Sambucus nigra L.

First published in Sp. Pl.: 269 (1753)
This species is accepted
The native range of this species is Azores, Europe to W. Iran. It is a shrub or tree and grows primarily in the temperate biome. It is used as animal food, a poison and a medicine, has environmental uses and for food.


Bernal, R., G. Galeano, A. Rodríguez, H. Sarmiento y M. Gutiérrez. 2017. Nombres Comunes de las Plantas de Colombia.

carbunquera, sabuguera, salbuguera, sauco, saúco, sauco blanco, sauco de Castilla, sauco de monte

Kew Species Profiles

General Description

The elder, although a much-appreciated source of food and medicine, was once reviled as the tree from which Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself. However, since elder is not native to the Palestine region, this story is probably untrue.

Elder is a short-lived, sometimes scruffy-looking shrub which can be found growing in woodlands, hedgerows and scrub, on waste ground and railway embankments, and in graveyards. It has been revered for centuries for a wide range of medicinal and perceived magical properties. It has a wide range of culinary uses, and the flat-topped heads of white flowers have a delicate beauty when adorning countryside hedgerows.

Elderflowers and elderberries are widely used in herbal medicine. An infusion or tea made with the flowers is taken to soothe, reduce inflammation or as a diuretic. Preparations containing elderflower are effective in treating sinusitis, and standardised preparations containing extracts or juice of elderberries have been shown to reduce the duration of flu symptoms. The flowers and berries are taken for various other ailments including coughs, colds and constipation. Elderberry is used as an immune booster, perhaps supported by the presence of anthocyanidins in the berries (chemical compounds that are known to have immunostimulant effects). Elderflower is also used against diabetes: research has shown that extracts of elderflower stimulate glucose metabolism and the secretion of insulin, lowering blood sugar levels.

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

Sambucus nigra is widespread in Europe and western Asia, and also occurs in North Africa. Elder is commonly found growing in woodlands and hedgerows.


Elder is a shrub or smallish tree with flat-topped clusters of tiny, white, scented flowers. After flowering, the dark purple fruits (berries) hang in large clusters. The leaves are made up of five or seven serrated leaflets, and have a distinctive smell. The clusters of white flowers are pollinated by insects, especially hoverflies. Sambucus nigra flowers in May to July and produces fruits between September and October.

Threats and conservation

Elder is widespread and not threatened. It grows readily and quickly in a wide range of habitats both in rural and urban areas, where its flowers attract insects and its berries provide an important food source for birds such as blackbirds and thrushes.


In the UK the best-known use of elder is in cordials, wines and teas produced from the fruits and berries. These have become increasingly popular in recent years, to the extent that orchards of elder have been planted specifically for this purpose. It is also used in various other food products such as elderberry jam, elderflower fritters and other baked goods.

The flowers and berries are best eaten cooked, as they have an unpleasant taste when raw and contain low concentrations of toxic chemicals (unknown and cyanogenic glycosides) that are destroyed by cooking.

Elder has been used traditionally for various other purposes including perfumery and dyes. The twigs are hollow and filled with pith that can be pushed out to make small pipes and in the past were also sometimes used to make musical instruments. They are still sometimes used by children as pea-shooters. The leaves may be used as an insect repellent.

Elder is often planted in mixed hedges to provide informal screens. As an ornamental, it is grown for its foliage, flowers and fruit. Numerous cultivars exist, ranging from those with white-variegated or golden foliage (such as 'Albopunctata' and 'Aurea', respectively) to those with more finely dissected foliage (e.g. 'Laciniata'). There are also double-flowered, pink-flowered and pendulous forms.

Known hazards

The flowers and fruits of Sambucus nigra contain a mildly poisonous alkaloid that is destroyed by cooking; the leaves are also poisonous. Elderflowers and elderberries occasionally cause allergic reactions. Herbal remedies containing elder should be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women as there is insufficient information regarding their safety. Also, elder is not a good tree to climb, the wood being rather weak!

Britain's wild harvest

Kew's Sustainable Uses of Plants Group undertook a survey of commercial uses of wild and traditionally managed plants in England and Scotland for the Countryside Agency, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage to determine the economic role of wild plants and to assist in their sustainable use. Although (as noted in the Uses section) plantations of elder have been established, the survey revealed that elderflower is still gathered from the wild in large quantities for the production of cordial and wine. For example, one drinks company employs some 600 people in May and June to collect elderflowers from hedgerows - an indication of the importance of elder to the rural economy and to the food and drink industry.

Remembered Remedies

Kew is collaborating with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Chelsea Physic Garden, Neal's Yard, the Eden Project and the Natural History Museum in a project called Ethnomedica (or 'Remembered Remedies') to collect and preserve the wealth of knowledge about local uses of plants as medicines in the UK.

Collection of data began in 2003 and so far about 5,000 remedies have been gathered and entered into a database, preserving knowledge that may have otherwise been lost. Among the 'Top 10' remedies emerging from the project is the use of elder for treating coughs and colds.

The project is not just preserving knowledge purely for its historical interest, but also for its practical value. Documenting the actual and potential medical values of plants through the Ethnomedica project can indicate possible lines of scientific research, for example to identify active compounds present in plants - research that is currently underway in the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew. Who knows which new medicine of the future might owe its origin to the remedies of the past?

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two

Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox - the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB.

Germination testing: Unsuccessful

Composition values: Oil content 26.9%, Protein 12.3%


This species will grow well in most soil types, and seeds itself readily.

At Kew, cuttings are taken from selected cultivars. Unfortunately many of the cultivars at Kew are old plants from which it is harder to strike cuttings. Success rates are typically around 50%, and would be much higher from younger plants. The first cuttings from the old plants are grown on and then the resulting new plants used to provide semi-ripe cuttings in the summer. These are more successful. These cuttings are placed in the sand bed in the Arboretum Nursery. They quickly form a callus, making roots by the following summer. After the cuttings have produced roots they are planted into the nursery field area, where they are grown for two more years before being planted out into their final positions in the gardens.

Propagation can also be carried out by collection of the seed in early autumn. This should either be sown in pots kept outside, or given cold stratification and grown on in a cool greenhouse.

Young growth of the species can be subject to aphid attack in some years.

Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society. The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives - without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe. Sambucus nigra was one of the species that featured in the garden, which was awarded a Silver Medal.

Woodlands and hedgerows.
Elder is not threatened.

Biogeografic region: Andean. Elevation range: 700–2700 m a.s.l. Cultivated in Colombia. Colombian departments: Antioquia, Bogotá DC, Boyacá, Caldas, Cauca, Cundinamarca, Huila, Magdalena, Meta, Nariño, Putumayo, Quindío, Santander, Valle del Cauca.
Shrub, Small tree.
IUCN Red List Assessment (2021): LC. National Red List of Colombia (2021): Potential LC.

The Useful Plants of Boyacá project

Morphology General Habit
Alt. 700 - 2700 m.
Native and cultivated in Colombia.

Bernal, R., Gradstein, S.R. & Celis, M. (eds.). 2015. Catálogo de plantas y líquenes de Colombia. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá.

Nativa y cultivada en Colombia; Alt. 700 - 2700 m.; Andes, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Valle del Cauca.
Morphology General Habit
Arbusto, arbolito
Preocupación Menor

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

LC - least concern


Food and drink, medicinal, insect repellent.

Use Animal Food
Used as animal food.
Use Environmental
Environmental uses.
Use Food
Used for food.
Use Materials
Used as material.
Use Medicines
Medical uses.
Use Poisons

Use Animal Food
Forage for cows (Correa & Bernal 1989). Aerial parts eaten by animals (Correa & Bernal 1989).
Use Materials
Materials (State of the World's Plants 2016).
Use Materials Unspecified Materials Chemicals
Materials (State of the World's Plants 2016).
Use Medicines Infections & Infestations
Leaves and flowers - Used in liquid medicines with lemon juice (Cadena-González 2010). Leaves and flowers - Used in liquid medicines in the treatment of infections (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Inflammation
Infructescences and flowers - Used in liquid medicines as an anti-inflammatory (Lagos-López 2007).
Use Medicines Injuries
Infructescences and flowers - Used in liquid medicines (Lagos-López 2007).
Use Medicines Nutritional Disorders
The shoots are used in liquid medicines to alleviate weakness (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Pain
Used in medicines to alleviate pain (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Respiratory System Disorders
Aerial parts used in cough syrups (Díaz 2003). The shoots are used in liquid medicines in the treatment of respiratory complaints (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Sensory System Disorders
Leaves and flowers - Used in eyebaths in the treatment of eye inflammation (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Skin or Subcutaneous Cellular Tissue Disorders
Used in baths to prevent hair loss (Cadena-González 2010).
Use Medicines Unspecified Medicinal Disorders
Medicinal (State of the World's Plants 2016, Instituto Humboldt 2014).

Common Names

Common Elder, Elder, Parsley-leaved Elder
Sauco, saúco, zahuco, flor de tilo, sauco de Europa, rayán, asauco, sauco blanco.


  • Catálogo de Plantas y Líquenes de Colombia

  • Colombian resources for Plants made Accessible

    • ColPlantA 2021. Published on the Internet at
  • Herbarium Catalogue Specimens

    • Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew
  • IUCN Categories

    • IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
  • Kew Backbone Distributions

    • The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Vascular Plants 2023. Published on the Internet at and
    • © Copyright 2022 World Checklist of Vascular Plants.
  • Kew Living Collection Database

    • Common Names from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Living Collection
  • Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone

    • The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Vascular Plants 2023. Published on the Internet at and
    • © Copyright 2022 International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Vascular Plants.
  • Kew Science Photographs

    • Copyright applied to individual images
  • Kew Species Profiles

    • Kew Species Profiles
  • Universidad Nacional de Colombia

    • ColPlantA database
  • Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia

  • Useful Plants of Boyacá Project

    • ColPlantA database