June 2013
The Herb Lady

Elderberry - Herb of the Year

Since elderberry has been chosen as the "Herb of the Year," I think I should definitely write about it. I wrote about it several years ago; therefore, some of you will possibly say, "I’ve read this before."

"Elder or elderberry is any of a genus of shrubs and small trees of the honeysuckle family, with compound leaves and flat-topped clusters of small white flowers, followed by red or purple berries." That’s what my dictionary has to say about elderberry.

My herb book refers chiefly to two elderberries. One is European (Sambusus nigra) and the other is American (Sambusus canadensis). There appears to be very little difference in the two varieties. They tend to grow 3-10 feet tall and prefer a swampy habitat, but are often seen along fences and roads in a drier area. They both serve more or less the same useful purposes. It’s not unusual to have a few blooms appear on these plants at any time of the year, but they mainly bloom in the summer and the fruits ripen in the fall.

American elder grows over a large part of the United States. It is a common growth here in Alabama. It is also referred to as black elder, common elder, rob elder, sweet elder and popgun elder. European elder is also called bourtree and pipe tree. Evidence of its cultivation has been found in Stone Age sites in Italy and Switzerland. Probably Adam and Eve found this very useful herb in the Garden of Eden.

The shoots or stacks contain a pithy substance which can be removed leaving a strong hollow tube. Early Greeks used these tubes to make a musical instrument called a sambuke. Possibly elder is the hollowed wooden tube used by the French physician who made the first stethoscope in 1816. Elder might even have been the wooden tube from which the Pied Piper’s pipe was formed.

Through the years, elder has served mankind in many ways and it most likely will do so until the end of time. A few uses include toys, straws, shoemakers’ pegs, butchers’ skewers, weavers’ needles, skin care (lotion) products, dyes and medicines. On market shelves, you’ll find commercially prepared elderberry jams, jellies, teas and wine. These products are very nourishing due to the elder flowers’ and berries’ high content of vitamin A, C and bioflavonoids. (Bioflavonoids are derivatives of a flavone compound that helps maintain the capillary walls, thus reducing the likelihood of hemorrhaging.)

It is said the entire elder plant serves a use in folklore medicine. As a nutritional product it aids in combatting, controlling or preventing a large number of health conditions: allergies, asthma, bronchitis, colds, fevers, hay fever, pneumonia, sinus congestion, infections, rheumatism and bleeding. It is also said to promote perspiration and urine flow, purify the blood and build up the system. It makes a good ointment for burns when mixed with lard or petroleum jelly.

A grouping of elder plants will make interesting as well as useful landscaping shrubs. The berries are one of the easiest to gather. When ripe, they shake easily from their stems. If you only have a few elderberries on hand, they can easily be added to apples or mixed fruits for added flavor in jams, jellies, pies, etc.

There was a bridge-covered creek running through the Pike County farm where I grew up. Beside the bridge, there was a healthy growth of elder which we always referred to as popgun elder. My father made whistles as well as popguns from this plant. Every year, we children each had a newly built popgun when Chinaberries reached maturity. Chinaberries were our ammunition. We waged war until the berries were past their prime.

This is just one of the many plants which Native Americans used extensively and more or less in the same manner as the people of Europe, Asia and Africa, long before white man set foot on this continent.

I find elderberry an excellent choice for 2013’s "Herb of the Year."

Nadine Johnson can be reached at PO Box 7425, Spanish Fort, AL 36577 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..