Sambucus nigra / Elder / Trom
Elderberry is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 6 m (20 ft) tall and wide. The bark, light grey when young, changes to a coarse grey outer bark with lengthwise furrowing, lenticels prominent. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, 10–30 cm long, pinnate with five to seven leaflets, the leaflets 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm broad, with a serrated margin. The young stems are hollow. The hermaphroditic flowers have five stamens, which are borne in large, flat corymbs 10–25 cm diameter in late spring to mid-summer, the individual flowers are ivory white, 5–6 mm diameter, with five petals; they are pollinated by flies.
The fruit is a glossy, dark purple to black berry 3–5 mm diameter, produced in drooping clusters in late autumn; they are an important food for many fruit-eating birds. The berries and flowers very much look like they are being offered out to the world.
Location & Cultivation
Native to Europe. Grows abundantly in woods, hedges, ditches and wasteland. Now grows in most temperate regions. Often cultivated. Propagated from cuttings in spring. Self propagates from seed. Rich folklore attached which is discussed in more detail below. This plant perfectly illustrates how nature provides the medicine that we need in through the seasons – elderflowers appear during the hay fever season and the berries appear at the beginning of autumn when we often need a boost to the immune system.
Buds in spring, flowering tops – late spring, early summer. Berries in autumn. Leave until ripe, but get there before the birds. Bark in early spring from two year old twigs
Myth & Folklore
There is a huge amount of myth and folklore surrounding this tree. It is said that the Little Elder Mother dwells in the tree, the Queen of the Underworld – like the hawthorn, the elder is thought to be a portal into a parallel realm to the earthly plane.
It is a tree of respect, boundaries and consent – much like the hawthorn and rowan trees. Strong ties to faery folklore (the most auspicious time for close contact of a faery is under an elder bush on midsummer’s eve).
Pan Pipes – The God Pan – the wood offers itself as instrument – pipes, didgeridoos, flutes. The magic of life which bursts out in honest music.
There are many warnings around the tree cursing people which probably have their roots in the crusades against the magical arts and natural medicine. A part of this warning relates itself to the persistent myth that Christ was crucified on the wood of the elder, and that Judas hung himself from it’s branches. I have not found the Elder tree to insist on permission like a school teacher, but it certainly is a plant which commands respect and encourages good boundaries when working with it.
Native American people placed offerings under the tree when picking from them for use.
Jakub Saray has made didgeridoos from the tree and shares videos of their music on Youtube.
Taste / Energetics
Definitely drying, slightly sweet.
Sometimes described as warming and sometimes as cooling.
Nikki Darrel suggests the flowers as cooling and the fruit as warming, some bitterness and sourness, a description I agree with. I find the flowers very slightly sweet as well.
Buds are expectorant, diaphoretic and purgative in large dose.
Flowers: Flavonoids-rutin, phenolic acids, triterpenes and triterpene acids, sterols, essential oil, mucilage, tannins, minerals especially high levels of potassium
Berries: Flavonoids, Anthocyanins, vitamins A and C, sambunigrin (cyanogenic glycoside), sambucine (alkaloid), organic acids and vitamins
Leaves Bark and Buds: Sambunigrin and sambucine. Bark also contains saponins.
Flowers: Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, mild nervine, bronchodilator, expectorant, immune-modulant, decongestant, febrifuge, relaxant, astringent
Berries: Laxative, nutritive, immune stimulant/immune modulant; at least as effective as Echinacea for colds and flus, alterative, expectorant, anti viral, antioxidant, antiinflammatory
Traditional & Current Uses
- Tones lining of upper respiratory tract by reducing oedema, increasing resistance to infection.
- Can be used as a gargle for pharyngitis, a mouthwash for sore gums or ulcers and an eyewash for conjunctivitis and sore, tired eyes.
- Chronic catarrh, postnasal drip, allergic shiners under the eyes and also has a reputation for use in sleep apnoea
- Ear infections
- Hay fever
- It’s decongestant and relaxant effects indicate it for bronchial congestion, asthma and tight coughs.
- A hot infusion of the flowers is excellent at the onset of colds, flu, fever, tonsillitis and laryngitis
- Colds, flus and respiratory infections: Inhibitory to Influenza A and B, Herpes and may be helpful in HIV. Demonstrated in the effectiveness of the commercial preparation ‘’Sambucol’’ in its ability to increase cytokine production. Useful as a prophylactic and as a treatment. Though this is in fact more a modulatory action as opposed to a stimulant one – link to a more detailed analysis of this by Paul Bergner: https://c1c17220-5aa6-46c5-a11f-1b9d7595d5fa.filesusr.com/ugd/ee530d_7e9336fad1014196be4c39e3c4e30418.pdfC
- Ear infections
Digestion / Genitourinary
- Antimicrobial and useful in treating candida.
- Heartburn, indigestion, gastritis, diarrhoea, colic and wind.
- Arthritis and gout can be treated by promoting diuresis and sweating
- Enhance kidney function, relieve fluid retention which help to eliminate toxins and heat (again a useful action for fever)
- Nourishing the gut with fruit acids, proanthocyanidins and bioflavonoids. Also antimicrobial.
- Mild laxative which is often used in the form of syrups for children., but can also be used to treat diarrhoea, presumably because the anthocyanins are anti-inflammatory for the bowel wall. Probably has benefits for the eyes similar to bilberry due to the high levels of anthocyanins
- Useful for a swollen spleen (Wood)
- Good for anxiety in the evening. This nervine aspect of the medicine seeps into everything, as a relaxed nervous system is less likely to participate in an auto-immune response. Great anxiolytic for children as it’s gentle taste is palatable and can encourage good rest when an infection is beginning to creep in.
- Adaptogenic and increase resilience to stress
- Diaphoretic action brings blood to the surface, diffusing heat from the core
- Cold infusion for night sweats (Bartram)
- Reduces LDL cholesterol and helps prevent atherosclerosis (again also in part due to the presence of proanthocyanidins)
- A hydrosol from the flowers is called Eau de Sureau in France and is considered an excellent aftershave skin tonic – also useful for chilblains, wounds, bruises, swollen joints, skin eruptions, sunburn, piles, itchy conditions and as an insect repellant.
- Collagen stabilizing action which can help to heal connective tissue and reduce swelling in varicose veins, hemorrhoids, sprains and arthritis.
- Wood calls it the ‘great infant remedy’ – useful for blue and pale swelling as well as red, dry irritated skin of the cheeks.
- Children with marbled skin and respiratory problems, skin problems or eczema.
- Conditions of stagnant fluids and blood, or where the skin is dry, harsh and red.
- Useful for children who are strong and sanguine, seemingly hyperactive and experiencing difficult in social situations. (Wood).
- Good for skin issues involving edema and weeping wounds (weeping eczema, indolent ulcers)
- Leaves: Insect repellent. Purgative and emetic in large doses. Used externally to treat bruises, chilblains and strain. The leaves were infused in linseed to make Oleum viride.
- Bark: A warming liver stimulant which can be purgative and emetic in large doses and is also diuretic. It has been used for arthritis and for stubborn constipation, as well as oedema (Culpepper mentions Dr. Butler as ‘’…commend[ing] Elder to the sky for dropsies’’.
- Took a while to introduce itself, or rather for me to come to a place in myself in which I am ready to work with Elder at a deep level. I can feel the association with Pan, the wild call of nature which always has space for ways of being which are not permitted by mainstream culture – the whispers away from the pantheon to the cliffside cave. Something very alluring about the Elder tree, it’s beautiful fragrant blossoms are for me a doorway into summer. I have yet to do much work with the flowers but intend to do more this year. The berries I have done one proper harvest and made a lovely tincture with cloves thrown in – using this alongside good diet and exercise I avoided three waves of sickness coming through the house of 5 people. Very powerful protective action but its bond comes with a deep respect – the folklore surrounding the tree and of asking permission before harvesting from it did not come from nowhere. My sense of it is that when we work with Elder, we are literally warding off infections and dark spirits, and that one of the exchanges the tree asks for upon granting these gifts is that we deepen our understanding of nature and to protect the non-human life forms as they are also a part of our family, they are in the web just as we are. I was holding a Plant ID and medicine making workshop, the trail of which began with a lovely Elder tree in the hedgerow. This was the tree that I asked permission from to do the walk as it really felt like a kind of spokesbeing for the locale – it asked simply that I tell no lie and that I open myself to the messages the plants would like to bring through on this walk, and upon asking for an offering I reached into my pocket and pulled out a coin (as I was also asking the Elder if I could make money from taking people into this area, from talking about these plants, it was fitting), and on the back of the coin was a plant – an odd coincidence. It granted me permission and the area has become special to me for lots of reasons now, I feel like I am one of its caretakers.
- I would love to make a didgeridoo from the wood.
- It’s ability to protect against and to assist in clearing infection is clear – I have been repeatedly told by those who have used its syrups, teas and tinctures in both flower and berry form that the remedies have worked very well. Note that some herbalists believe that it will be tolerated by people here far better than Echinacea as it is a native plant.