The medicinal power of common elderberry

In the past, flutes were made from the elderberry. These were called ‘fliereflutes’. The elder has traditionally had a large number of medicinal applications. It was used, among other things, for the respiratory tract and against fever, colds and as a diuretic medicine. Elder is a plant that has been used by humans since at least the Stone Age. Now we know a number of medicinal properties of this plant, but in the past people saw all kinds of magical properties in it. NB! This article is written from the personal view of the author and may contain information that is not scientifically substantiated and/or in line with the general view.

Botanical drawing of elderberry / Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)


  • Naming elderberry
  • The magic of elder
  • Elder among the ancients
  • Elder from the Middle Ages to the present
  • Active ingredients elderflower and elderberry
  • Elderflower against fever and flu
  • Elderflower against mouth, nose and throat problems
  • External application of elderflower
  • The healing power of elderberries
  • The medicinal power of elderberry leaves
  • Consult a herbal therapist


Naming elderberry

The Latin, botanical name for common elderberry is Sambucus Nigra . Sambucus is a corruption of the Greek sambuka which means ‘flute’. In ancient Greece, whistles were made from young elder stems. Nigra means black; the color of the berries of this shrub. Dutch has several popular names for the elder: Common elder, Black elder, European elder, Boltenboom, Flierenhout, Flieterhout, Gereraard, Geerd, Heulenteer, Holderboom, Holenteer, Hullunder, folding bushes, folding tubes, Klotsenhout, Vlaardenboom, Vlierder, Vledder, Vleer, Butterfly tree and Vlaar tree.

The magic of elder

Common elder was already used in the Stone Age. Remains of the elder have been found in settlements from this prehistoric era. In ancient times, all kinds of magical properties were attributed to elderberry. It is a sacred plant among the gypsies. In Germany, people used to take their hats off every time they passed an elderberry bush. Denmark had the hylde nut from whom someone had to ask permission before elderberries could be picked. You were not allowed to make furniture from elder wood or use it as firewood. When a baby lay in a cradle made of elderberry wood, the hylde nut would come and kill the baby. On the other hand, elderwood has been used in other cultures to protect people or the deceased. A cross made of elder branches was used in ancient times to protect the dead. The cross was buried in the coffin. A hearse driver had an elderberry whip. The cross on Golgotha is also said to have been made of elder branches.

Elderberry / Source: Willow, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.5)

Elder among the ancients

Hippocrates, a famous physician from ancient Greece, considered elderberry as a diuretic. Dioscorides, pioneer of medicine and herbal science, prescribed it as a diuretic, bile diuretic and expectorant. Elder leaf was used as a wrap to prevent inflammation and ulcers. Pliny belonged to the ancient Romans. He was a physician and made a paste of elder leaf and pearl barley and applied it to places where a dog had bitten. Galen, also a Roman, prescribed the plant for colds and mucous membrane problems.

Elder from the Middle Ages to the present

In the Middle Ages, the medicinal furore of elder grew to great proportions. Elder was called ‘the people’s medicine chest’ because it was versatile and versatile. Other names were ‘healing plant’ or ‘miracle tree’. Rembert Dodoens, the pioneering herbalist, recognized in the 16th century that elderberry has laxative, diuretic, expectorant and anti-swelling properties. In the 18th century it became popular to use elderflower water as a wash and bleach for the skin; it could wash off freckles. The leaves were prepared into a green ointment which was used to heal sprains and bruises, prevent chilblains, treat wounds and combat hemorrhoids. In modern science it was Dr. Mumcuoglu who has extensively researched and proven the antiviral effect of proteins from elderberries.

Active ingredients elderflower and elderberry

Elderberry blossoms and elderberries are used. The bark is not used and the leaves are only suitable for external use. The flowers contain the following active substances: the flavonoids rutin, quercetin, isoquercitrin, hyperoside, anthragoline, kaemferol, eldrin and ribosome inactive protein. Elderflower also contains tannins, mucilages, triterpenes, phenolic acids such as chlorogenic acid, caffeic acids, p-coumaric acid and ferulic acids. It also contains essential oil, sterols, fatty acids, organic acids such as malic acid, valeric acid and tartaric acid, traces of hydrogen cyanide glycosides, potassium, proteins, bitter substances, resin choline and N-alkanes. The berries have a different composition. Elderberries contain the flavonoids rutin, isoquercitrin and hyperoside, anthocyanisides such as chrysanthemine, sambucyanin, sambucine, ribosome, inactive protein, the organic acids citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid and valeric acid, cyanic acid glycosides including sambunigrin, holocin, zeerine and prunaserine, the sugars fructose, glucose and sucrose and catechin tannins. Elderberries contain the following ingredients to a lesser extent: fiber, pectin, vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, choline and biotin. It also contains minerals calcium, iron and phosphorus.

Elderflower against fever and flu

Since elderberry has a diaphoretic effect, it can be used well for flu. Proteins from elder play an important role in preventing bacterial infections and strengthening resistance in general. It is not only antiseptic but it also repels viruses. Anthocyanins, flavonoids and vitamins A and C help proteins perform their antiseptic effects. For these medicinal reasons, elder is prescribed by a herbal therapist for:

Elderberries / Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

  • Flu, grippal disorders,
  • Colds with fever, fever,
  • Childhood diseases.


Elderflower against mouth, nose and throat problems

Elderberry has an astringent and anti-inflammatory effect due to the tannins and ursolic acid it contains. It inhibits excessive mucous secretion, increases bronchial secretion, which means it is an expectorant. As a result, elderberry is prescribed for the following indications:

  • Colds, bronchitis, cough, dry cough, hay fever, allergic rhinnitis,
  • Chronic oral mucosal inflammation, sinusitis,
  • Sore throat, tonsillitis, laryngeal inflammation, hoarseness.


Due to its mild diuretic effect, elderflower works to prevent fluid retention, which also combats arthritis, osteoarthritis and gout. The mild diuretic effect also ensures that it can be used for blood purification and spring fatigue.


External application of elderflower

The astringent effect and anti-inflammatory properties, together with the soothing properties, are good for some external applications of elderflower. They are listed here, arranged by processing method:

Elderflower / Source: Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Rinsing and gargling:

  • Oral mucosal inflammation,
  • Sore throat, tonsillitis,
  • Laryngeal inflammation.

Skin lotion:

  • Bruises, Swellings,
  • Inflammations,
  • Rough skin, cracks.

Eye lotion:

  • conjunctivitis,
  • Itchy rash.


The healing power of elderberries

  • Elderberries shorten the duration of flu because they contain diaphoretic and anti-infective substances. It has both antibacterial and antiviral effects. It is used by a herbal therapist for: flu, grippal infections, fever and colds accompanied by fever.
  • The anti-inflammatory effect of elderberries also reduces nerve pain. In addition, the flavonoids give the elderberry an antioxidant effect. It can be used for facial pain, sciatica and migraines. You can then drink the juice of freshly squeezed elderberries. Do not use unripe berries and do not drink too much fresh elderberry juice.
  • The diuretic effect makes it useful against osteoarthritis, arthritis and gout. For this you can use the juice that has first been heated, for example by making a puree or jelly. You can eat more of this than raw juice.
  • The raw berry has a laxative effect and can therefore be used for constipation,
  • An elderberry syrup, puree or jelly can be used as a sedative.


The medicinal power of elderberry leaves

Normally you will not use the leaves much, but in an emergency it can be useful to know that you can bruise the leaves to use them as a soothing agent for a wound. The wound will heal faster. You can use a larger number of bruised leaves as a cover in a place where a bruise or sprain has occurred.

Consult a herbal therapist

Anyone who wants to use elderberry as a medicinal product is recommended to consult a herbal therapist. Elderberry extracts and medicines in the form of mother tinctures, powders, nebulisate, liquid extract, ointment, cream and capsules should only be used on the prescription of authorized persons. A herbal therapist can tell you more about this, as well as about any side effects and interactions with other medicines or herbs. There are also beneficial combinations with herbs. All medicinal effects of this medicinal herb mentioned in this article are based on scientific research and come from Geert Verhelst’s Large Handbook of Medicinal Plants, a standard work in the field of healing plants. The book is used in phytotherapy.