Sambucus nigra (elder)
The elder, although a much-appreciated source of food and medicine, was once reviled as the tree from which Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself. However, since elder is not native to the Palestine region, this story is probably untrue.
Fruits of Sambucus nigra (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)
Sambucus nigra L.
elder, Judas tree, pipe tree, bourtree, black elder
Elder is not threatened.
Woodlands and hedgerows.
Food and drink, medicinal, insect repellent.
About this species
Elder is a short-lived, sometimes scruffy-looking shrub which can be found growing in woodlands, hedgerows and scrub, on waste ground and railway embankments, and in graveyards. It has been revered for centuries for a wide range of medicinal and perceived magical properties. It has a wide range of culinary uses, and the flat-topped heads of white flowers have a delicate beauty when adorning countryside hedgerows.
Elderflowers and elderberries are widely used in herbal medicine. An infusion or tea made with the flowers is taken to soothe, reduce inflammation or as a diuretic. Preparations containing elderflower are effective in treating sinusitis, and standardised preparations containing extracts or juice of elderberries have been shown to reduce the duration of flu symptoms. The flowers and berries are taken for various other ailments including coughs, colds and constipation. Elderberry is used as an immune booster, perhaps supported by the presence of anthocyanidins in the berries (chemical compounds that are known to have immunostimulant effects). Elderflower is also used against diabetes: research has shown that extracts of elderflower stimulate glucose metabolism and the secretion of insulin, lowering blood sugar levels.
Geography and distribution
Sambucus nigra is widespread in Europe and western Asia, and also occurs in North Africa. Elder is commonly found growing in woodlands and hedgerows.
Elder is a shrub or smallish tree with flat-topped clusters of tiny, white, scented flowers. After flowering, the dark purple fruits (berries) hang in large clusters. The leaves are made up of five or seven serrated leaflets, and have a distinctive smell. The clusters of white flowers are pollinated by insects, especially hoverflies. Sambucus nigra flowers in May to July and produces fruits between September and October.
Threats and conservation
Elder is widespread and not threatened. It grows readily and quickly in a wide range of habitats both in rural and urban areas, where its flowers attract insects and its berries provide an important food source for birds such as blackbirds and thrushes.
In the UK the best-known use of elder is in cordials, wines and teas produced from the fruits and berries. These have become increasingly popular in recent years, to the extent that orchards of elder have been planted specifically for this purpose. It is also used in various other food products such as elderberry jam, elderflower fritters and other baked goods.
The flowers and berries are best eaten cooked, as they have an unpleasant taste when raw and contain low concentrations of toxic chemicals (unknown and cyanogenic glycosides) that are destroyed by cooking.
Elder has been used traditionally for various other purposes including perfumery and dyes. The twigs are hollow and filled with pith that can be pushed out to make small pipes and in the past were also sometimes used to make musical instruments. They are still sometimes used by children as pea-shooters. The leaves may be used as an insect repellent.
Elder is often planted in mixed hedges to provide informal screens. As an ornamental, it is grown for its foliage, flowers and fruit. Numerous cultivars exist, ranging from those with white-variegated or golden foliage (such as ‘Albopunctata’ and ‘Aurea’, respectively) to those with more finely dissected foliage (e.g. ‘Laciniata’). There are also double-flowered, pink-flowered and pendulous forms.
The flowers and fruits of Sambucus nigra contain a mildly poisonous alkaloid that is destroyed by cooking; the leaves are also poisonous. Elderflowers and elderberries occasionally cause allergic reactions. Herbal remedies containing elder should be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women as there is insufficient information regarding their safety. Also, elder is not a good tree to climb, the wood being rather weak!
Britain's wild harvest
Kew’s Sustainable Uses of Plants Group undertook a survey of commercial uses of wild and traditionally managed plants in England and Scotland for the Countryside Agency, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage to determine the economic role of wild plants and to assist in their sustainable use. Although (as noted in the Uses section) plantations of elder have been established, the survey revealed that elderflower is still gathered from the wild in large quantities for the production of cordial and wine. For example, one drinks company employs some 600 people in May and June to collect elderflowers from hedgerows – an indication of the importance of elder to the rural economy and to the food and drink industry.
Kew is collaborating with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Chelsea Physic Garden, Neal’s Yard, the Eden Project and the Natural History Museum in a project called Ethnomedica (or 'Remembered Remedies') to collect and preserve the wealth of knowledge about local uses of plants as medicines in the UK.
Collection of data began in 2003 and so far about 5,000 remedies have been gathered and entered into a database, preserving knowledge that may have otherwise been lost. Among the 'Top 10' remedies emerging from the project is the use of elder for treating coughs and colds.
The project is not just preserving knowledge purely for its historical interest, but also for its practical value. Documenting the actual and potential medical values of plants through the Ethnomedica project can indicate possible lines of scientific research, for example to identify active compounds present in plants – research that is currently underway in the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew. Who knows which new medicine of the future might owe its origin to the remedies of the past?
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox - the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB.
Germination testing: Unsuccessful
Composition values: Oil content 26.9%, Protein 12.3%
This species will grow well in most soil types, and seeds itself readily.
At Kew, cuttings are taken from selected cultivars. Unfortunately many of the cultivars at Kew are old plants from which it is harder to strike cuttings. Success rates are typically around 50%, and would be much higher from younger plants. The first cuttings from the old plants are grown on and then the resulting new plants used to provide semi-ripe cuttings in the summer. These are more successful. These cuttings are placed in the sand bed in the Arboretum Nursery. They quickly form a callus, making roots by the following summer. After the cuttings have produced roots they are planted into the nursery field area, where they are grown for two more years before being planted out into their final positions in the gardens.
Propagation can also be carried out by collection of the seed in early autumn. This should either be sown in pots kept outside, or given cold stratification and grown on in a cool greenhouse.
Young growth of the species can be subject to aphid attack in some years.
Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011
In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society.
The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives – without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe.
Sambucus nigra was one of the species that featured in the garden, which was awarded a Silver Medal.
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Dauncey, E.A. (2010). Poisonous Plants: A Guide For Parents and Childcare Providers. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.
Davidson, A. (2006). The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Vol. 4 (R to Z): 188-189. Macmillan Press Ltd., London.
Jellin, J.M., Gregory, P.J., et al. (2008). Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. 10th Ed. Therapeutic Research Faculty, Stockton.
Milliken, W. & Bridgewater, S. (2004). Flora Celtica: people and plants in Scotland. Birlinn, Edinburgh.
Williamson, E.M. (2003). Potter's Herbal Cyclopaedia. C.W.Daniel, Saffron Walden.
Kew Science Editor: William Milliken
Kew contributors: Sustainable Uses Group, HPE, Millennium Seed Bank
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell
While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.