A 1913 illustration of the elder plant by N.L. Britton and A. Brown.
A 1913 illustration of the elder plant by N.L. Britton and A. Brown.

By: Sasha de Beausset Aparicio

Different varieties of the Elder plant (Sambucus) are found all over the world and ethnobotanists and historians sometimes disagree as to the plant’s origins. But of course, that all depends on how far back you go in order to call a plant “native” to a particular area.

The Black Elder variety (Sambucus nigra) is traced back to Europe by some, and to North Africa, western Asia and the Azores, by others.1Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164. 2Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.

David Allen and Gabrielle Hartfield, in their 2006 book Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, claim that Black Elder was only then introduced into North America.

However, there is plenty of evidence that the elder plant was used by several indigenous North American tribes, such as the Coahuilla and Miwok tribes.3USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf 4Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago. The varieties of elder plant used by these tribes might have been slightly different than the Sambucus nigra and some texts name them as the Sambuscus canandiensis, Sambuscus mexicanis.3USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf 4Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.

Uses of the Elderberry Plant Around the World

Around the world, the historical uses of the elderberry plant can be put into four categories: as food, as medicine, as a dye, and as material for a variety of tools and structures.

The berries, which are harvested usually at the end of the warm months, were cooked, dried, and sometimes eaten raw. Some indigenous groups will eat little else when the berries are available, and they will dry them to eat during the winter months.4Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.  

Historically, the documented medicinal uses are abundant and versatile. The flowers and leaves were used in teas, while the berries were consumed cooked and dried, though they were occasionally eaten fresh as well.2Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270. 3USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf   Some of the ailments that different parts of the elderberry plant were said to alleviate or cure include:

  • Acne
  • Burns
  • Cancer
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dysmenorrhea
  • Edema
  • Fever
  • Flu
  • Infection
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach ache
  • Swelling
  • Tumors
  • Wounds

The branches of the elder plant are hollow, which allow for use for blowing air into fires, fashioning into flutes and whistles, and the wood from larger elder trees was used to build larger structures in parts of Europe.5Pliny the Elder (70 A.D). Natural History. Translation by Holland, Philemon, 1634.

The berries have a strong dark dye, which was used for dying natural fibers and cloths, and even hair.5Pliny the Elder (70 A.D). Natural History. Translation by Holland, Philemon, 1634. 2Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270. 4Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago. To be used as a dye, elderberries were generally crushed and soaked for several days in water with cloths and fibers. For hair dye, the syrup from the crushed berries was massaged into the hair and left for several hours until the dye set-in and any excess it was rinsed out (ibid.)

Elderberry Today

Today, the berries of the elder plant are enjoyed in pies, syrups, and candies, and sauces. From a western scientific perspective, there has been growing interest in the chemical properties of elderberry plants that make them so versatile and effective for a variety of ailments.2Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.

Elderberry is now being reintroduced into homes as a home remedy for common ailments such as colds, flus, stomach aches, and inflammation.1Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164. 3USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf

1 Lockie, Andrew (2006). Encyclopedia of Homepathy. DK Publishing. New York. Pg. 164.
2 Allen, David E; Hartfield, Gabrielle (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press. pg. 270.
3 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). “Plant Guide: Common Elderberry”. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_sanic4.pdf
4 Barrows, David Prescott (1900). The Ethnobotany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California. Chicago University Press. Chicago.
5 Pliny the Elder (70 A.D). Natural History. Translation by Holland, Philemon, 1634.