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Elder is a short-lived, sometimes scruffy-looking shrub which can be found growing in woodlands, hedgerows and scrub, on waste ground and railway embankments, and in graveyards. It has been revered for centuries for a wide range of medicinal and perceived magical properties. It has a wide range of culinary uses, and the flat-topped heads of white flowers have a delicate beauty when adorning countryside hedgerows.

[KSP]

Kew Species Profiles

General Description

The elder, although a much-appreciated source of food and medicine, was once reviled as the tree from which Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself. However, since elder is not native to the Palestine region, this story is probably untrue.

Elder is a short-lived, sometimes scruffy-looking shrub which can be found growing in woodlands, hedgerows and scrub, on waste ground and railway embankments, and in graveyards. It has been revered for centuries for a wide range of medicinal and perceived magical properties. It has a wide range of culinary uses, and the flat-topped heads of white flowers have a delicate beauty when adorning countryside hedgerows.

Elderflowers and elderberries are widely used in herbal medicine. An infusion or tea made with the flowers is taken to soothe, reduce inflammation or as a diuretic. Preparations containing elderflower are effective in treating sinusitis, and standardised preparations containing extracts or juice of elderberries have been shown to reduce the duration of flu symptoms. The flowers and berries are taken for various other ailments including coughs, colds and constipation. Elderberry is used as an immune booster, perhaps supported by the presence of anthocyanidins in the berries (chemical compounds that are known to have immunostimulant effects). Elderflower is also used against diabetes: research has shown that extracts of elderflower stimulate glucose metabolism and the secretion of insulin, lowering blood sugar levels.

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

Sambucus nigra is widespread in Europe and western Asia, and also occurs in North Africa. Elder is commonly found growing in woodlands and hedgerows.

Description

Elder is a shrub or smallish tree with flat-topped clusters of tiny, white, scented flowers. After flowering, the dark purple fruits (berries) hang in large clusters. The leaves are made up of five or seven serrated leaflets, and have a distinctive smell. The clusters of white flowers are pollinated by insects, especially hoverflies. Sambucus nigra flowers in May to July and produces fruits between September and October.

Threats and conservation

Elder is widespread and not threatened. It grows readily and quickly in a wide range of habitats both in rural and urban areas, where its flowers attract insects and its berries provide an important food source for birds such as blackbirds and thrushes.

Uses

In the UK the best-known use of elder is in cordials, wines and teas produced from the fruits and berries. These have become increasingly popular in recent years, to the extent that orchards of elder have been planted specifically for this purpose. It is also used in various other food products such as elderberry jam, elderflower fritters and other baked goods.

The flowers and berries are best eaten cooked, as they have an unpleasant taste when raw and contain low concentrations of toxic chemicals (unknown and cyanogenic glycosides) that are destroyed by cooking.

Elder has been used traditionally for various other purposes including perfumery and dyes. The twigs are hollow and filled with pith that can be pushed out to make small pipes and in the past were also sometimes used to make musical instruments. They are still sometimes used by children as pea-shooters. The leaves may be used as an insect repellent.

Elder is often planted in mixed hedges to provide informal screens. As an ornamental, it is grown for its foliage, flowers and fruit. Numerous cultivars exist, ranging from those with white-variegated or golden foliage (such as 'Albopunctata' and 'Aurea', respectively) to those with more finely dissected foliage (e.g. 'Laciniata'). There are also double-flowered, pink-flowered and pendulous forms.

Known hazards

The flowers and fruits of Sambucus nigra contain a mildly poisonous alkaloid that is destroyed by cooking; the leaves are also poisonous. Elderflowers and elderberries occasionally cause allergic reactions. Herbal remedies containing elder should be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women as there is insufficient information regarding their safety. Also, elder is not a good tree to climb, the wood being rather weak!

Britain's wild harvest

Kew's Sustainable Uses of Plants Group undertook a survey of commercial uses of wild and traditionally managed plants in England and Scotland for the Countryside Agency, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage to determine the economic role of wild plants and to assist in their sustainable use. Although (as noted in the Uses section) plantations of elder have been established, the survey revealed that elderflower is still gathered from the wild in large quantities for the production of cordial and wine. For example, one drinks company employs some 600 people in May and June to collect elderflowers from hedgerows - an indication of the importance of elder to the rural economy and to the food and drink industry.

Remembered Remedies

Kew is collaborating with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Chelsea Physic Garden, Neal's Yard, the Eden Project and the Natural History Museum in a project called Ethnomedica (or 'Remembered Remedies') to collect and preserve the wealth of knowledge about local uses of plants as medicines in the UK.

Collection of data began in 2003 and so far about 5,000 remedies have been gathered and entered into a database, preserving knowledge that may have otherwise been lost. Among the 'Top 10' remedies emerging from the project is the use of elder for treating coughs and colds.

The project is not just preserving knowledge purely for its historical interest, but also for its practical value. Documenting the actual and potential medical values of plants through the Ethnomedica project can indicate possible lines of scientific research, for example to identify active compounds present in plants - research that is currently underway in the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew. Who knows which new medicine of the future might owe its origin to the remedies of the past?

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two

Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox - the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB.

Germination testing: Unsuccessful

Composition values: Oil content 26.9%, Protein 12.3%

Cultivation

This species will grow well in most soil types, and seeds itself readily.

At Kew, cuttings are taken from selected cultivars. Unfortunately many of the cultivars at Kew are old plants from which it is harder to strike cuttings. Success rates are typically around 50%, and would be much higher from younger plants. The first cuttings from the old plants are grown on and then the resulting new plants used to provide semi-ripe cuttings in the summer. These are more successful. These cuttings are placed in the sand bed in the Arboretum Nursery. They quickly form a callus, making roots by the following summer. After the cuttings have produced roots they are planted into the nursery field area, where they are grown for two more years before being planted out into their final positions in the gardens.

Propagation can also be carried out by collection of the seed in early autumn. This should either be sown in pots kept outside, or given cold stratification and grown on in a cool greenhouse.

Young growth of the species can be subject to aphid attack in some years.

Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society. The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives - without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe. Sambucus nigra was one of the species that featured in the garden, which was awarded a Silver Medal.

Ecology
Woodlands and hedgerows.
Conservation
Elder is not threatened.

[UPB]

The Useful Plants of Boyacá project

Morphology General Habit
Shrub.
Ecology
Alt. 700 - 2700 m.
Distribution
Native and cultivated in Colombia.
Vernacular
Khojla.

[CPLC]

Bernal, R., Gradstein, S.R. & Celis, M. (eds.). 2015. Catálogo de plantas y líquenes de Colombia. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá. http://catalogoplantasdecolombia.unal.edu.co

Distribution
Nativa y cultivada en Colombia; Alt. 700 - 2700 m.; Andes, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Valle del Cauca.
Morphology General Habit
Arbusto, arbolito
Conservation
Preocupación Menor

[KSP]
Use
Food and drink, medicinal, insect repellent.

[UPB]
Use Animal Food
Forage for cows (Correa & Bernal 1989). Aerial parts eaten by animals (Correa & Bernal 1989).
Use Materials
Materials (State of the World's Plants 2016).
Use Materials Unspecified Materials Chemicals
Materials (State of the World's Plants 2016).
Use Medicines Infections & Infestations
Leaves and flowers - Used in liquid medicines with lemon juice (Cadena-González 2010). Leaves and flowers - Used in liquid medicines in the treatment of infections (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Inflammation
Infructescences and flowers - Used in liquid medicines as an anti-inflammatory (Lagos-López 2007).
Use Medicines Injuries
Infructescences and flowers - Used in liquid medicines (Lagos-López 2007).
Use Medicines Nutritional Disorders
The shoots are used in liquid medicines to alleviate weakness (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Pain
Used in medicines to alleviate pain (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Respiratory System Disorders
Aerial parts used in cough syrups (Díaz 2003). The shoots are used in liquid medicines in the treatment of respiratory complaints (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Sensory System Disorders
Leaves and flowers - Used in eyebaths in the treatment of eye inflammation (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Skin or Subcutaneous Cellular Tissue Disorders
Used in baths to prevent hair loss (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Unspecified Medicinal Disorders
Medicinal (State of the World's Plants 2016, Instituto Humboldt 2014).

Native to:

Albania, Austria, Azores, Baltic States, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Central European Rus, Corse, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East European Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Krym, Lebanon-Syria, Netherlands, North Caucasus, Northwest European R, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sardegna, Sicilia, South European Russi, Spain, Switzerland, Transcaucasus, Turkey, Turkey-in-Europe, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Introduced into:

Algeria, Argentina South, Bangladesh, Brazil North, Brazil Northeast, Brazil South, Brazil Southeast, Brazil West-Central, Chile Central, Chile South, Connecticut, Cyprus, East Aegean Is., Falkland Is., Finland, Kriti, Madeira, Mexico Central, Morocco, New South Wales, Norway, Ontario, Pakistan, Pennsylvania, Queensland, South Australia, Sweden, Tasmania, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Victoria, Virginia

English
Elder
Spanish
Sauco, saúco, zahuco, flor de tilo, sauco de Europa, rayán, asauco, sauco blanco.

Sambucus nigra L. appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
Bullock, A.A., United Kingdom 17244.000
25857.000
Cope, T.A. [RBG 390], United Kingdom K000914392
Cope, T.A. [RBG 340], United Kingdom K000914391

First published in Sp. Pl.: 269 (1753)

Accepted by

  • Authier, P. & Covillot, J. (2011). Catalogue actualisé des plantes de l'île de Rhodes (Grèce) Saussurea; Travaux de la Société Botanique de Genève 41: 131-170.
  • Broughton, D.A. & McAdam, J.H. (2002). The non-native vascular flora of the Falkland islands Botanical Journal of Scotland 54: 153-190.
  • Danin, A. & Fragman- Sapir, O. (2019). Flora of Israel Online http://flora.org.il/en/plants/.
  • Dimopoulos, P., Raus, T., Bergmeier, E., Constantinidis, T., Iatrou, G., Kokkini, S., Strid, A., & Tzanoudakis, D. (2013). Vascular plants of Greece. An annotated checklist: 1-372. Botanic gardens and botanical museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin and Hellenic botanical society, Athens.
  • Dobignard, A. & Chatelain, C. (2011). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 2: 1-429. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Litvinskaya, S.A. & Murtazaliev, R.A. (2013). Flora of the Northern Caucasus: An Atlas and Identification Book: 1-688. Fiton XXI.
  • López Patiño, E.J., Szeszko, D.R., Rascala Pérez, J. & Beltrán Retis, A.S. (2012). The flora of the Tenacingo-Malinalco-Zumpahuacán protected natural area, state of Mexico, Mexico Harvard Papers in Botany 17: 65-167.
  • Meikle, R.D. (1977). Flora of Cyprus 1: 1-832. The Bentham-Moxon Trust Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Mohlenbrock, R.H. (2014). Vascular Flora of Illinois. A Field Guide, ed. 4: 1-536. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.
  • Mostaph, M.K. & Uddin, S.B. (2013). Dictionary of plant names of Bangladesh, Vasc. Pl.: 1-434. Janokalyan Prokashani, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
  • Nasir, E. & Ali, S.I. (eds.) (1970-1995). Flora of West Pakistan 1-131.
  • Takhtajan, A.L. (ed.) in Takhtajan, A.L. (ed.) (2012). Konspectus Flora Kavkaza 3(2): 1-623. Editio Universitatis Petropolitanae.
  • Townsend, C.C. & Guest, E. (eds.) (1980). Flora of Iraq 4(1): 1-628. Ministry of Agriculture & Agrarian Reform, Baghdad.
  • Vvedensky, A.I. (ed.) (1961). Flora Uzbekistana 5: 1-667. Izd-va Akademii nauk Uzbekskoi SSR, Tashkent.
  • Wendelbo, P. (1965). Flora Iranica 10: 1-16. Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz.
  • Zuloaga, F.O., Morrone, O. , Belgrano, M.J., Marticorena, C. & Marchesi, E. (eds.) (2008). Catálogo de las Plantas Vasculares del Cono Sur Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 107: 1-3348. Missouri Botanical Garden.

Literature

Kew Species Profiles

  • Atkinson, M.D. & Atkinson, E. (2002). Sambucus nigra L. Journal of Ecology 90: 895-923.
  • Dauncey, E.A. (2010). Poisonous Plants: A Guide For Parents and Childcare Providers. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.
  • Davidson, A. (2006). The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Vol. 4 (R to Z): 188-189. Macmillan Press Ltd., London.
  • Jellin, J.M., Gregory, P.J., et al. (2008). Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. 10th Ed. Therapeutic Research Faculty, Stockton.
  • Milliken, W. & Bridgewater, S. (2004). Flora Celtica: people and plants in Scotland. Birlinn, Edinburgh.
  • Williamson, E.M. (2003). Potter's Herbal Cyclopaedia. C.W.Daniel, Saffron Walden.

Useful Plants of Boyacá Project

  • Bernal, R., Galeano, G., Rodríguez, A., Sarmiento, H. & Gutiérrez, M. (2017). Nombres comunes de las plantas de Colombia. http://www.biovirtual.unal.edu.co/nombrescomunes/
  • Cadena-González, A.L. (2010). Study of knowledge on medicinal plants in Zetaquira and Campo Hermoso municipalities (Departamento de Boyacá, Colombia) using quantitative approaches. Faculty of Life Sciences. University of Copenhagen.
  • Correa Q., J.E. & Bernal H.Y. (1989). Especies vegetales promisorias de los paises del Convenio Andres Bello Tomo I. Secretaría Ejecutiva del Convenio Andres Bello (SECAB). Bogotá, Colombia.
  • Diaz Merchán, J. A. (2017). Caracterización del mercado colombiano de plantas medicinales y aromáticas. Informe técnico. Instituto Alexander von Humboldt- Ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial, Bogotá, Colombia.
  • Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humbodlt (2014). Plantas alimenticias y medicinales nativas de Colombia. 2567 registros, aportados por: Castellanos, C. (Contacto del recurso), Valderrama, N. (Creador del recurso, Autor), Castro, C. (Proveedor de metadatos), Bernal, Y. (Autor), García, N. (Autor). Versión 11.0. http://i2d.humboldt.org.co/ceiba/resource.do?r=ls_colombia_magnoliophyta_2014
  • Kew's Economic Botany collection in The State of the World’s Plants Report–2016. (2016). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew https://stateoftheworldsplants.org/2016/
  • Lagos-López, M. (2007). Estudio etnobotánico de especies vegetales con propiedades medicinales en seis municipios de Boyacá, Colombia. Actualidades Biológicas, 29(86), 87-96.
  • López-Camacho, R. (2008). Productos forestales no maderables, importancia e impacto de su aprovechamiento. Colombia Forestal (11).

Kew Backbone Distributions

  • ( 2021-continuously updated). Natural Resources Conservation Services Plant Database http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/topics.cgi?earl=checklist.html.
  • Authier, P. & Covillot, J. (2011). Catalogue actualisé des plantes de l'île de Rhodes (Grèce) Saussurea; Travaux de la Société Botanique de Genève 41: 131-170.
  • Broughton, D.A. & McAdam, J.H. (2002). The non-native vascular flora of the Falkland islands Botanical Journal of Scotland 54: 153-190.
  • Danin, A. & Fragman- Sapir, O. (2019). Flora of Israel Online http://flora.org.il/en/plants/.
  • Davis, P.H. (ed.) (1972). Flora of Turkey and the East Aegean Islands 4: 1-657. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Dimopoulos, P., Raus, T., Bergmeier, E., Constantinidis, T., Iatrou, G., Kokkini, S., Strid, A., & Tzanoudakis, D. (2013). Vascular plants of Greece. An annotated checklist: 1-372. Botanic gardens and botanical museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin and Hellenic botanical society, Athens.
  • Dobignard, A. & Chatelain, C. (2011). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 2: 1-429. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Forzza, R.C., Zappi, D. & Souza, V.C. (2016-continuously updated). Flora do Brasil 2020 em construção http://reflora.jbrj.gov.br/reflora/listaBrasil/ConsultaPublicaUC/ResultadoDaConsultaNovaConsulta.do.
  • López Patiño, E.J., Szeszko, D.R., Rascala Pérez, J. & Beltrán Retis, A.S. (2012). The flora of the Tenacingo-Malinalco-Zumpahuacán protected natural area, state of Mexico, Mexico Harvard Papers in Botany 17: 65-167.
  • Meikle, R.D. (1977). Flora of Cyprus 1: 1-832. The Bentham-Moxon Trust Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Mostaph, M.K. & Uddin, S.B. (2013). Dictionary of plant names of Bangladesh, Vasc. Pl.: 1-434. Janokalyan Prokashani, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
  • Nasir, E. & Ali, S.I. (eds.) (1970-1995). Flora of West Pakistan 1-131.
  • Takhtajan, A.L. (ed.) in Takhtajan, A.L. (ed.) (2012). Konspectus Flora Kavkaza 3(2): 1-623. Editio Universitatis Petropolitanae.
  • Tutin, T.G. & al. (eds.) (1976). Flora Europaea 4: 1-505. Cambridge University Press.
  • Vvedensky, A.I. (ed.) (1961). Flora Uzbekistana 5: 1-667. Izd-va Akademii nauk Uzbekskoi SSR, Tashkent.
  • Zuloaga, F.O., Morrone, O. , Belgrano, M.J., Marticorena, C. & Marchesi, E. (eds.) (2008). Catálogo de las Plantas Vasculares del Cono Sur Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 107: 1-3348. Missouri Botanical Garden.

Art and Illustrations in Digifolia
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew

Catálogo de Plantas y Líquenes de Colombia
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0

Colombian resources for Plants made Accessible
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Herbarium Catalogue Specimens
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Backbone Distributions
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Science Photographs
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Species Profiles
Kew Species Profiles
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0

Useful Plants of Boyacá Project
ColPlantA database
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/