Respect the Elder

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by Jemma


Elder, or Sambucus nigra, if found in woodlands and hedgerows throughout Europe, western Asia and North America. It is a short-lived shrub that can reach up to 6-9 metres tall. The plant has dark green, serrated leaves that possess a distinctive smell and flat-topped yellow-white flowers. These flowers bloom in May-July and are pollinated by insects, especially hoverflies. Following pollination, Sambucus nigra produces dark purple fruit that grow between September-October. These elderberries are mildly poisonous and grow in large clusters that often weigh down the branches of the plant.

Elderberries Image taken from
Image taken from
Sambucus nigra shrub Image taken from
Sambucus nigra shrub
Image taken from

Medicinal uses

For a long time Sambucus nigra has been used for a wide range of medicinal applications. It has been mentioned as far back as the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of medical works from Ancient Greece) and Pliny (23-79 ACE), who both suggest the use of elderberry as a laxative and diuretic.

Materia Medica jar containing Elderflowers
Materia Medica jar containing Elderflowers

The flowers and fruit are still used in herbal medicine today for a wide range of remedies. They are used as a diuretic, to reduce inflammation, and to treat coughs and constipation. Sambucus nigra is also a popular flavouring agent used in laxatives.


Studies have shown that elderberries can be used to boost the immune system. This effect has been suggested to be caused by the high levels of anthocyanidins, which are chemical compounds that are known to stimulate the immune system, found in the berries. Other studies have suggested that the plant is effective against diabetes. Extracts from elderflower has been shown to stimulate the breakdown of glucose and increase secretion of insulin, both of which lower blood sugar levels.


Culinary uses

Sambucus nigra has a wide range of culinary uses, despite being toxic in its raw form. The plant contains low concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides, which are toxic, but these are destroyed by heat. Thus the elder is safe to consume after cooking. One of the primary uses of elder is the production of an anise-flavoured Italian liqueur, called Sambuca, which is made from the plants berries. Elder is also involved in the production of cordials, wines and teas. In addition, it is used to make various other products such as jams, jellies, chutneys, elderflower fritters and other baked goods.

Herbarium sheet displaying  Sambucus nigra
Herbarium sheet displaying Sambucus nigra

Other uses and interesting facts

Elder has been found in prehistoric archaeological sites across Europe. The stems were used by the ancient Greeks to make musical instruments called sambuke, whilst Native Americans used them for whistles and to make arrows. Traditionally, elder has also been included in the production of perfumes and dyes. The leaves are often used as a natural insect repellent. For a long time it was believed to be the tree from which Judas supposedly hanged himself in the Bible. However, this is unlikely since Sambucus nigra is not native to the Palestine region.

Sambuca instrument (aka sambuke) Image taken from
Sambuca instrument (aka sambuke)
Image taken from