Herb to Know: Elder

| December/January 1998

  • 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.

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