Black elder

Black Elder

Black Elder, Sambucus nigra, or European elder, is the Sambucus species most often used medicinally. It is native to Europe and eastern USA and often used to shorten the duration of colds and flu.


Adoxaceae (formerly part of Caprifoliaceae family)


European elder, elderberry, European elderberry, European black elderberry, Holunder (German), Holder (German), Holler (German)


Flowers and berries


Native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia, black elder is naturalized in North America and parts of Australia.


Black elder is a very robust and hardy deciduous shrub or small tree.

Height: 3-8 meters (10-26 feet)
Width: 3-5 meters (10-16 feet)
Flowers: yellowish white, perfumed and arranged in clusters
Leaves: green, pinnate (one leaf is divided into leaflets)
Fruits: black with a dark violet, sweet-sourish juice that stains readily
Blooms: late May through June


Black Elder does well in sandy soils that are rich in nitrogen as well as in slightly acidic, loamy soils. It is often found in woods, copses, hedges and gardens.

Hardiness: USDA Zone 5
Propagation: Seed
Germination: 10-20 days. Soak seeds for 2 months at 15 to 18 C (60-65 F)
Spacing: 3 m (10 feet)
Soil: sandy or loamy, moist, well-drained, deep and rich in nitrogen
pH: slightly acidic
Exposure: full sun, partial shade or shade
Garden Design: Hedges, as backing for other plants, central focus


The black elder blesses us with two rich harvests per year. From the end of May to June (in some places in July), it blooms heavily, filling the air with a characteristic scent. In late Summer (late August, early September), it blesses us with its highly nutritious violet-black berries.

Cut off the umbel-like stems with the creamy white flowers in the morning. I lay them on newspaper to give the small insects a chance to escape before I use the flowers.

Harvest the berries only when fully ripe. Avoid unripe berries as they contain a lot of the poisonous cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin. Ripe berries have less sambunigrin. Fortunately, this poisonous glycoside is easily destroyed by heat. So, always cook your berries to break down the sambunigrin!


Flowers: Hang the whole corymb to dry in a shady and well-ventilated area. Put some paper towels underneath to collect the valuable pollen. You can also use a dehydrator to dry them. After the flowers are dried, cut off the stems and store the dried flowers in a dark, air-tight jar.

Berries: You can dry your berries to use later. Lay them on a cookie sheet and dry them in the oven at 100 Celsius (212 F). This way the poisonous cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin is destroyed allowing you to use the berries for tea as well.


Flowers: mucilage, tannins, 4-9% potassium salt, 0.03-0.14% essential oil (66% palmitic acid, monoterpenes such as hotrieno and linalool oxide), 0.7-3.5% flavonoids (isoquercitroside, flavonols, glycosides, up to 2.5% rutin, isoquercitrin, hyperoside, quercitrin, astragalin), 5.1% hydroxycinnamic acid derivatives (2.5-3% chlorogenic acid, p-coumaric acid, caffeic acid, ferulic acid, ß-glucose ester), traces of sambunigrin, triterpene alcohols, triterpene acids (0.085% ursolic and oleanolic acids), 0.11% sterols.

Berries: Flavonoid glycosides (rutin, isoquercitrin, hyperoside), anthocyan glycosides (sambucin, sambucyanin, chrysanthemin), essential oils. 7.5% sugars (glucose, fructose), fruit acids (citric and malic acids), vitamin B2, vitamin C and folic acid. The seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides (sambunigrin, prunasin, zierin and holocalin).


Flowers: Relaxing diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, nervine,
Berries: Diaphoretic, diuretic, purgative in large doses, immunostimulant, immunoprotective, antioxidant, laxative


Bitter, drying, cool


Flowers: Sweet
Berries: Sour


Black elder flowers are a relaxing diaphoretic commonly used to speed up recovery from colds and flu. A very hot tea of the flowers soothes peripheral tension and promotes sweat which helps remove waste products from the body. A foot bath supports the peripheral blood circulation which will, in turn, promote respiratory function.

The abundant flavonoids in black elder flowers are a topic anti-inflammatory and also increase the body’s resistance to infection and allergies. A tincture helps to reduce hay fever symptoms if taken some months before the onset of hay fever season.

The elderberries also have diaphoretic properties and stimulate the immune system. They are often used for colds, flu, sore throat and asthma. They can be used as a purgative and mild laxative. The juice and tea can soothe neuralgia and rheumatism.

Flowers used internally:

  • for feverish colds with phlegm
  • for sinus infections
  • for severe bronchial and lung conditions
  • to promote sweating and stimulate circulation (drink as hot as possible, otherwise it will work as a diuretic)
  • to strengthen the linings of the nose and throat
  • to loose up thick phlegm
  • to speed up recovery from colds and flu
  • as inhalation for sinus infections

Berries used internally:

  • for feverish colds with phlegm
  • for sore throat, asthma, colds and flu
  • for neuralgia and rheumatism
  • to promote sweating
  • to stimulate the immune system
  • to speed up recovery from colds and flu
  • as a mild laxative

Recommended daily dosage:

Flowers: 10-15g (dried)

Fruit: 20ml juice



  • infusion
  • syrups
  • preparation of gargles
  • baths, especially foot baths
  • lemonade
  • inhalation
  • tincture


  • syrup
  • jams and jellies
  • decoction
  • juice
  • tea

None. The raw elderberries contain a cyanogenic glycoside called sambunigrin which is slightly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately, heat breaks down sambunigrin. So only use cooked or dried (100C/212F) Elder berries.




Black elder flowers and berries are also used in cookery. Use the flowers to make delicious lemonade, jelly, fritters and patties. The berries can be turned to juice, syrup, jam, jelly, chutney.

Black elderberries

Bühring, U. 2015. Alles über Heilpflanzen. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: Ulmer.
Wichtl M. 2004. Herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals – A handbook for practice on a scientific basis. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: medpharm Scientific Publishers

Learn how to grow a gorgeous medicinal and culinary garden with Giovanna Becker

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