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What is Elderflower?

By Vanessa Harvey
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Elderflower, also known as elderberry or simply elder, is a medicinal tree. The parts used for medicinal purposes are the bark, the berries or fruit, the inner bark, the roots and the leaves. Sambucus canadensis is the scientific name for this tree, which contains a variety of organic chemicals, such as albumin, volatile oils and nutrients such as vitamin C. A variety of health conditions and problems have been successfully treated for thousands of years using the different parts of this tree.

The specific medicinal properties of the elderflower tree depends on the part employed. For example, the bark is an emetic, which refers to the ability to produce vomiting that might be needed in the natural cleansing process of the body. The flowers have diaphoretic properties, which refers to the ability to produce perspiration, and they can be a stimulant and a diuretic. An infusion can be made from the flowers for twitching eyelids or inflammation of the eyes, and it is considered an effective tonic and purifier of the blood. The flowers also are used in the treatment of kidney ailments and diseases because of their diuretic properties.

Cholera, diarrhea and flu-like symptoms are among other health problems that are treated with elderflower infusion, which is another term for tea. If flu symptoms are present, it is recommended to combine peppermint with elder for the best results. Any part of the elder tree can be used to prepare an ointment that is used to treat minor burns, scalds and skin diseases.

Medicinal properties are not the only benefits offered by the elderflower tree. The berries of the tree can be cooked and used to make jams and pies, for example. Use of the fresh plant requires great care, however, because poisoning could result. The stems that contain cyanide and should be completely avoided because they are toxic enough to cause death. The herb can be stored for long periods of time if it is kept cool and dry.

Known effects of elderflower that have been officially established include its ability to causes vomiting, act as a diuretic, produce perspiration and stimulate the gastrointestinal tract to act as a purgative. Benefits of the herb that are not scientifically recognized include treatment of headaches, arthritis, gout, the common cold, sore throat and fevers. Infants, children younger than 2, adults older than 55, pregnant women and lactating women should not be treated internally with elderflower herb because the risks usually outweigh the benefits.

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Discussion Comments
By sherlock87 — On Sep 26, 2011

When a friend taught me how to make elderflower syrup last year, she made sure I knew that the flowers and stems themselves are considered highly poisonous. The syrup made from soaking them is completely safe, but actually eating parts of the plant make you sick. I'm glad I knew that, because they look so tasty and it's easy to think that something we use for food should be totally edible.

By sunshined — On Sep 25, 2011

I love making tinctures and drinks from flower blossoms and elderflower is no exception. I always feel like I am treating myself when I sit down to a glass of fresh elderberry syrup.

Even though it sounds like it has the texture of syrup, it is like a refreshing seltzer water.

After mixing the flowers with water, honey (instead of sugar, citric acid and lemons, I let this infuse for a few days before straining and refrigerating.

This lightly floral scented drink is a real treat on a summer day. I have also used oranges and limes in place of the lemons for a slightly different flavor. Either way, the taste of the elderflower comes through.

By julies — On Sep 25, 2011

We have some elderberry trees scattered throughout the timber on our property. I like to collect the small berries and make elderberry jam with them.

I enjoy making jam with fruit that is hard to find in other places. Most people are pleasantly surprised the first time they taste it. Of course, when you put enough sugar in it, most things taste good!

My grandma says she used to make elderflower tea and would take this if she was feeling like she was getting sick. This is something I haven't tried yet, but think it would taste pretty good.

By bear78 — On Sep 24, 2011

@simrin-- I've never heard that before but that sounds like a great idea. I'm sure it will be good for skin since elderflower has vitamin C.

After reading about the cyanide and the potential risks, I'd feel more comfortable using elderflower topically anyway. I know it's just the stems that contain arsenic but I'd still be worried about having it as tea. Maybe a few stems might have been included in the tea by accident, I wouldn't be able to know.

Do you know if using elderflower tonic has any risks or potential side effects? If it were to have arsenic, would it get absorbed through the skin?

By SteamLouis — On Sep 24, 2011

My cousin loves learning about natural skin remedies and she suggested making and using an elderflower tonic for my skin. I have very sensitive skin and almost all of the skin products I've tried have caused irritation and allergies.

Apparently elderflower tonic is really good for these symptoms and even eczema. I'm supposed to get some dry elderflower and simmer it in boiled water and use the water as tonic. I'm really excited about trying it, I hope it will help my skin.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 24, 2011

@JessicaLynn - You know, I'm not sure if elderberry does or does not work for colds. You may just be experiencing a placebo effect. But if it works and you aren't having any side effects, I would just keep taking it!

I'm a little mind boggled by the fact that the stem contains cyanide. I feel like you would be taking your life into your hands if you decided to bake a pie with elderberries! I don't think I would be brave enough, personally.

By JessicaLynn — On Sep 23, 2011

You know, I've taken elderberry for colds many times. I had no idea that it could cause vomiting or any of those other side effects! I've never experienced anything like that.

I do think that elderberry really shortened the length of my colds every time I took it though. Of course there's no scientific proof to back that up, but I think there will be eventually.

Of course, some of my friends tease me about taking it and saying it's just snake-oil. But I maintain that it works!

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