Herb to Know: Elder

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Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

Sambucus caerulea,S. canadensis, S. nigra
• (sam-BYOO-kuss suh-ROO-lee-uh, kan-uh-DEN-siss, NY-gruh)
• Family Caprifoliaceae
• Shrub, small tree

The big, creamy, flat-topped flower clusters of ­elders punctuate early-­summer landscapes throughout much of North America. Any flowers left to mature will develop into berries of red, dark purple, blue, or black, depending on the species. Leave the red ones for the birds–they’re bitter and/or poisonous–but harvest the ripe purple, blue, or black ones to make wine, pies, and jellies.

The genus Sambucus comprises some twenty-five species of perennial herbs, deciduous shrubs, or small trees native to temperate and subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, Africa, South America, Australia, and Tasmania. The species of interest to herb enthusiasts are mainly shrubs or small trees. To read the accounts of some European herbalists, you’d think there was only one elder, the European common elder (S. nigra), but North America has herbal elders of its own: the eastern American elder (S. canadensis) and the western blue or blueberry elder (S. caerulea).

Common and blueberry elders may reach 30 feet in height, but American elder tops out at about 12 feet. The stems are covered with lenticels–small pores that admit air into the plant. The leaves are pinnately compound, the leaflets as large as 2 to 12 inches wide by 6 inches long.

Elders are planted both as specimens and hedges. Common and American elders spread rapidly by suckering and thus are unsuitable for small yards, but many cultivars are better behaved and more glamorous as well. Breeders have had a field day ­developing elders with dissected, solid gold, gold-splashed or gold-margined green, or black-purple foliage; black stems; double flowers; and/or bigger fruits. You can buy pyramidal elders as well as dwarf forms including the 3-foot-tall S. nigra ‘Nana’ and the minute (8-inch-tall) ‘Witches Broom’.

The name “elder” probably comes from the Old English ellærn. The En­glish herbalist Maud Grieve, however, has suggested that the word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon æld, “fire,” on the grounds that the elder stem is filled with pith, and when this is pushed out, the resulting pipe might be used to puff air toward a fire to get it blazing.

Hollow elder stems have been fashioned into popguns, whistles, and panpipes. Curiously, the ­generic name Sambucus seems to refer to an ancient stringed instrument rather than a flute. Caerulea means “dark blue” (the fruit color); canadensis, “Canadian”; and “nigra,” black (the fruit color).

The close-grained wood of elders has been used for butchers’ skewers, shoemakers’ pegs, and netting needles; pith balls were once staples in science-class electricity experiments. Decoctions or infusions of the rank-smelling leaves of common elder have been used to keep insects off vegetables and people alike. The bark and root yield a black dye; the leaves, a green one; and the berries, blues and purples, depending on the mordant used.

The belief that the traitor Judas was hanged on an elder tree (later identified as a different species) may be the basis for the association of elder with sorrow and grieving. In some European cultures, cutting an elder was thought to bring bad luck. The Danes believed that a dryad called the elder-tree mother lived in the tree and would haunt anyone who cut it down without first asking her permission. Others held that elder branches would ward off illness and evil spirits.

Medicinal Uses For Elder

Common elder was once so esteemed for its curative properties that one great physician never passed an elder without raising his hat to it, according to Grieve. All parts of the tree, as well as a fungus sometimes found growing on it, were considered therapeutic. One author listed some seventy diseases that elder would cure. Of course, in olden times, purging was thought to cure nearly every ill, and elder bark, roots, and leaves are all strong purgatives.

Women also dabbed on distilled elder-flower water in hopes of removing freckles and softening the skin. A tea made from the flowers might be used the same way or taken as a mild laxative and blood purifier. Infused with peppermint, elder-flower tea taken at the first sign of a cold or flu promoted sweating and was reputed to vanquish the disease within three days–move over, echinacea!

Elderberry wine had uses similar to those of the flower preparations. In 1899, an American sailor claimed that getting drunk on fine aged port relieved his rheumatic pains. When the beverage proved to be cheap port adulterated with elderberry juice, the combination enjoyed some popularity as a sciatica remedy.

Native Americans found many medi­cinal uses for American elder, using a bark tea internally as a purgative, emetic, and diuretic, or externally to relieve skin eruptions. They also used a poultice of the leaves to stop bleeding.

Despite elder’s long history of medi­cinal use, all parts but the flowers and ripe (purple, blue, or black) fruits contain cyanogenic glycosides; ingesting bark, root, or leaf preparations can cause severe diarrhea.

A few recipes using elderberries and flowers appear in modern cookbooks but are more abundant in older ones. The “Elder” entry in Grieve’s Modern Herbal (1931; reprint, Dover, 1992) contains recipes for a rob (a thickened, sweetened juice) and a syrup (both considered medicinal), wines, jellies, a flower vinegar, and chutneys. Fernald and Kinsey’s Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America (1943; reprint, Dover, 1996) offers recipes for a spiced rob, a chutney, and brandied elder-flower fritters.

Growing Elderberry

Blue elder is hardy to Zone 5; common elder, in Zones 5 to 7; and American elder, in Zones 3 to 9. All are easy to grow and prefer moist soil. The cultivars with golden foliage will appreciate a position in partial shade in the South. Prune back gold- or purple-leaved cultivars in late winter to stim­ulate the growth of colorful new shoots. Aphids and spider mites may be a problem, especially in hot weather. Depending on how abundant they are, ­ignore them or spray them with water or insecticidal soap solution.

Seeds germinate most readily if sown in moist sand and held at 68°F for two months, then at 41°F for three to five months longer. Propagate the cultivars from cuttings.


• Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599. (541) 846-7269; fax (541) 846-6963. Catalog $4. Plants of Sambucus caerulea; S. canadensis and S. nigra.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97444. Phone/fax (541) 846-7357. Catalog $1. Plants of S. canadensis.
• Heronswood Nursery Ltd, 7530 NE 288th St., Kingston, WA 98346-9502. (360) 297-4174; fax (360) 297-8321. Catalog $5. Numerous cultivars of S. canadensis and S. nigra.

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