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Sambucus nigra - L.

Common Name Elderberry - European Elder, Black elderberry, American black elderberry, Blue elderberry, Europea
Family Caprifoliaceae
USDA hardiness 5-10
Known Hazards The leaves and stems are poisonous[9, 76]. The fruit of many species (although no records have been seen for this species) has been known to cause stomach upsets to some people. Any toxin the fruit might contain is liable to be of very low toxicity and is destroyed when the fruit is cooked[65, 76].
Habitats Hedgerows, scrub, woods, roadsides, waste places etc, especially on disturbed base-rich and nitrogen rich soils[9, 17].
Range Europe, including Britain, from Scandanavia south and east to N. Africa and W. Asia.
Edibility Rating    (4 of 5)
Other Uses    (5 of 5)
Weed Potential No
Medicinal Rating    (3 of 5)
Care (info)
Fully Hardy Moist Soil Semi-shade Full sun
Sambucus nigra Elderberry - European Elder, Black elderberry,  American black elderberry,  Blue elderberry, Europea

Sambucus nigra Elderberry - European Elder, Black elderberry,  American black elderberry,  Blue elderberry, Europea


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Elderberry is native to most of Europe and North America. It has excellent edible, medicinal and other uses. The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to all tastes, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies etc. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys etc., and is used to make wine. The fruit is about 8mm in diameter and is borne in large clusters in late summer to early autumn. Flowers can be eaten raw, cooked or dried for later use. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy. They have an aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack on a summers day, though one must look out for insects. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam). They are often used to make a sparkling wine. Sweet tea is made from the dried flowers. The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats. Bloom Color: White. Main Bloom Time: Early summer. Form: Rounded.

Physical Characteristics

 icon of manicon of shrub
Sambucus nigra is a deciduous Shrub growing to 6 m (19ft) by 6 m (19ft) at a fast rate.
See above for USDA hardiness. It is hardy to UK zone 5 and is not frost tender. It is in leaf from March to November, in flower from June to July, and the seeds ripen from August to September. The species is hermaphrodite (has both male and female organs) and is pollinated by Flies.
It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and can grow in heavy clay soil. Suitable pH: mildly acid, neutral and basic (mildly alkaline) soils and can grow in very alkaline soils.
It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil. The plant can tolerate maritime exposure.
It can tolerate atmospheric pollution.

UK Hardiness Map US Hardiness Map


Sambucus graveolens. Sambucus peruviana

Plant Habitats

Woodland Garden Sunny Edge; Dappled Shade; Shady Edge; Hedge;

Edible Uses

Edible Parts: Flowers  Fruit
Edible Uses: Colouring  Tea

Fruit - raw or cooked[2, 3, 5, 46, 61]. The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to many tastes, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies and so forth[K]. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter[12, 183, 238]. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys etc, it is also often used to make wine[13, 183]. The fruit is about 8mm in diameter and is borne in large clusters[200]. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Flowers - raw or cooked[2, 5, 12, 53]. They can also be dried for later use[21]. The flowers are crisp and somewhat juicy, they have an aromatic smell and flavour and are delicious raw as a refreshing snack on a summers day, though look out for the insects[K]. The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam)[238]. They are often used to make a sparkling wine[183]. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers[21, 183]. The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats[183].

References   More on Edible Uses

Medicinal Uses

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Antiinflammatory  Aperient  Diaphoretic  Diuretic  Emetic  Emollient  Expectorant  Galactogogue  
Haemostatic  Laxative  Ophthalmic  Purgative  Salve  Stimulant

Elder has a very long history of household use as a medicinal herb and is also much used by herbalists[4]. The plant has been called 'the medicine chest of country people'[4]. The flowers are the main part used in modern herbalism, though all parts of the plant have been used at times[238]. Stimulant[9, 53, 165]. The inner bark is collected from young trees in the autumn and is best sun-dried[4]. It is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic[4, 7]. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions[238]. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark[4]. The leaves can be used both fresh or dry. For drying, they are harvested in periods of fine weather during June and July. The leaves are purgative, but are more nauseous than the bark[4]. They are also diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic[4, 7]. The juice is said to be a good treatment for inflamed eyes[4]. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains, chilblains, wounds etc[4]. The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of 'Elder Flower Water'. The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season[4]. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions[4]. The dried flowers are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, galactogogue and pectoral[4, 7]. An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes[4]. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser[4]. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation[4]. Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds, scalds etc[4]. The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative[4, 7]. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea[4]. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit[4]. The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds[46, 61, 100]. The root is no longer used in herbal medicine but it formerly had a high reputation as an emetic and purgative that was very effective against dropsy[4]. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of young branches[4]. It relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children[4]. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Sambucus nigra for cough and bronchitis, fevers and colds (see [302] for critics of commission E).

References   More on Medicinal Uses

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Other Uses

Compost  Cosmetic  Dye  Fungicide  Hedge  Hedge  Insecticide  Litmus  Microscope  Musical  Pioneer  Pipes  Repellent  Wood

The plant is a valuable addition to the compost heap[14, 18], its flowers are an alternative ingredient of 'QR' herbal compost activator[32] and the roots of the plant improve fermentation of the compost heap when growing nearby[18]. The leaves are used as an insect repellent[4, 6, 14, 66], very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance[K]. They can be powdered and placed amongst plants to act as a deterrent[14], or made into a spray when they act as an insecticide[7]. This is prepared by boiling 3 - 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying[201]. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew[201].The dried flowering shoots are used to repel insects, rodents etc[101]. The flowers are used in skin lotions, oils and ointments[238]. Tolerant of salt-laden gales, this species can be grown as a shelter hedge in exposed maritime areas[29, 75], it is rather bare in the winter though[K]. This is an excellent pioneer species to use when re-establishing woodlands. It is very tough and wind-resistant, grows quickly and provides shelter for longer-lived and taller woodland species to establish. It will generally maintain itself in the developing woodland, though usually in the sunnier positions[K]. A dye is obtained from the fruit and the bark[13, 15]. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black[4]. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant[4]. The berries yield various shades of blue and purple dyes[4]. They have also been used as a hair dye, turning the hair black[4]. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus to test if something is acid or alkaline. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution[4]. The pith in the stems of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been used as pipes for blowing air into a fire[4]. They can also be made into musical instruments[4]. The pith of the wood is used for making microscope slides and also for treating burns and scalds[46, 61, 100]. The mature wood is white and fine-grained. It is easily cut and polishes well[4]. Valued highly by carpenters, it has many used, for making skewers, mathematical instruments, toys etc[4, 13, 100, 244]. A good forage for animals: mule deer, elk, sheep and small birds. It is classified as nesting habitat for many birds, including hummingbirds, warblers, and vireos. Elderberries are a favorite food for migrating band-tailed pigeons in northern California.

Special Uses

Attracts Wildlife  Carbon Farming  Food Forest  Hedge  Hedge  Scented Plants

References   More on Other Uses

Cultivation details

Industrial Crop: Dye  Industrial Crop: Medicinal  Management: Standard  Minor Global Crop

Landscape Uses:Border, Container, Massing, Pollard, Standard, Seashore, Specimen. A very easily grown plant, it tolerates most soils and situations[11, 28, 98], growing well on chalk[28, 98, 186], but prefers a moist loamy soil[200]. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Tolerates some shade but fruits better in a sunny position[37, 200]. Tolerates atmospheric pollution and coastal situations[200]. Another report says that it is intolerant of very smoky atmospheres[186]. The elder is very occasionally cultivated for its edible fruit, there are some named varieties though most of these have been developed for their ornamental value[182]. The sub-species S. nigra alba has white/green fruits that are nicer than the type species and are quite nice raw[K]. The elder also has a very long history of folk use, both medicinally and for a wide range of other uses. All in all it is a very valuable plant to have in the garden. The leaves often begin to open as early as January and are fully open in April[186]. The leaves fall in October/November in exposed sites, later in sheltered positions[186]. Young stems can be killed by late frosts but they are soon replaced from the ground level[186]. Very tolerant of pruning, plants can be cut back to ground level and will regrow from the base[186]. The flowers have a sweet, almost overpowering smell, not exactly pleasant when inhaled near to for it has fishy undertones, but from a distance its musky scent is appealing[245]. Very resistant to the predations of rabbits[17, 186]. The flowers are very attractive to insects[186]. The fruit is very attractive to birds[186] and this can draw them away from other cultivated fruits[14, 186]. The elder is an early colonizer of derelict land, the seed arriving in the defecations of birds and mammals[186]. It is a very good pioneer species for re-establishing woodlands. Plants in this genus are notably resistant to honey fungus[200]. Special Features:Attractive foliage, Not North American native, Attractive flowers or blooms. In garden design, as well as the above-ground architecture of a plant, root structure considerations help in choosing plants that work together for their optimal soil requirements including nutrients and water. The root pattern is suckering with new plants from underground runners away from the plant [2-1].

Carbon Farming

  • Industrial Crop: Dye  Botanical dyes replacing synthetic dyes (known as heavy polluters).
  • Industrial Crop: Medicinal  Most pharmaceuticals are synthesized from petroleum but 25% of modern medicines are based on plants.
  • Management: Standard  Plants grow to their standard height. Harvest fruit, seeds, or other products. Non-Destructive management systems.
  • Minor Global Crop  These crops are already grown or traded around the world, but on a smaller scale than the global perennial staple and industrial crops, The annual value of a minor global crop is under $1 billion US. Examples include shea, carob, Brazil nuts and fibers such as ramie and sisal.

References   Carbon Farming Information and Carbon Sequestration Information

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Plant Propagation

Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a cold frame, when it should germinate in early spring. Stored seed can be sown in the spring in a cold frame but will probably germinate better if it is given 2 months warm followed by 2 months cold stratification first[78, 98, 113]. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. If good growth is made, the young plants can be placed in their permanent positions during the early summer. Otherwise, either put them in a sheltered nursery bed, or keep them in their pots in a sheltered position and plant them out in spring of the following year. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 7 - 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame[78]. Cuttings of mature wood of the current season's growth, 15 - 20cm with a heel, late autumn in a frame or a sheltered outdoor bed[78]. Division of suckers in the dormant season.

Other Names

If available other names are mentioned here

European Elder, Black elderberry, American black elderberry, Blue elderberry, European black elderberry

Weed Potential

Right plant wrong place. We are currently updating this section. Please note that a plant may be invasive in one area but may not in your area so it’s worth checking.

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status :

Related Plants
Latin NameCommon NameHabitHeightHardinessGrowthSoilShadeMoistureEdibleMedicinalOther
Sambucus australasicaYellow ElderberryShrub6.0 9-10  LMHSNM202
Sambucus caeruleaBlue ElderShrub3.0 4-8 MLMHSNDM423
Sambucus chinensisChinese ElderPerennial1.5 7-10  LMHSNM211
Sambucus ebulusDwarf Elder, Dwarf elderberryPerennial1.2 4-8 FLMHSNM123
Sambucus gaudichaudianaWhite ElderberryShrub3.0 -  LMHSNM20 
Sambucus javanicaChinese ElderShrub0.0 -  LMHSNM12 
Sambucus latipinna Shrub0.0 -  LMHSNM10 
Sambucus melanocarpaBlack Elder, Rocky Mountain elderShrub4.0 5-9  LMHSNM22 
Sambucus mexicanaMexican ElderShrub1.0 3-9  LMHSNM212
Sambucus microbotrysRed ElderShrub2.0 5-9  LMHSNM10 
Sambucus nigra spp canadensisAmerican ElderShrub4.0 3-9 FLMHSNM433
Sambucus pubensAmerican Red ElderShrub4.0 4-8  LMHSNM311
Sambucus racemosaRed Elder, Red elderberry, Rocky Mountain elder, European Red ElderberryShrub3.0 3-7 MLMHSNM322
Sambucus racemosa kamtschaticaRed ElderShrub3.0 4-8  LMHSNM322
Sambucus racemosa sieboldiana Shrub4.0 0-0 MLMHSNM102
Sambucus racemosa var. racemosaRed Coast ElderShrub3.0 5-9  LMHSNM322
Sambucus wightianaElderPerennial1.0 -  LMHSNM02 
Sambucus williamsii Shrub0.0 -  LMHSNM121

Growth: S = slow M = medium F = fast. Soil: L = light (sandy) M = medium H = heavy (clay). pH: A = acid N = neutral B = basic (alkaline). Shade: F = full shade S = semi-shade N = no shade. Moisture: D = dry M = Moist We = wet Wa = water.


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Botanical References


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Readers comment

[email protected]   Tue Mar 14 2006

Where can you buy dried Sambucus berries for human consumption?

Bruno Cardoso   Sun Jul 23 2006

In Portugal. If you want to buy Sambucus with quality you can contact us by email: [email protected]

   Sun Oct 29 2006

You can have fresh flowers or berries during the season in Poland in the wild. You can pick them up and dry the flowers, the fruit or make preserves or syrup yourself. Andrzej L. Skup'

Bruno Cardoso   Fri Nov 3 2006


Marie   Wed Feb 28 2007

I would like to purchase leaves only.

Wild Pantry wild foods and medicinal plants

Alan Bull   Fri Feb 23 2007

I live in Worcester and someone, who I suspect is on the make, calls and wants to have a go at 2 elderberry bushes I have. One is about 3 feet away from the house and the other about 1-2 feet away. He says they will damage the house foundations. They have been there since before I bought the house in 1983 and there seems no obvious difficulty. I should be grateful if anyone can comment. Many thanks

   Tue Jul 24 2007

i've been making elderberry wine for years now; I absolutely love it. i use a native north american species here in california.

Christine   Fri Feb 22 2008

I use the juice from the wild bushes growing in my garden as a performant and non-toxic anti-tussive for my young children under 6 years old. My Father (75 years old) also often uses it.

Daniel Levanon, POh.D.   Sun Mar 30 2008

In reply to Alan Bull Fri Feb 23 2007 (above): That's pure nonsense. This man should present written evidence to his claim about the (precariously) harmful effects of Sambucus' roots to the house foundations. He'll find none. There are no such evidence in the professional literature.

   May 1 2012 12:00AM

I have just purchased a Sambucus nigra 'Variegata' for my garden. I doesn't get as tall as other varieties; 6-15 feet. The variegation is a beautiful bright green with cream around the edges of the leaves.

   Sep 11 2017 12:00AM

I have not had any success growing european elderberry, but can easily grow American Elderberry. I live in Ohio and have continually researched as to what the problem could be. I have found two studies that mention that there has been little success growning european elderberry in the midwest USA and in one study, the stated results where similar to mine. However, there was no indicaton as to why they do poorly in the midwest. Temperatue or climate in not very likely thie answer. Is anyone aware of a deficiency or perhaps something in the soil that causes the problem?

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