Herb: Elderberry


Latin name: Sambucus nigra


Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family)



Medicinal use of Elderberry:

Elder has a very long history of household use as a medicinal herb and is also much used by herbalists. The plant has been called "the medicine chest of country people". The flowers are the main part used in modern herbalism, though all parts of the plant have been used at times. Stimulant. The inner bark is collected from young trees in the autumn and is best sun-dried. It is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark. The leaves can be used both fresh or dry. For drying, they are harvested in periods of fine weather during June and July. The leaves are purgative, but are more nauseous than the bark. They are also diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic. The juice is said to be a good treatment for inflamed eyes. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains, chilblains, wounds etc. The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of "Elder Flower Water". The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactogogue and pectoral. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation. Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds, scalds etc. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit. The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds. The root is no longer used in herbal medicine but it formerly had a high reputation as an emetic and purgative that was very effective against dropsy. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of young branches. It relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children.

Description of the plant:



Plant:
Deciduous
Shrub

Height:
6 m
(20 feet)

Flovering:
June
to July


Scent:
Scented
Shrub

Habitat of the herb:

Hedgerows, scrub, woods, roadsides, waste places etc, especially on disturbed base-rich and nitrogen rich soils.

Edible parts of Elderberry:

Fruit - raw or cooked. The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to many tastes, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies and so forth. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys etc, it is also often used to make wine. The fruit is about 8mm in diameter and is borne in large clusters. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Flowers - raw or cooked. They can also be dried for later use. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy, they have an aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack on a summers day, though look out for the insects. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam). They are often used to make a sparkling wine. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers. The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats.

Other uses of the herb:

The plant is a valuable addition to the compost heap, its flowers are an alternative ingredient of "QR" herbal compost activator and the roots of the plant improve fermentation of the compost heap when growing nearby. The leaves are used as an insect repellent, very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance. They can be powdered and placed amongst plants to act as a deterrent, or made into a spray when they act as an insecticide. This is prepared by boiling 3 - 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew.The dried flowering shoots are used to repel insects, rodents etc. The flowers are used in skin lotions, oils and ointments. Tolerant of salt-laden gales, this species can be grown as a shelter hedge in exposed maritime areas, it is rather bare in the winter though. This is an excellent pioneer species to use when re-establishing woodlands. It is very tough and wind-resistant, grows quickly and provides shelter for longer-lived and taller woodland species to establish. It will generally maintain itself in the developing woodland, though usually in the sunnier positions. A dye is obtained from the fruit and the bark. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant. The berries yield various shades of blue and purple dyes. They have also been used as a hair dye, turning the hair black. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus to test if something is acid or alkaline. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution. The pith in the stems of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been used as pipes for blowing air into a fire. They can also be made into musical instruments. The pith of the wood is used for making microscope slides and also for treating burns and scalds. The mature wood is white and fine-grained. It is easily cut and polishes well. Valued highly by carpenters, it has many used, for making skewers, mathematical instruments, toys etc.

Propagation of Elderberry:

Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame, when it should germinate in early spring. Stored seed can be sown in the spring in a cold frame but will probably germinate better if it is given 2 months warm followed by 2 months cold stratification first. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. If good growth is made, the young plants can be placed in their permanent positions during the early summer. Otherwise, either put them in a sheltered nursery bed, or keep them in their pots in a sheltered position and plant them out in spring of the following year. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 7 - 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame. Cuttings of mature wood of the current season's growth, 15 - 20cm with a heel, late autumn in a frame or a sheltered outdoor bed. Division of suckers in the dormant season.

Cultivation of the herb:

Hedgerows, scrub, woods, roadsides, waste places etc, especially on disturbed base-rich and nitrogen rich soils.

Known hazards of Sambucus nigra:

The leaves and stems are poisonous. The fruit of many species (although no records have been seen for this species) has been known to cause stomach upsets to some people. Any toxin the fruit might contain is liable to be of very low toxicity and is destroyed when the fruit is cooked.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.