Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)

Elderberries come from the European Elder which is a deciduous broadleaf shrub or tree from the Honeysuckle or Caprifoliaceae family. Elder has many commons names including Battery, Black Elder, Black Elderberry, Boontree, Boortree, Bour Tree, Borewood, Dog Tree, Elder, Elderberry, Ellern, European Elderberry, Fairy Tree and Troman. It is native to the British Isles and Western Europe. It has also been introduced to many other parts of the world including East Asia, North America, New Zealand and the southern part of Australia.

An image of a bunch of elderberries (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)

Elder is an extremely useful tree and has historically been used for all sorts of things from herbal home remedies to wood for pipes. It is also associated with a great deal of myth and magic, being seen as a force of good and bearing protective properties.

Elderflowers blossom during July and the ripe black berries can be found in the British Isles from August to October. Leaves begin to fall from October onwards.

Growing methods

Elderberry seeds are usually distributed in the wild by birds and animals. However, they can also be grown at home. Sow fresh ripe seed outside in situ or in pots in the autumn. Leave pots outside during the winter to allow the seed to be subjected to the cold. Seeds will then germinate in the spring. Young shrubs can be planted out into their final positions in the summer.

Suckers can be dug up from around mature shrubs or trees in the winter months and replanted. Heel cuttings can be taken either of half ripe wood in the summer or ripe wood in the autumn.

An image of elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) in a hedgerow in Scotland
Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) in a hedgerow in Scotland

Elder trees can also be purchased online from various nurseries in the UK and USA.

If you need to carry out any sort of pruning do so when the plants are dormant during the winter months. They can be pruned quite hard without any undue damage.

Other uses

Elder has a long history of use in herbal medicine and is particularly popular in remedies for colds and flu. Historically all parts of the tree have been used for medicine particularly the flowers but also including the inner bark, the leaves and root.

Elder has many many other uses. A pioneer species, the shrub can be planted as a shelter belt and will grow in exposed and maritime areas. It is also very resistant to pollution. Dyes can be obtained from the fruit, bark and leaves. The wood itself has been used to make household items such as pegs and skewers as well as musical instruments. The branches have a pithy interior which can be hollowed out and made into a variety of useful implements including whistles and pipes.

An image of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) leaf and berries
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) leaf and berries

Raw edible parts

The frothy crunchy clusters of pale yellow flowers are edible raw and have a very delicate flavour. They are popularly used to make tea, cordial or champagne. They look particularly good decorating raw cakes and fruit salads. The flowers dry very well and can be stored in an airtight container for later use. The black fruit is edible raw but can be very tart. Ensure that the berries are very ripe before eating. To avoid an upset stomach it is probably wise not to eat more than a handful raw in one sitting or until your body gets used to them.


Elder does contain cyanide producing glycosides, the most common of which is sambunigrin. These glycosides are present in varying amounts depending upon physiological and ecological factors. Cyanogenic glycosides are released once the plant material has been eaten and digested.

The flowers are generally safe to eat raw. The ripe black berries are also generally considered safe to eat raw. However, it is important to ensure the berries are a ripe deep black colour. Do not imbibe any green or partially green berries. All other parts of the tree are considered too toxic to eat raw or at all.

Plants containing cyanogenic glycosides can be freed from toxins (or made less toxic) by macerating and dehydrating or by cooking e.g. boiling or baking. 

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