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A fragrant flower for fevers, colds and to support catarrh


Sambucus nigra Adoxaceae

Elderflowers are a favourite amongst herbalists to support people when they are suffering with colds, flus and in particular fevers. They are also very helpful for a runny nose and congested sinuses. Both the flowers and the berries from the elder tree have medicinal properties.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Flus
  • Colds
  • Hayfever
  • Fever
  • Immune system
  • Aids circulation
  • Sinusitis
  • Supports the lymphatic system
  • How does it feel?

    Elderflowers have a beautiful and unique aromatic quality. Its creamy white fragrant blossoms are sweet, cooling and mildly bitter to taste. The aromatic oils in elderflower are well preserved as a dried herb and also preserve well in cordial and tincture. The fresh tea has a fresh aromatic flavor with an additional mild pungency.

  • What can I use it for?

    Elderflower is a herb that one should always have in a home herbal first aid kit. This delicate flower is both powerfully anti-catarrhal and anti-inflammatory, making it the perfect for treatment of the common cold or influenza.

    By the same means, elderflower is excellent for allergic conditions that cause excess catarrh in the upper respiratory tract, it can be helpful for symptoms of hay fever such as itchy eyes and sneezing.

    Safe for all the family, elderflower has a definite affinity for children who are prone to perpetual coughs, colds, runny noses and tonsillitis, although dietary factors should also be considered as possible causes of such condition.

  • Into the heart of elderflower

    Not only can Elderflower be used in acute and first aid situations as discussed above, but elderflower also has a gently relaxant effect which may be applied for those experiencing nightmares and disturbed sleep, useful for both adults and children.

    Described by Brooke (2018), as a herb that increases sweating, elderflower can also aid the skin, helping to clear the pores by removing impurities. For this, a hot infusion is most often given for the diaphoretic (sweat inducing) action. Congruently, Grieve (1984) refers to the use of elderflower as an infusion used on the skin, explaining that it can improve the complexion and brighten the skin.

    Energetically, in terms of Western Herbal Medicine, Elderflower is hot and dry, however, when drank as a hot tea for increasing the output of fluid by sweating, elderflower exhibits a cooling effect. An example of how different preparations of a herb can display varied actions. Either as a result of how the compounds interact with the extraction method, the deliverance of the compounds by the predation type mixed with the energetic characteristics of the preparation itself.

    In Ayurvedic view, elderflowers are referred to as being bitter, pungent and cooling, reducing kapha and pita and having a neutral or mixed effect in vata. It seems again that alternative narratives to this plant’s energetic actions are held by the different energetic systems in Herbal Medicine. Most unanimous is that this plant has an overall cooling effect, rather than directly heating.

  • Traditional uses

    In The Modern Herbal, Mrs Grieve explains that Elderflower was used in inflammatory diseases of the lungs, including pleurisy. Also specific for use in viral diseases of the same inflammatory nature such as measles and scarlet fever.

    The tea of Elderflower is said to promote expectoration, increasing the flushing of fluid via perspiration, which is a useful mechanism for the treatment of fevers. By increasing sweating, heat is released from the body, essentially a cooling and detoxifying process that helps move viral matter through our system.

    Elderflower has a long standing place in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia for treatment of the common cold and influenza, particularly in the early stages of infection. Traditionally also thought to be useful for inflammation of the eyes and skin. With Mrs Grieve also adding that as a lotion or distilled water, elderflower has tonifying effect on the skin, improving complexion, treating blemishes and mild

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Respiratory system: Elderflower is particularly useful for influenza or the common cold. Indicated for all manner of catarrhal inflammations in the upper respiratory tract, this would include viral and allergic conditions, such as sinusitis, tonsillitis and hay fever. Elderflowers can also be used where there is congestion in the inner ear.

    Immune system: Elderflower is great for the management of fevers. As opposed to the orthodox approach of treating fevers which is to reduce temperature/ symptoms, the herbal / holistic approach is rather to support and moderate this important immunological process, with a view to improving overall recovery outcomes. Fevers are the bodies natural response to pathogens (viral/ bacterial). In basic terms, the rise in blood temperature during a fever, is the body’s attempt to create an inhospitable environment for pathogens to survive.

    Sweating also increases during a fever to further improve elimination from the blood whilst also diffusing and heat. At the point where we start to sweat during a fever, our body is doing incredible work to fight off the bacteria or virus. Elderflower directly supports these processes through its anti-inflammatory and diaphoretic actions.

    Peppermint and yarrow are often combined with elderflower to support through influenza and the common cold, particularly through the fever stage.

    Please note: fevers can be a sign of serious health conditions that need immediate medical attention, if the cause of fever is not identified as being of the acute viral nature (common cold/ influenza). One must be sure to seek professional advice where symptoms do not improve in any circumstance.

    Eliminatory system: Through its diaphoretic action elderflower can support detoxification through the skin, therefore as an adjunctive to work alongside herbs that improve hormonal balance and increase the lymphatic detoxification. Elderflower may therefore be useful as part of an approach for skin conditions and overall movement of body fluids.

    Circulatory system: Elderflower may also be useful for oedema and other congestive conditions of the circulatory system, by its ability to increase the output of fluid. Elderflower is described as a peripheral vasodilator, meaning that it increases dilation in the peripheral capillaries, which may be useful where there is poor circulation to the extremities (hands and feet).

  • Research

    Much of the research available into the immunological effects of Elder, focuses on the elderberry. However an in vitro study on both extracts of Elderberry and Elderflower constituents exhibited promising inflammatory modulating activity. It must be noted though that unfortunately clinical trials are lacking for elderflower.

    A specific group of compounds called phenolic compounds, isolated in elderflower are found to be highly antioxidant in a review carried out in 2015, the action of these antioxidants is to protect against cellular damage from free radicals, whilst improving cellular health and function.

    An in vitro study investigating the action of peptic polysaccharides in extracts of elderflower, found positive outcomes for enhancing cellular immunity, supporting to the well documented belief that elderflower is a valuable medicine for the treatment of acute viral infections.

    Another in vitro stem cell study was carried out into the effects of elderflowers potential neuroprotective benefits, the study provided insights into the mechanisms by which elderflower extract could suppress neurotoxicity elicited by environmental and genetic stressors.

  • Did you know?

    The Elder was one of the sacred trees of the Celts, so named Ruis the Elder, the tree of the thirteenth lunar month. There are many folkloric tales of the Elder, which grows natively all over Europe.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Elderflower may lower blood sugar levels, therefore precaution must be taken in diabetes, or where taking anti-diabetic medications.

    Precaution must also be taken as elderflower may interfere with blood sugar control during and after surgery.

  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:5 in 40%) take 2-4ml three times a day.

  • Constituents

    • Flavonoids: primarily flavonols, rutin and isoquercitrin
    • Mucilaginous polysaccharides
    • Tannins
    • Phenolic acids
    • Volatile oil
    • Triterpenes
    • Potassium
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra)
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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