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Indigenous Peoples' Perspective Project


Scientific Name: Sambucus nigra

Common Name: Elderberry, American black elderberry

Plant Family: Adoxaceae (Moschatel family); previously Caprifoliaceae (honeysuckle family)

Etymology: “Sambucus” comes from the Latin word for a triangular harp that creates a shrill sound.

Parts Used: whole plant

Season: year-round

Indigenous Uses

As a food, elderberries were crushed, strained, and boiled into a syrup or made into a jam. They were used as a sweetener in various recipes.

Medicinally, the berries supported the treatment of many illnesses. An infusion of the berries was taken for rheumatism, as a diuretic, diaphoretic, for urinary tract infections, and as a general tonic. An infusion of the bark was taken for diarrhea and as an external analgesic. The berries and flowers were made into tonics for boils and salves for burns. The leaves have been used as a wash to suppress infection of sores, as a purgative, and to treat skin infections, swellings, burns, and other skin problems. They also have been made into a decoction and used in steam baths to sweat out colds and headaches. An infusion of the flowers was used to bring down fevers and treat colds. Parts of the plants have been used by different peoples as a cathartic and an emetic.

Elderberry also provided material for important craftwork. The wood, stems, branches, and twigs were used for musical instruments and ceremonial purposes. The stems were hollowed out to make smoking pipes, flutes, blowgun darts, and arrow shafts. They also were used to make bow drills for starting fires.

Edible Parts

Harvest flowers (aka “elderblow”) or ripe berries, by cutting off whole umbels. Important: when processing for food and medicine, carefully remove any stem parts, which are toxic. Additionally, the seeds in the berries are toxic raw, and cooking reduces toxicity. Remove the seeds before eating fresh berries.

Use the fresh or dried flowers for tea, or cook into fritters. Ferment the flowers into a wine ready in about two weeks, or make a syrup with them. Add the flowers to kombucha as a secondary ferment for a few days, and strain before drinking.

Cook the berries into an immune-boosting syrup. Or simmer the berries in balsamic vinegar for a dressings and marinades. Make jellies and wines with the berries. Or make vinegars, capers, and shrubs.

Preserve the flower clusters by drying in a warm bag and storing away from heat. Once they crumble off the stalks easily, store in tightly sealed jar for up to one year. Freeze the berries when still attached to the umbels, which will make removing them from their stalks easier.

Contemporary Medicinal Uses

Herbalists continue to use the fresh leaves to make cooling green oils, salves, and creams as a treatment for traumatic injuries old burns, ulcerations, or hemorrhoids. Packed with hot apple cider vinegar, the flowers can be used to create an acetum to treat sore throats. The flowers and berries are antiviral and immune stimulating. A cold floral tea is diuretic. A hot tea made from the flowers helps to sweat out a cold or fever, and once cooled can be used topically as a wash or compress for oily skin and to treat injured tissues. Alternatively, elderflowers added to a bath tonify the skin.

This project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities, with funding received from the Maryland Historical Trust in the Maryland Department of Planning. Maryland Humanities’ Grants Program is also supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private funders. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed on this website do not necessarily represent those of Maryland Humanities, Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Department of Planning, or National Endowment for the Humanities.