Elder (Sambucus nigra)

by Daphne Lambert

Since ancient times the elder tree's ability to recover when damaged has made it a symbol of regeneration. It supports the body in healing sadness, grief and depression and helps release our hold on the past preparing us for change. It's truly a tree for our times.


The elder is more of a bush than a tree. In early Summer it is awash with thousands of tiny white flowers, followed in Autumn by drooping bunches of purple-black berries. It grows in abundance all over the British countryside. More than any other tree the elder has always been considered sacred and magic. Legend has it that the elder tree is the home of the elder mother and embodied in the tree is a powerful female energy of great wisdom. There are very strong superstitions about cutting the elder tree down, traditionally permission should be sought first and not until consent has been given from the elder mother, by remaining silent, may the tree be cut down.


For thousands of years all parts of the tree have been used medicinally, the benefits are so varied and valuable that the elder has been called 'the medicine chest' tree.


A soothing and protective ointment is made from the green inner bark of the elder branches and is useful for skin conditions such as eczema. A homoeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of the younger branches which acts especially on the respiratory system. Warm green leaves laid on the temples can be used to relieve nervous headaches and they are a useful first aid for cuts, bruises, sprains and swollen joints.


A hot infusion of elder flowers is a wonderful remedy to take at the first sign of colds and flu.


Elder flowers stimulate the circulation and cause sweating, helping to bring down fevers and cleanse the system. This soothing drink is a useful remedy for hay-fever, sinusitis, and catarrh. Elder flower water is a traditional remedy for skin blemishes and sunburn.


Gathering armfuls of fragrant flowers is part of the magic of Summer. Pick the creamy blossom heads on a sunny day. Dry some by spreading thinly in an airy room until dry and crumbly. Rub and shake to separate the flowers from the stalks, then store the petals in an airtight dark jar and use to make infusions. Turn the rest into delicious drinks and puddings.


When you harvest the blossoms don't pick them all or there will not be any berries in the Autumn. Elder berries are rich in anti oxidant vitamins A & C, iron and potassium and make a potent syrup for coughs. They make rich pickles, preserves, cordials and wine and of course they are important food for birds.