Common Elderberry – Sambucus Canadensis: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Pharmacy of Wild Plants

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Common elderberry is possibly the epitome of edible and especially of medicinal wild plants. If I had to pick one, elder is The One. Its been called “a medicine chest of its own” and “a pharmacy of its own”.

I’m excited to finally cover elderberry! I use the syrup and cough drops every winter to boost my immune system, along with our favorite needled trees. And I am growing my own elderberry shrubs now. This is going to be a beautiful plant-human relationship!

I don’t see much common elderberry in the wild in here (there is one plant I’ve found in a few km of trails), but I enthusiastically recommend planting as many of your own as space allows! We also have red-berried elder (sambucus pubens) which is way more common in our wilds. But don’t eat poisonous red berried elder. Leave it for the birds, who are mad for them! On the west coast, blue elder (sambucus cerulea or sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) is poisonous too.

Common Elderberry - Sambucus Canadensis
Common Elderberry – Sambucus Canadensis

Edible Uses of Common Elderberry

The clumps of berries are nearly black when fully ripe and edible. Never red! Seeds from raw berries are somewhat toxic, so don’t eat raw uncooked berries in great quantities. They are not that palatable raw anyway. Cooking them or drying in the sun or an oven destroys the toxins. And drying takes out a rank smell/taste, so it’s wise to dry them then stew or reconstitute before using in recipes. They freeze well too.

Elderberry is used to make jams, preserves, jellies, syrups, pies, tarts, chutneys, etc. The berries are used in pancakes, muffins, scones and the like. For jams, pectin needs to be added. Crab apples or haws can be used for their pectin.

The berries or flowers can be used to make teas, cold drinks, liquors, ruby red wines, etc. The pretty flowers could be frozen in ice cubes to extra elder your cold drinks. A syrup can be made for juice. The juice can also be used as a marinade, wild salmon perhaps?

The blooms are called “Elder Blow”. They are edible before and after opening. These flower clusters, dipped in batter and fried or stripped from stalks and mixed into pancake batter, are lovely with elderberry jam or syrup. Yummy. Like pineapple weed, they can be added to muffins, but for appearances they especially make for a pretty white floret sprinkles.

Stalking the Wild Asparagus has many recipes for elderberry including wine, jelly – there’s one with crab apple and wild grapes, and one with sumac. I plan to video document making all of them. Subscribe to our YouTube to see these as they roll out!

Rich in Calcium, Potassium, Iron, and Vitamins A, B and C.

Medicinal Uses of Common Elderberry

Common Elderberry is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Immune
  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Alterative, Aperient, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emetic, Laxative, and Purgative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes an immune enhancing treatment for upper respiratory viral infections, including cold and flu. Over the counter you’ll find it often as a cough syrup or cough drop. As a cold and flu remedy, elderberry and elder flower have been highly esteemed for a very long time. Elderberry syrup itself is delicious. Same for the hot toddies of mulled wine. Adding elder flowers will make a person sweat. There are other herbals that combine well with elderberry for specific symptoms.

Rosemary Gladstar’s elderberry syrup recipe on pg 138. of Medicinal Herbs: 2 Quarts fresh ripe berries, 1/4 ounce fresh grated ginger root. 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves. And honey to sweeten. The berries are simmered in 1/4 cup water, in a pot. Strain, then return the liquid to pot and simmer with spices until the liquid halves. Match the volume left with honey 1:1. Let cool, bottle in a glass jar, and store in fridge for up to 12 weeks.

Or buy online..

The flowers and leaves are used in salves for wounds and sores. Berry syrup and tallow are mixed for burns. And as a paste the same can help draw out splinters, boils, etc. The leaves are used for the old remedy “Green Elder Ointment” for wounds, bruises and sprains, and more.

Our entry above is really just the beginning! This is possibly the most esteemed of Western herbals. I highly recommend delving deeper and further!

Alternative Uses of Pipe Tree

Elder is sometimes called the “Tree of Music”.The Latin name sambuca refers to sackbur, an ancient instrument. It’s been called pipe tree as well. Because the pithy branches are easily hollowed out they are used to make for whites, blow guns, flutes, to contain tallow for a candle – all matter of hollowed out trinkets. The wood can be used for needles, tops for angling rods, combs, it goes way beyond toy trinkets.

Elder flower water is a mild astringent and a vintage cosmetic, like rose water. It could come back in vogue.

Leaves are crushed to repel mosquitoes and boiled to repel caterpillars. You could bruise the leaves and stuff them in your hat to repel flies and skeeters. Or include it in a homemade bug spray.

The berries produce crimson, violet-purple, even blue dyes, and with some alum or salt added a lilac is obtainable. The roots and bark make a black dye. The leaves a green.

If you are looking for detailed mythology about elder, The Modern Herbal Volume I contains a plethora of information.

Growing Sambucus Canadensis

I’ve bought elder from a couple different nurseries. Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate, but you’ll need to tend it carefully. One of my first three cuttings died, one was eaten by some critter but came back, one thrived and was taller than me in just its second year. It’s a beauty at edges of gardens or yards, but it needs space and sun and some moisture. Red berried elder is less fussy – we’ll cover it in another post.

The cuttings can be arranged into a sort of fence, like willow, but you’ll have to maintain it – a lot. Unlike willow, elder is safe around the foundation of your home. My friend Dan tells me it’ll even protect it from water damage. You’ll also want to protect some of the berries from wildlife if you need them to make food or medicine! They’ll get picked off even when they are new and green!


The stems, roots, leaves and unripe berries are purgative and can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

It’s recommend if using bark and leaves do so under qualified supervision.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism

Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

Stalking The Wild Asparagus (Field Guide Edition).

Tom Brown’s Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants: The Key to Nature’s Most Useful Secrets

The Herb Bible

A Modern Herbal (Volume 1, A-H): The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Eating Wild in Eastern Canada: A Guide to Foraging the Forests, Fields, and Shorelines

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual

A Modern Herbal (Volume 1, A-H): The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses

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