Origins and health benefits of the elder tree

“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberry!” Was the French soldier’s famous taunt in Monty Python and the Holy Grail meant as a slur on Englishness? Elderberry wine does seem such an English thing. It’s even said that the English summer starts when the elder flowers and finishes when the elderberries ripen.

Actually, a number of elder species grow all over Europe, the US, Asia, Australasia and parts of South America, but the European Sambucus nigra and the north American S. canadensis are the species whose flowers and berries are commonly used for drinks, cordials, wines and condiments as well as medicinal purposes.

Making elderflower cordial was an English summer tradition in homes across the country, one that’s being revived by “homesteaders” and others. It was not produced commercially until the 1980s. It’s not just the English who like elderflower and elderberry drinks, though. They have a long history in most of Europe, including Scandinavia, and are popular in the US, Australia and New Zealand, though mainly sold in healthfood shops in Australasia.

Both the flowers and the berries have long been enjoyed for their flavour and medicinal properties. The white blossoms impart a lovely floral aroma and flavour to anything they are used in, including sparkling non-alcoholic drinks, teas, cordial, alcoholic ciders, liqueurs and elderflower “champagne”, all of which you can buy or make yourself (Google for dozens of recipes and methods).

The cordial, in turn, can be added to cocktails and normal champagne, drizzled over vanilla ice-cream, stirred through yoghurt and added to mineral water with a squeeze of lemon or lime — nothing says summer quite like it. You can also eat the flowers fried in batter and use the cooked berries for pies and jam (all right, wine, too).


The elder tree was traditionally planted around dairies because it was thought to prevent the milk from turning. It was believed in medieval times that the most likely time to encounter fairies was on Midsummer’s Eve under an elder tree, where it was said that the Fairy King and Queen and their retinue might be seen passing by.

It was also believed that chopping down an elder tree could release a spirit called the Elder Mother, who would take her revenge unless you had asked her permission first and chanted her song. Elder was the wood of choice for making wands and also flutes that were used to summon spirits.

During the pagan festival of Beltane, the Celts wore garlands of elderflowers and tied bunches of leaves and twigs to doors and windows for protection from witches. Every house on the Isle of Man has an elder tree to banish witches and similarly, in Russia, elder trees were thought to ward off evil spirits. Other beliefs, however, held that witches congregated under elder trees, so it was a no-no to sleep under one.

Health benefits

The jury’s still out on keeping witches and evil spirits at bay but elder’s reputation for warding off colds and flus is legendary. One of nature’s strongest antivirals and rich in vitamin C, elder has been called “the medicine chest of the people”. Medieval herbalist John Evelyn described it as “a kind of Catholicon against all Infirmities whatever”.

Renowned British herbalist Maude Grieve wrote in the 1930s in her book A Modern Herbal that an elderflower infusion was a “good old-fashioned remedy for colds and throat trouble”. In addition, she stated, “Elderberry wine has a curative power in the early stages of severe catarrh, accompanied by shivering, sore throat etc. Like elderflower tea, it is one of the best preventatives known against the advance of influenza and the ill-effects of a chill … It has a reputation as an excellent remedy for asthma.”

According to the Natural Standard, historically the flowers and leaves have been used for pain relief, swelling/inflammation, diuresis and as an expectorant. The leaves have been used externally for sitz baths. The aged bark has been used as a diuretic, laxative or emetic. The ancient Egyptians used elder flowers to improve the complexion and heal burns. These days, the German Commission E approves the flowers for colds, though not the bark, leaves or berries.

The flowers have diaphoretic properties (ability to produce perspiration) and have been used to treat kidney ailments because of their diuretic properties. Though scientific evidence is lacking, elder has a reputation for being effective for headaches, arthritis and other rheumatic conditions as well as the common cold, sore throat and fevers.

If you want therapeutic doses of elder’s active ingredients, there are commercially made concentrations. As with any natural/herbal medicine, however, it’s important to seek the advice of a Health practitioner because there are contraindications and parts of the plant that may be toxic.

As for the drinks we can buy in the healthfood shop, they also tend to have some sort of sweetener, usually sugar, meaning that trying to get a therapeutic dose from them would involve a very unhealthy dose of sugar.

Still, if you are going to indulge in a sweet(ish), summery drink, isn’t it better to have one derived from “nature’s medicine chest”? They won’t make you smell, by the way.

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne loves good food and is the managing editor of WellBeing.

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