The Medicinal Plant Garden

of Birmingham-Southern College

  • Sambucus canadensis
  • Sambucus canadensis

Common Name

Elderberry, American elder

Geographic Distribution and Habitat

American elder is distributed primarily throughout the eastern and Midwestern United States.


Sambucus canadensis, in the honeysyckle familyis an erect, thicket-forming, somewhat woody shrub, 4-12 feet tall, with smooth yellowish-gray branchlets and white pith. Compound leaves are set oppositely in pairs in a feather-like arrangement. The leaf surface is bright green. The oval to lance-shaped leaflets are up to 6″ long and 2 1/2″ wide, with finely serrated margins. They are abruptly narrowed at the tip and lopsidedly narrowed or rounded at the base. Leaflets are usually held on short stalks; the terminal leaflet is on a longer stalk.

Numerous 1/4″ fragrant white flowers emerge from late June into August. The terminal clusters of flowers, measuring 4″-10″ across, are broad, flat or slightly rounded and long-stalked. Flowers usually develop in the second-year on older canes, and are arranged in branched clusters of 5.

Fruits ripen from late July into September. They are round, slightly bitter, edible purple-black berries with crimson juice. Each is less than 1/4″ across, borne in large clusters. Each berry contains 3-5 small seeds. Seed dispersal occurs from July to October, usually through vigorous ingestion by birds and mammals. New growth of American elder contains a glucoside than can be fatal to livestock.(USDA)

Portion of the Plant Used

Berries, flowers, leaves, inner bark.

Traditional Uses

Native Americans also have a tradition of using elderberry for its healing properties (Borchers et al. 2000) and particularly to treat fever and rheumatism (Moerman 1986).

In folk medicine, elder berries have been used for their diaphoretic, laxative and diuretic properties (Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005; Merica et al. 2006) and to treat various illnesses such as stomach ache, sinus congestion, constipation, diarrhea, sore throat, common cold, and rheumatism (Novelli 2003; Uncini Manganelli et al. 2005). The flowers are said to have diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, and topical anti-inflammatory actions (Merica et al. 2006). Some of these properties seem justified since elderberry fruits contain tannins and  viburnic acid, both known to have a positive effect on diarrhea, nasal congestion, and to improve respiration (Novelli 2003). Leaves and inner bark have also been used for their purgative, emetic, diuretic, laxative, topical emollient, expectorant, and diaphoretic action (Merica et al. 2006).(Charlebois 2007)


Elderberry fruits are an excellent source of anthocyanins, vitamins A and C and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6. They also contain sterols, tannins, and essential oils and can readily be considered a healthy food. But more evidence is needed to really sustain any claim relative to their medicinal value. (Charlebois 2007)

Side Effects, Interactions, and Contraindications

New growth of American elder contains a glucoside than can be fatal to livestock.(USDA)