflower Safety Considerations
Elderberry and elderflower are generally safe, including for infants, children, the elderly, and pregnant and nursing mothers.
All parts of the elder plant contain cyanogenic glycosides. When ingested, these compounds free cyanide in the body and can lead to temporary nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal pain, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and dizziness. The roots, bark, and twigs contain the highest concentration, berry seeds and leaves less so, and flowers contain minimal. Thoroughly cooking the berries produces a safe product free from potential cyanide poisoning.
If you have an autoimmune condition, use caution with elderberry preparations. In some people, elderberry can cause autoimmune flares, but not every person with an autoimmune condition experiences flares while using elderberry.
In the spring of 2020, rumors circulated that elderberry can contribute to or cause cytokine storms (excessive immune responses in the body that lead to severe organ injury or death) when taken during during certain infections. This concern is purely theoretical and has never been documented.
While elderberry can increase some cytokines in the body, it also has a noted anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Elderberry has been used for centuries, if not longer, and has never triggered cytokine storms in sick or healthy people. For detailed information on elderberry and cytokine storms, see this detailed article by herbalist Donnie Yance.
It is not necessary to avoid elderberry during infections to avoid cytokine storms. An herbalist can help you decide if elderberry is the best herb for you to take during a health situation.
If you enjoyed learning about elder, be sure to check out The Herb Study Notebook for an easier way to know your herbs inside and out and keep all of your learning in one organized place.
Fritchey, Philip. Practical Herbalism: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Powers. Whitman Publications, Warsaw, Indiana. 2004. (found here)