Elder – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

Elder is a valuable wild edible tree or shrub. Its berries have a cornucopia of uses.

Scientific Name

Sambucus nigra

Family

Adoxaceae

Botanical Description

A small tree or shrub growing up to 10 m. The bark is brownish grey, deeply furrowed and gnarled in appearance. The leaves are long, oval and slightly serrated. Elderflowers appear as clusters of small white blossoms. The fruits are purplish black.

Status

Deciduous tree. Native.

Habitat and Distribution

Elder is found in deciduous woodland, downs, hedgerows, river banks, roadsides, scrub, wasteland.

Parts Used for Food

Fruit and flowers.

Harvest Time

Flowering around spring to early summer, and fruits around midsummer to autumn.

Food Uses of Elder

Elderberries can be made into jams, jellies, preserves, pies, soups, sauces, chutneys, juices and wine. In fact, this list is not exhaustive. Elderflowers can be steeped to make a flower vinegar. The blossoms are also often used to flavour fizzy drinks and sparkling wines, or to make elderflower tea.

Nutritional Profile of Elder

Elderberries are very high in vitamin C.

Elder Recipes

Herbal Medicine Uses of Elder

Elderberry syrup or sweets treats sore throats, coughs and colds. An infusion of elderflowers an also be drunk to relieve hay fever or stress.

Other Uses

Elderflowers are commonly used today by the cosmetic industry in skin and eye ointments, lip balms, sun lotions and fragranced hair, shower and hair products.

Safety Note

Despite its long, widespread use in human culture and its continued use in the food, cosmetic and herbal medicine industries today, several authorities suggest that further investigation of the safety aspect of using Elder as a culinary or medicinal herb is required. Check first with a healthcare professional before using homemade Elder products, and, as a precaution, avoid during pregnancy or when breastfeeding.

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Illustrations

Elder Sambucus nigra
Sturm, J. (1904)
Elder Sambucus nigra
Köhler, F.E. (1887)

References

Barnes, J. et al. (2013) Herbal medicines. 4. rev. ed. London: Pharmaceutical Press.

Cleene, M. de & Lejeune, M. C. (2002) Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe. Ghent: Man & Culture.

Paine, A. (2006) The healing power of Celtic plants: their history, their use, and the scientific evidence that they work. Winchester: O Books.

Lim, T. K. (2012) Edible medicinal and non-medicinal plants: volume 1, fruits. Dordrecht: Springer.

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