Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Common Elderberry

Today's subject is more of a shrub than a wildflower - but it is a flowering plant, nonetheless!

This shrub is in full bloom right now in the mid-South, with large conspicuous panicles of white, lacy blooms, sometimes towering 13 feet high.

Common Elderberry is pretty familiar to most people, at least by name.

It can be found growing across nearly the entire country and throughout much of Canada. Elderberry prefers moist, humus-rich soil, and is commonly encountered along roadsides, forest edges and wet, brushy fields.

It can form impressive thickets whenever conditions are favorable.

Common Elderberry growing rampant in an empty lot at the edge of town.
Their leaves are opposite and compound with 7 sharply serrated leaflets that have a glossy appearance.

They can have multiple stems; their bark having a bumpy, corky texture. The stem centers are spongy with a white pith.

The white, flat-topped flower cymes can spread 8 inches across, and have a subtle, bittersweet fragrance.

Its most renowned feature, of course, is its fruit: large clusters of black or purple berries hang heavy on the plant come late summer and early fall.

There are at least 30 species of Elder found worldwide.

The name Elderberry has ancient origins, steeped in mystical European folklore.

It is thought to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon word "Aeld," meaning "fire."

Its Latin name is Sambucus canadensis. Sambucus originated from the Greek word "sambuke," which was a musical instrument believed to heal the spirit. While Elderberry wood was used to make instruments in Europe, it was never actually used to make a sambuke.

Elder has been called by many other names in its ancient past: Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree and Holunder (German); all of which refer to the plant goddess Hylde Moer, that had strong associations with Elder.

The plant was considered sacred to her, and it was thought that dryads took up residence within it. Elderberry was often planted around homes as a blessing and for protection from evil spirits. Prayers and offerings were made to the plants, in honor of the goddess and the dryads that served her. It was considered a grave sin to cut down an Elderberry tree or burn its wood. It was thought that the dryads would hunt down and exact vengeance on those that committed these offenses. This taboo persisted well into the last century.

The only acceptable reason to cut down an Elder Tree was for use as medicine or protective charms. Even then, the harvester had to recite a special prayer to ask permission, if they wished to avoid negative consequences.

Once Christianity became widespread in Europe, this sort of worship was discouraged, and the original meanings became distorted into dark magic and witchcraft. The Biblical association with Elder was sorrowful. It was believed that Judas hung himself on an Elder Tree after betraying Jesus. According to lore, this is why Elder has a bent growth habit, seemingly barely able to hold up its own weight.

Elder continued to be a source of spiritual protection during the Middle Ages, for those who still practiced the old religion. Pinning the leaves on their doors was believed to keep away demons and evil spirits. Interestingly, this belief was widespread throughout the whole of Europe. Russia, Sicily and Scotland all had similar beliefs regarding the protective qualities of Elder.

Around this time, the older religious beliefs began to merge with Christianity, evolving into even more beliefs about the magic of Elder Trees. Rituals involving floating the cut stems in water were supposed to reveal witches and sorcerers - but only on Christmas Eve. Other elaborate Elder Tree rituals associated with Christian holidays could do everything from repel snakes, give you the strength of 40 men, heal a toothache or keep worms out of furniture.

Elder groves were also believed to attract elves and fairies, and if you were to hide in an Elder grove during the Summer Solstice you could be rewarded by a spectacle of these supernatural beings.

Falling asleep under an Elder plant was said to induce a heavy slumber with vivid dreams (the fragrance is in fact, a mild sedative).

The flowers of most Elder species are edible, especially those of the Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).

The flower heads are delicious dipped in pancake batter and fried into a fritter. They can also be sauteed as a vegetable.

The blooms can be steeped into a pleasant tea or brewed in vinegar and wine, adding a unique flavor and fragrance.

Most people, however, are more familiar with Elderberry's fruit. To harvest the berries, it is faster to remove the entire stem, rather than try to remove the berries one by one.

CAUTION: The unripe fruit and any other part of the plant except for the flowers are toxic. Even the ripe fruit can cause vomiting in sensitive individuals, so use caution.

The fruit can be consumed raw or cooked, and prepared in a variety of ways. They can be baked into cakes, breads, muffins and of course, pies.

Elderberries can also be transformed into jams, jellies, sauces, syrup and wine.

How to Make Elderberry Syrups and Jellies with Fresh or Dried Elderberries

Elderberry fruit isn't very sweet, so be sure to sweeten as necessary.

They are packed full of nutrition: extremely high in vitamin C, potassium and beta carotene, as well as phosphorus and calcium.

There are Elderberry species that are not considered safe to eat. Avoid those that have red fruit that grows in a rounded cluster.

Hercules' Club (Aralia spinosa), also known as Devil's Walking Stick, is a toxic plant that is similar in appearance to Common Elderberry, but can be distinguished by its unbranched, thorny trunk.

Hercules' Club fruit

The history of medicinal uses for Elder is just as colorful and diverse as its folklore.

There have been so many medical and practical applications for Elder throughout the millennia that a 230 page book was published in the Middle Ages dedicated to all the uses for the Eldertree, from "toothache to the plague."

Hippocrates even mentioned the healing properties of this plant as early as 400 B.C.

A tea brewed from the inner bark and root bark was used as a powerful diuretic, emetic and laxative.

The same tea was also used stimulate labor and soothe headaches.

An ancient and popular remedy for rheumatism was to wear an Elder twig as an amulet, held close to the skin.

The inner bark pounded into a poultice was applied for the treatment of cuts, bruises, and inflamed joints to reduce pain and swelling.

Elder flowers also have a number of medicinal applications.

They act as a stimulant, and when brewed into a tea, act as a diuretic and diaphoretic. A flower tea was also used to treat infant colic and soothe children's upset stomachs.

A flower infusion or tincture was used as an expectorant and can be useful in the treatment of colds, flu and asthma. An infusion also has astringent and antiseptic properties, good for treating numerous skin ailments.

The fruit has many of the same medicinal properties as the flowers, helpful in the treatment of colds, sore throats and as an expectorant. When the berries are brewed into wine, it is said that their anti-arthritic properties are extracted and help alleviate rheumatic pain.

The Cherokee people made a salve from Elderberry for burns and skin eruptions, and apply leaves to sores to help stave off infection. They would also drink a berry tea to treat arthritis.

Modern herbalists use Elderberry and many of the same ways. Do not attempt to self-medicate using wild plants without the guidance of a professional herbalist.

Besides food and medicine, Elder has had many other uses.

Elderflower Water, distilled from the blooms, was highly prized during the Victorian era as a nourishing and firming tonic for the skin.

If you boil the flowers in vinegar, it creates a black hair dye.

Back in the 1800's, elderberries were used to color cheap port wine. (Supposedly, this is how it was discovered that Elderberry Wine was good for treating arthritic pain.)

Dried, crumbled Elderberry leaves can be used as a natural insecticide. The dried flowering shoots are also said to repel rodents. Boiling the leaves in water produces a strong tea that can be used as a natural pesticide and fungicide for garden plants.

Its usefulness doesn't stop there, either!

It provides a wealth of food and habitat for wildlife. Pollinators of all kinds visit the flowers for their nectar.

A bee fly enjoying Elder flowers
More than 4 dozen bird species consume the fruit, and they are especially enjoyed by bears.

And last but not least, one humble but beautiful little creature is wholly dependent on Elderberry for its entire life cycle:

It is a beetle named, not surprisingly, the Elderberry Borer (Desmocerus palliatus).

One would expect, give its name, that it is a pest for Sambucus, but that is not the case.

As soon as a female Elderberry Borer emerges from her pupal den, she "calls" to the males by emitting pheromones.  After mating, she lays her eggs at the base of the Elderberry plant. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae bore their way into the the roots and stems to feed. Whenever they are ready to pupate, they migrate to the soft pith of the plant and create their pupal cell, emerging as adult beetles the following spring.

As adults they feed on Elderberry pollen, and do not cause any significant damage to the plants with their life cycle.

If you spend time around Elderberries in bloom, you may be gifted with the sight of this magnificent little beetle.

The old Elder Tree has been a faithful companion to mankind for as long as history has been recorded. Consider planting one in your own yard. Even if you don't find a use for it, the wildlife will.

And if you happen to fall asleep underneath it on a mid-summer's eve, be sure to let us know if you see any fairies.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's Wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Common Milkweed

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Plants for a Future

Sacred Earth - Ethnobotany and Ecotravel

Eat The Weeds

MObugs Blogspot

Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places - "Wildman" Steve Brill

Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart

Cherokee Plants and their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B.  Hamel & Mary U. Chiltoskey


  1. What a useful and interesting shrub! I know a lot of people that drink tea like to get dried elderberries for a natural sweetener. :)

  2. Beautiful photos! Thanks for linking up at the Weekend Blog Hop at My Flagstaff Home!


  3. Love this post on elderberries, very informative. I never knew you could eat the flowers. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop! I hope you’ll join us again next week!

    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  4. Lots of interesting information about uses. We have elderberries wild in our backcountry and cultivated versions in town. - Margy