Elder flowers come from the same plant as elder berries and, like the berries, contain bioflavonoids. Elder flowers are used in teas, skin care salves, lotions and washes, cosmetics, and to make a soothing gargle.
Sambucus nigra L.
Botanical Family: Caprrifoliaceae
Common name: European elder
Synonyms: black elder, common elder, flor de sayugo (Spanish)
The Plant: Elder is a tall shrub, native throughout Europe, Asia and northern Africa. European elder is naturalized in North America and grows in moist, partly shady stream banks and at edges of woods. Other native species of elder -- western elder (S. caerulea) and North American sweet elder (S. Canadensis) -- are used as substitutes for European elder. Another North American native elder, a red-berried species called S. racemosa, is not used and should be avoided because of its toxicity.
The faint scent of the sweet-smelling elder flowers is a harbinger of the beginning of summer in our area. These small white flowers are arranged in flattened umbels, called a cyme. Elder flowers are best harvested just as they open. The whole flower head is dried after harvesting, which helps prevent bruising of the delicate flowers and allows for better air circulation and faster drying.
Elder flower's green fruits turn a deep purple-black when ripe.
Constituents of Note: Elder flowers contain a small amount of essential oil (0.3 to 0.1%), about two-thirds of which is free fatty acids; this gives the oil a somewhat buttery consistency. Elder flowers also contain around 1% triterpenes (alpha-amyrin, beta-amyrin), 1.5% flavonoids (quercetin, kempferol, rutin), several triterpene acids (urolic, oleanolic), chlorogenic acid (3%), tannins and mucilage.
Quality: Elder flowers are cream to pale yellow. Discolored flowers may be present in small amounts. The aroma of dried elder flowers is faint, sweet, and floral, and the flavor is a bit sweet and bitter, with a lightly mucilaginous mouth feel. Some small stem pieces may be present.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title182.20) as a flavoring and Dietary Supplement
Did you know? Elder was known as "the medicine chest of the country people" in England because of its many uses and the fact that all parts of the plant (leaves, flowers, fruits, roots and bark) were used. Because of the toxic constituents they contain, the leaves, root and bark are not used much today and only by those with the expertise to do so.
Directions: To make a tea, pour one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of elder flowers and let steep for five minutes. To make a stronger tea for use as a gargle or compress, use 2 teaspoons of elder flowers and steep for 10 minutes.
Suggested Uses: Elder flowers are used as a flavoring in beverages, candies and lozenges, frozen desserts and wines. The fresh flowers are also edible, and elder-flower fritters are a European favorite.
The flowers are also used to make a soothing, clearing herbal tea. A tried-and-true tea formula to open the pores and dispel heat and stagnation combines equal part of elder flowers, peppermint and yarrow flowers. This tea is always drunk piping hot.
Elder is sometimes an ingredient in skin salves and ointments. It's also used in skin washes and lotions for its calming effect on the skin. As an ingredient in cosmetics, its skin-refining properties are valued.
Elder flower water, which is the hydrosol (the water by-product of steam distillation of an essential oil), is used as a base for skin care products. You can make your own elder flower water by making a strong elder flower tea. (Or you can combine elder flowers with lavender and/or calendula flowers.) Let the tea stand until cool, and then add a small amount of vodka or glycerin (to help draw out the non-water soluble constituents from the flowers and act as a preservative). Cover and let stand for a day, then strain and bottle.
Another use of elder flowers is as a facial compress for dry or sensitive skin. Soak a piece of muslin in hot elder flower tea, squeeze out the liquid, and apply to face for a minute to help open up the pores and calm and relax the face. Use a cold compress to close the pores and cleanse and soothe the skin.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies elder flower as:
Class:1 Herbs which can be safely consumed when used appropriately.
Please note that according to the Botanical Safety Handbook, the unripe and raw fruit, seeds, bark and leaves contain a component, sambunigrin, which may cause vomiting or severe diarrhea if ingested.
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for elder flower, there are no known contraindications, side effects or drug interactions.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998
Origins: Our elder flowers are wild-harvested in the Ukraine.