Elderberry Bush: Grow, Cook, Heal with Elder

This native herbal shrub bears tasty blossoms and berries that can fight colds and flu.

  • European elderberries (S. nigra).
    Photo by Fotolia/denio109
  • European elder (Sambucus nigra)—also known as black elder—grows abundantly in the wild, but can also be cultivated near the home.
    By Steven Foster
  • European elderberries (S. nigra). Click on the IMAGE GALLERY for more beautiful elderberry images.
    By Steven Foster
  • American elderflowers (S. canadensis)
    By Steven Foster
  • American elder (S. canadensis)
    By Susan Roth

Certain flavors, like scents, can simply transport you. Shortly after I moved to Bavaria, I settled in at a window table in a restaurant in southern Germany with a glass of golden Sekt sparkling wine. A splash of elderflower syrup had been added, and each sip sparked memories of my childhood: gathering elder blossoms with my grandmother on an early summer day in the hills of central Missouri … sitting next to my grandfather at the table, digging into a plate of warm elderflower pancakes … cutting clusters of shiny, black-purple elderberries in early autumn to make delicious syrup for winter.

Elderflower and Elderberry Recipes

Elderflower Liqueur
Elderflower Syrup
Elderberry Soup with Semolina Dumplings
Elderberry-Plum Sauce
Elderflower Pancakes 

Admiring the Beautiful Elder

Throughout the Werdenfelser region of Bavaria, elder bushes herald the arrival of summer with saucer-sized clusters of lacy white flowers. It’s impossible to miss the plants—they can be found in the centers of towns, as well as in surrounding meadows and pastures. The umbels of tiny, five-petaled flowers produce a subtle but unmistakable scent. When the berries begin to form several weeks later, the delicate white blossoms drift softly to the ground like snowflakes. By early autumn, the shrubs are covered with heavy clusters of nutritious, black-purple berries.

The elder is by no means unique to Germany. It is indigenous to broad stretches of the Northern Hemisphere—from North America, Europe and Asia, and into North Africa along the Mediterranean coast. In North America, the native species is Sambucus canadensis, commonly called American elder; its European relative is S. nigra, know as European elder or black elder. Although both have served as a medicine chest for millennia, you’ll find elder’s flavor reason enough to hunt down a shrub for making delicious treats with its berries and blossoms. Don’t want to walk a country mile for your elder? This shrub is easy to grow and lovely in the landscape.

Elderflower and Elderberry Medicine

The entire elder plant—flowers, bark, berries and leaves—has sustained generations as a source of food and medicine. Archaeologists found elder seeds in a Neolithic dwelling in Switzerland, and European villagers have planted the shrubs close to their homes for many centuries. Throughout North America, the plant was highly prized by native tribes, who ate the dried berries as a winter staple and used the twigs and fruit in basketry and the branches to make arrows and musical instruments. Native Americans also used elderflowers and berries to treat colds, joint pain, fever, skin problems and more.

8/18/2016 1:57:54 PM

After viewing my post I needed to add that ,my friend takes the boiled liquid from the roots of elderberry tre internally 2 tablespoons daily not by rubbing the liquid on his skin anyway all of his brown spots turned white then disappeared.

8/18/2016 1:53:15 PM

I have a friend who uses the liquid from boiled elderberry roots to remove brown spots. Does anyone have information to share about uses for elderberry roots. I see all kinds of info about the berries and blossoms of elderberry but nothing about the roots. Please share if anyone knows about treatments made with elderberry roots.

Laura Bergh
2/25/2013 11:12:42 PM

I love making a nourishing tea with elder flower, rose, fennel and any other herb I have handy. Elder flower can be strong so a little goes a long way. Also, we make a winter healing syrup by steeping elder berries and thyme (a great anti-viral), then straining and adding honey. Needs to be refrigerated and used within three months. Choose organic herbs and honey from organically raised bees.

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