Monday, June 18, 2012

Identifying Elder

Today as I wandered out in the garden I came upon our herbal class gathering place. The chairs are empty now, but yesterday they were full of many lovely folks enthusiastically increasing their knowledge of and familiarity with the healing plants. There were so many questions in yesterday's class, and I didn't have answers for all of them. But that is one of the reasons I love these classes, I am always inspired to keep learning myself.

We spent some time talking about elder, and I've written about the wonderful healing properties of this plant in the past, but I hadn't really talked about how to identify it. Elder is blooming now, so this is a great time to be on the look out for this native shrub. It would be much more abundant in our area if modern folks didn't feel the necessity to mow just about everything, leaving neither hedgerow nor riparian buffer. But if you do find some wild places near you, especially near water, it is possible to find elder in bloom. Here is what to look for...

The flowers are small and white in clusters (umbels). There were questions about what family elder is from yesterday and I could not remember at the time. Elder is a member of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoiaceae).

Each flower has 5 petals, looking like little stars.

When the berries begin to form, and some are forming now, the flower stems begin to turn purple. By the time the berries are ripe, the stems will be bright purple and very pretty.

The leaves are compound and have an opposite branching structure.

Each leaf has between 5 and 11 leaflets. (Although it is mainly the berries and flowers that I use medicinally, the leaves can be used externally as a poultice for bleeding, bruises, eczema and other skin conditions.)

Cutting through one of the branches, a pithy center (like styrofoam) can be observed.

The most common species of elder in this area is Sambucus canadensis. It's dark berries have been used through the ages for food and medicine. Although the berries can be eaten raw in small amounts, the seeds contain cyanide, which can cause nausea and diarrhea if eaten in large amounts. Cooking destroys the cyanide, and elder have long been cooked into pies and jams and syrups. The species with red berries contain higher concentrations of cyanide and are considered toxic. But please don't let this scare you away from the good medicine of elder. Remember that apple seeds also contain cyanide, but we don't avoid eating apples. The flowers contain no cyanide and can be eaten as fritters and such, though I prefer to dry them for tea.

Consuming the roots, leaves and bark in any form is not recommended due to the concentration of cyanide in these parts. The hollowed stems have been used traditionally to make flutes, but even these are toxic to blow on until they are dried.

I hope this helps folks feel more confident about gathering wild elder medicine this season. It is such a gift to bring in those immune boosting berries and make some good medicine. It connects us to the earth, empowers us, and sustains us. Elder has always been here, waiting for us to remember her, and once again accept her gifts of herbal wellness.


  1. Elder is one of my favourite plants/trees. There are so many wonderful uses for the flowers and berries, My girl has just learnt to identify it and I have oodles of cordial sitting in my cupboard ... true summer is here when the elder flowers. Muh love x x x

    1. Thanks Rose, it is lovely to see more folks using the elder medicine.