Elder: A Superb Winter Friend

This Herbal Monograph Was Originally Published In    Natural Herbal Living Magazine * , January 2014

This Herbal Monograph Was Originally Published In

Natural Herbal Living Magazine*, January 2014

Common Name: Elder

Latin Name: Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis, S. carulea

Family:  Caprifoliacea

ACTIONS:  antiviral, febrifuge, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, astringent, expectorant, carminative, calmative, antirheumatic, anticatarrhal, tonic, vulnerary, digestive, diuretic, emollient, galactagogue, hydragogue, relaxant nervine, purgative, restorative/rejuvenative, stimulant, laxative, cathartic, and emetic.

Elder is an incredibly useful plant with a long history of use.  Having a vast multitude of actions, elder is useful for a wide array of ailments.  Perhaps elder is best known for it’s ability to treat colds and flus.  Elder flowers and berries are the mostly widely known and indeed are the safest parts of the elder plant.


When confronted with infections of the respiratory tract, we can look to elder to ease congestion, infection and fever.  At the first sign of infection a hot cup of elder flower or elderberry tea before bed will help fight infection by bringing on a sweat.  It helps to relax the pores and thereby release toxins through the skin while also easing a restless body into a healing sleep.  Herbalist Feather Jones explains “this plant acts as a fever reducer by both resetting the fever control mechanism within the brain and by stimulating sweating.  With equal parts of peppermint and yarrow, this remedy has been used since olden times”1  In fact a simple cup of hot elder flower or berry tea is gentle enough to use for soothing an anxious child to sleep at the onset of illness.  

Elder’s decongestant and anticatarrhal actions helps to move congestion out of the body while also drying up excess phlegm.  The flowers have an astringent action which tones tissues and also reduce phlegm.  Because elder is an antispasmodic it is used to clear bronchial congestion from infections and asthma by clearing phlegm while simultaneously relaxing spasms.  Elder is an alterative that “improves the secretions involved with many bodily functions2 while increasing excretion and elimination of metabolic wastes.”3  This further benefits the body in clearing infection and providing relief of symptoms.  

Elder positively influences both the digestive process as well as the nervous system and therefore provides supportive healing on multiple levels which benefits the body as a preventative and during illness.  We all know that illness can bring about digestive disturbance as well as nervous tension.  Elder is there to help.  As a mild laxative and carminative elder eases the digestive process, relieving constipation and gas.  And elder is a relaxant nervine that helps to soothe anxiety and depressing while relaxing the body.  Drink a cup of elder flower to lift the spirits, ease tension, and induce sleep, the perfect nightcap!  

Elder’s alterative, decongestant, and diuretic properties support the kidney’s in eliminating toxins, excess fluid and heat which aids the body in reducing inflammation as well as easing rheumatism and gout.  

Topically elder is a vulnerary and emollient that benefits the skin by soothing inflammation, promoting wound healing and treating burns.  Add to ointments, salves and washes to harness it’s healing effects.  Elder also helps in cases of dermatitis caused by poison ivy or oak.  A tea made from the flowers can be used as a soothing mouth wash for inflammation or as an eyewash in cases of conjunctivitis.  Generations ago Elderflower Water was commonly used by women as a toiletry to lighten and soften the skin, reduce freckles and alleviate sunburn.4  

Elderberries are high in vitamin C, calcium, potassium, beta-carotene and phosphorus making them a nutritional food!  Both elder flowers and berries make tasty additions to many different foods such as cakes, muffins, jams and more.  The flowers and berries can also be used to create tasty wines and cordials.  

Buy beautiful, excellent quality elderberries & elder flowers at  Mountain Rose Herbs*!

(affliate link)

Beautiful Creamy White Elder Flowers In Bloom

Beautiful Creamy White Elder Flowers In Bloom


Elder fights viruses and is an excellent herb that has been used for thousands of years for preventing and fighting the flu and colds.  It’s antiviral properties provide specific action against the flu.  In fact in the early 1990’s Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a virologist at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, administered a standardized elderberry extract she had created based on years of prior research to patients who were suffering from the flu during an epidemic.  She found that patients receiving elderberry had relief within three days while others were sick for up to week before they started to feel better.  Dr. Mumcuoglu’s formula is now sold worldwide as Sambucol.  

Our ancestors knew of elderberry’s ability to combat the flu long before Dr. Mumcuoglu did her research.  Hot elderberry wine used to be sold on the streets of London for folks to take on the way home from a cold, damp day to enliven the spirit and boost the immune system.5  Tea made from elder flower or elderberry and sipped as hot as possible before bed is a remedy with a long history of use for specifically treating early onset of flu.  It brings the healing sweat and restorative sleep mentioned earlier which is so helpful at the beginning of an illness.  You can easily make your own elderberry syrup to help prevent and combat the flu.  Plus it is extremely tasty which makes it very easy to administer to children.  My kids and I make elderberry syrup every year!

Elderberry Syrup Recipes & Actitivties:

Elderberry Syrup Brewing

Elderberry Syrup Brewing

LEAF & BARK           

Elder leaves and bark make very strong medicine and are generally not recommended for internal use unless guided by an experienced practitioner.  Both have toxic compounds which can cause harm if used incorrectly.  The leaves and bark of elder have been used to provide strong relief from constipation.  The inner bark stimulates vomiting.  

Externally the leaves are used as an emollient and vulnerary as a remedy for bruises, strains, wounds, hemorrhoids, burns, tumors, hives and eczema.  


Elder flower and berry is generally considered to be safe for use.  However there are a few precautions to take into consideration.  Elder trees with red berries (Sambucus pubens) are considered toxic and should not be consumed.  If you are wildcrafting be sure of the species you are harvesting.  Heed the saying “blue is true and red is dead.”  The leaves, bark and root are safest for external use and should not be used internally except under the guidance of an experienced herbalist.  The seeds can cause digestive irritation in certain individuals and removing them when consuming the berry makes the berries safer.  Brigitte Mars tells us that elderberry “may be inappropriate [in cases of] migraine headache accompanied by weakness and deficiency.”6  Because elder is drying, is it best not to use it in cases of dryness.  Only use ripe berries as the unripe fruit along with the leaves, bark and roots may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and numbness.  

1 Feather Jones, Medicinal Herb Handbook pg. 7

2 Brigitte Mars, Elder pg. 18

3 Ed Smith, Therapeutic Herb Manual pg. 31

4 Mrs. M. Grieves, A Modern Herbal pg. 272

5 Brigitte Mars, Elder pg. 5

6 Brigitte Mars, Elder pg. 79



  • Grieve, Mrs. M., A Modern Herbal, Random House, 1973

  • Hoffman, David, The Complete Illustrated Herbal, Element Books, 1996

  • Jones, Feather, Medicinal Herb Handbook, Six Directions Publishing Cooperative, 1994

  • Mars, Brigitte, Elder, Keats Publishing, 1997

  • McIntyre, Anne, Flower Power, Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1996

  • Smith, Ed, Therapeutic Herb Manual, Ed Smith, 1999

  • Tilgner, Sharol, N.D., Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth, Wise Acres Press, Inc., 1999


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