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Elder (Sambucus nigra) in Aromatherapy

Posted on January 27, 2020 0

By: Sharon Falsetto, BA (Hons), NAHA Certified Professional Aromatherapist®

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is an unusual, or perhaps an uncommon, choice for aromatherapy. After all, elder doesn’t produce an essential oil, the most common type of extract which we use in aromatherapy practice. It is perhaps a plant which we associate more with traditional herbal medicine. In fact, elder has been a part of European folklore for centuries.1

In herbalism, elderberry syrup has always been a popular remedy for use with colds and flu during the colder months, and elder tea is a welcome drink for sniffles and aches. But although elder is a time-honored herbal remedy, it can be adapted for today’s aromatherapy practice in other ways, beyond that of traditional essential oil use. For example, both a hydrosol and infused oil are made from the extracts of the elder tree. Elderberry infused honey can be added to aromatherapy skincare products. My recipes for all of these uses are included here for you to try!

In this article, you will discover how the traditional roots of herbalism are helping to influence the use of elder in aromatherapy practice today – and how you can use it, too.

Botanical Profile

Botanical Name: Sambucus nigra L.

Synonyms: Black elderberry, common elderberry, European elderberry, European black elderberry, black elder, common elder, European elder.

Botanical Family: Caprifoliaceae/Adoxaceae. Sambucus nigra was originally classified into the Caprifoliaceae (honeysuckle) plant family but it is now included in the smaller plant family Adoxaceae (Adoxa or Moschatel) plant family.2,3,4  

The Difference between European Elderberry and American Elderberry
European elderberry (Sambucus nigra L.) is the traditional (black) elderberry mentioned in most ancient herbaria for its medicinal uses. The American (black) elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a close relative of its European cousin, native to North America, parts of Mexico and further south. Some references may list Sambucus canadensis as a subspecies of Sambucus nigra, i.e. Sambucus nigra subsp. Canadensis, but The Plant List references it as a separate species.2
Either way, the two are very similar in appearance and uses. In addition, there are other species of elderberry including blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) and red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) which also may be listed as a subspecies.


Elder: Botanical Latin

Sambucinus: Like elder.

Sambucifolius: With leaves like elder.”5

Plant Characteristics:
The perennial, deciduous elder tree grows to a maximum height of about thirty-three feet.1 It is a hermaphrodite, with both reproductive receptacles on the same tree. Elder trees can live to be sixty years old.

Leaves: Leaves are oval-shaped (pinnate), opposite, and arranged in five to seven leaflets. They have a serrated margin.

Flowers: Flowers are cream-colored with five petals. They are arranged on umbels and are fragrant.6 Flowers bloom from late spring through summer. Surprisingly, the dried flowers are often more fragrant than the fresh flowers.

Fruit: After insect pollination, small, characteristic purple-black berries appear. The berries are sour. Berries usually appear in summer through early autumn.

Plant Distribution:

(European) elder is native to the UK and many countries in Europe. It is often found in temperate and subtropical areas of the world.6 (American) elder, as its name suggests, is native to North America. The elder tree prefers to grow in woodlands and hedgerows, and it can even be found on scrub and wasteland. It thrives in moist soil and full sun,7 although it can grow in a variety of different soils and also survive the occasional flood.4

Garden Profile

How to Grow: In the wild, elder seeds are readily dispersed by wildlife who feast on the ripe berries. However, cultivars have been bred for garden use, predominately in the form of ornamental shrubs. Elder can be grown from seeds, cuttings, and transplants, but the best success rate is thought to be from seed.8 However, it can take several years for seed to germinate, unless it is pretreated, including both hot and cold stratification. If you are new to growing elder, it is probably best to purchase a small tree from a reputable source and plant locally. The best time to plant is in early spring or late autumn.

Plant Zones: 4 – 7. Sambucus canadensis may grow between zones 4 – 9.9   It can grow up to an altitude of 9,800 feet.8

Garden Benefits: The elder tree attracts birds, pollinators, and wild life to your garden, who love to pollinate the flowers and feast on the berries. Moth caterpillars and bank voles are among some of the lesser well-known benefactors of elder flowers and fruit. And, depending on the altitude and habitat, squirrels, rodents, song birds, bears, deer, elk, and even moose love to munch on elder.8

Historical Use

The elder tree has extensive folklore attached to it and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in some cases. Chevallier writes that “Chopping elder branches was considered dangerous in rural England as it was believed that the tree was inhabited by the Elder Mother, and to avoid her wrath, woodcutters would recite a placatory rhyme.”1

Medieval folklore recounts that the elder was considered a “Holy Tree” and that it was “capable of restoring good health, keeping good health, and as an aid to longevity.”8

British mythology talks of seeing the devil if you burned elder wood but planting elder by your door would actually keep the devil away.6

Mythology and folklore aside, elder has had many medicinal and practical uses over the years. Its wood has been shapen into combs, flutes, and spindles. Its berries have been conjured into wine, jam, pies, and syrups. Even its flowers have been brewed into tea and added as an aromatic sensation to pancakes.8

Traditionally, elderberries were used to treat colds, rheumatism, sore throats, sinus infections, and digestive issues as they were believed to have diuretic, diaphoretic, and laxative properties.5 The flowers were just as beneficial with topical anti-inflammatory, expectorant, diaphoretic, diuretic, and circulatory stimulant properties listed among their uses.5

Chemistry Profile of Elder1,5,10



Flavonoids (Rutin, Quercetin)

Flavonoids (Rutin, Quercetin)

Anthocyanins (Glycosides, Cyanidins)

Anthocyanins (Glycosides, Cyanidins)




Vitamin A


Vitamin C

Essential Oil (under 1%)



Therapeutic Properties

Although the berries of elder are often associated with treating coughs, colds, and other ailments, elder flowers are just as important for therapeutic use. Chevallier writes that elderberries “have an established antiviral activity” to treat colds and flu. The flowers are used to stimulate sweating and to break a fever by cooling down the body.1 Elder tea is often the best way to treat such conditions.

Elder flowers can also be used for congestion, allergies and arthritis. Elderberries are believed to be a strong immune support due to their high content of vitamin C.

Tierra writes that elder flowers are a good remedy for treating skin issues such as burns, rashes, and even wrinkles.10 The flowers should be used in a salve for this purpose.

Green, in his book The Herbal Medicine-maker’s Handbook,11 states that elder leaves are emollient and vulnerary. A cold infusion of the flowers produces diuretic and cooling effects whereas a warm infusion of the flowers can be gently stimulating and diaphoretic. He also writes that elderberries are aperient (relieve constipation) in addition to the other usual stated therapeutic properties.

Hutchens, in A Handbook of American Herbs,12 writes that Sambucus canadensis can be called “the herbalist’s cosmetic tree, as every part will aid in complexion beauty, removing spots, allaying irritation, removing freckles, and preserving and softening the skin if applied faithfully, internally and externally.” She recommends using a poultice made of any part of the elder tree (leaves, flowers, berries, bark, even roots) for swollen skin and burns. A tincture of elder flowers or leaves can also be made to treat asthma.

Elder for the Aromatherapist and Herbalist




Infused Oil

Tea Infusion

Tea Infusion






Poultice (with leaves) and Compress






Clinical Studies

There are various clinical studies which support the effectiveness of the use of elder in its various forms. For example:

  • A study conducted by Christie Chen, David M Zuckerman, Susanna Brantley, Michka Sharpe, Kevin Childress, Egbert Hoiczyk, and Amanda R Pendleton, entitled Sambucus nigra extracts inhibit infectious bronchitis virus at an early point during replication, concluded that “S. nigra extract can inhibit IBV [Infectious Bronchitis Virus] at an early point in infection, probably by rendering the virus non-infectious.”13 
  • Hawkins J, Baker C, Cherry L, Dunne E, conducted a study on Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials, and found that “Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms,” and provided a safer alternative to traditional over-the-counter medication and the use of antibiotics.14 
  • Evelin Tiralongo, Shirley S. Wee and Rodney A. Lea studied how Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial, and found that the “data suggest[s] a significant reduction of cold duration and severity in air travelers” among those who had taken elderberry extract.15  
  • An abstract of the study, Antioxidant properties of black elder flowers and berries harvested from the wild [2011] conducted by Kolodziej, B.Drozdzal, K., UP Lub - Uniwersytet Przyrodniczy, Lublin (Poland). Katedra Roslin Przemyslowych I Leczniczych showed that the highest antioxidant activity was found in elder flowers, and not the berries.16

There are numerous other clinical studies available online if you take the time to search for them. Many state that further research is needed due to limited data and control groups but it is encouraging to see that science is starting to catch up to long-held traditional uses and beliefs for the use of elder in medicine.

You may experience nausea, diarrhea, and/or vomiting if you eat any part of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) raw. Only the berries, when fully ripe and purple-black in color, and the flowers are safely edible.



Elder is a fascinating plant medicinally, as every part of its being has been utilized therapeutically over time. However, the berries and the flowers are probably of most interest to the practicing aromatherapist, while the berries can be utilized in various other ways by the herbalist.

Elder is a mythical and magical tree. Its ancient traditions support these beliefs. Elder is just as useful therapeutically today as it was in the past. I hope that this article inspires you to add elder to your aromatherapist and or/ herbalist tool box, when called to do so!

Elder Recipes

Elderberry-infused Honey Sugar Scrub

This particular scrub recipe is a decadent way to treat your skin during the autumn months. The recipe yields approximately 16-oz. of product.


  • 12-oz. brown sugar
  • 1.5-oz. jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)
  • 1.5-oz. sweet almond (Prunis dulcis) oil
  • 1-oz. elderberry (Sambucus nigra) infused honey*
  • 100 drops red raspberry seed (Rubus idaeus) oil

Instructions for Making:

  • Combine the ingredients together in a mixing bowl.
  • Add to glass jar and label.
  • Store away from water.

*To Infuse the Honey:

Add 1:1 ratio of dried elderberries to pure honey. Simmer for four to six hours on the stovetop. Strain and cool. Store in a glass mason jar in the refrigerator. I advise that you make a large batch of infused honey at one time and use it for different purposes over time. It should keep for between one and two years when stored appropriately.

To Use a Scrub:

Scoop a hand-sized amount of scrub onto your hand. Apply to wet skin and gently massage in a circular motion. Leave the scrub on for ten to fifteen minutes. Wash off and gently pat dry your skin.

Cautions: Do not apply to the face. Avoid applying to cuts and open wounds.

Flower Wisdom Toner for Face

This is a toning and anti-inflammatory combination of hydrosols designed specifically for sensitive skin. My skin loves this blend! The recipe yields approximately 2-oz. of product.


  • 1-oz. melissa (Melissa officinalis)
  • 0.5-oz. elderflower (Sambucus nigra)
  • 0.5-oz. neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara (flos))

Instructions for Use:

  • Combine hydrosols together in a glass spray bottle. Affix top and secure.
  • Spray a dime-sized amount onto a cotton pad and gently apply to face morning and night.
  • Store in a cool, dark place.

Cautions: Discontinue use immediately if skin irritation occurs.

Autumn Blossoms Skin Salve

This salve recipe is a time-honored base of simple ingredients combined with a decadent aromatic mix of extracts. The recipe yields approximately 5-oz. of product. I recommend using 10 x 0.5-oz. salve tins.


  • 4-oz. elderflower (Sambucus nigra) infused oil*
  • 1-oz. beeswax (Cera alba)

Essential Oils:

  • 20 drops honey absolute
  • 15 drops linden blossom (Tilia cordata) CO2 total extract
  • 30 drops lemon blossom petitgrain (Citrus limon (flos))**

Instructions for Making:

  • Add the essential oils to a glass beaker and combine. Set aside.
  • Add the beeswax to a Pyrex® jug.
  • Using the double boiler method, heat the beeswax up on the stove top.
  • When the beeswax is melted, add the elderflower-infused oil to the Pyrex® jug.
  • Stir and make sure that the two ingredients have successfully combined together in liquid form.
  • Take the mixture off the heat and quickly add the essential oil blend. Stir to combine.
  • Pour the mixture into your chosen containers before it sets.
  • Allow the salve to cool and then cap.

*To Infuse the Oil:

Fill a glass mason jar with dried elderflower blossoms. Add sunflower (Helianthus annuus) oil. Make sure that all of the plant material is covered. Fix the lid. Sit the jar on a sunny window ledge for three weeks. Check and shake daily. Add more plant material if required. After three weeks, strain the plant material from the oil. Store the oil in a glass mason jar in a cool, dark place.

**Alternatively use Petitgrain sur fleurs essential oil.

Instructions for Use:

  • Apply a small amount of the salve to your fingertip. Massage over skin to soothe and heal. I find it effective for bruises and rough skin.

Cautions: Discontinue use immediately if skin irritation occurs.


  1. Chevallier, Andrew, 2016, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (3rd Edition), US: DK Publishing, p.132.

  2. The Plant List website, Sambucus, accessed from: http://www.theplantlist.org/1.1/browse/A/Adoxaceae/Sambucus/

  3. Botanical Dermatology Database website, Adoxaceae, accessed from: https://www.botanical-dermatology-database.info/BotDermFolder/ADOX.html

  4. Harrison, Lorraine, 2012, Latin for Gardeners, US: The University of Chicago Press, p.184.

  5. Charlebois, D., Elderberry as a Medicinal Plant, Reprinted from: Issues in new crops and new uses. 2007. J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.). ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA. (PDF) Accessed from: https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu07/pdfs/charlebois284-292.pdf

  6. Woodland Trust website, Elder (Sambucus nigra), accessed from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-uk-native-trees/elder/

  7. Edible Wild Food website, Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), accessed from: https://www.ediblewildfood.com/elderberry.aspx

  8. USDA (NRCS) PDF, Common Elderberry Sambucus nigra L. ssp. Canadensis (L.) R. Bolli, accessed from: https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf

  9. Arbor Day Foundation website, American Elder Sambucus canadensis, accessed from: https://www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/TreeDetail.cfm?ItemID=837

  10. Tierra Michael, L.Ac., O.M.D., 1998, The Way of Herbs, New York: Pocket Books, p. 133.

  11. Green James, Herbalist, 2000, The Herbal Medicine-maker’s Handbook, New York: Crossing Press, p. 32.

  12. Hutchens, Alma R., 1992, A Handbook of Native American Herbs, Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., p. 85.

  13. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health website, Christie Chen, David M Zuckerman, Susanna Brantley, Michka Sharpe, Kevin Childress, Egbert Hoiczyk, and Amanda R Pendleton, Sambucus nigra extracts inhibit infectious bronchitis virus at an early point during replication, Jan 26, 2014, accessed from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3899428/

  14. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health website, Hawkins J, Baker C, Cherry L, Dunne E, Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials, Feb 2019, accessed from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30670267

  15. MDPI website (Open Access Journals), Evelin Tiralongo, Shirley S. Wee and Rodney A. Lea, Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial, Nutrients 2016, 8(4), 182, 24 March 2016, accessed from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/8/4/182

  16. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website, Kolodziej, B.Drozdzal, K., UP Lub - Uniwersytet Przyrodniczy, Lublin (Poland). Katedra Roslin Przemyslowych i Leczniczych, Antioxidant properties of black elder flowers and berries harvested from the wild [2011], accessed from: http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=PL2011000691


About Sharon Falsetto:

Sharon Falsetto, BA (Hons), is a UK-certified aromatherapist. She has lived in the United States since 2006. She is the founder of Sedona Aromatics: The Garden School.TM Sharon wrote the home study aromatherapy education program for Sedona Aromatics, The Linguistics of AromaticsTM Program, approved by NAHA. She provides one-on-one mentorship through the program with students from around the world.

Sharon also coordinates the Business Botanicals™ program for Sedona Aromatics, helping small businesses to succeed in the business of aromatherapy. She has been a custom blend formulator for many years and incorporates what she has learned into her writing and teaching. Sharon has been writing and editing professionally for over a decade and she is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy. She is currently expanding her knowledge of plants by pursuing both a course of self and professional study in herbalism and aromatic plants.

She works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona, where she offers small workshops and retreats on-site, surrounded by her one-acre homestead and aromatic gardens. Sharon is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy, https://naha.org/store/entry/authentic-aromatherapy the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal, the NAHA Director Coordinator, and the NAHA regional director for Arizona. You can visit Sharon’s website at: www.sedonaaromatics.com


Did you enjoy this article? You can purchase a copy that includes articles from other authors in the NAHA store https://naha.org/store/entry/naha-journal-autumn-2019.3 or you can download it for free from your NAHA member account hom page (for active members only).


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