Wild Medicine: Elderberry

Elderberry has a long history as herbal folk medicine, especially as a remedy for influenza.

Botanical name: Sambucus nigra; S. canadensis; S. cerulea (Western)

Common name: Elder, The Elder Mother

Taste: Flower: acrid, sweet – Berry- sour: sweet, bitter

Flowers – Tiny, ivory white/yellowish delicate flowers bloom and fade quickly in June.

Elder flowers in bloom in early summer
Elder flowers in early summer

Fruit – Small green berries form from the flowers, gradually turning bluish purple and ripening during late July – September. A whitish bloom appears when the berries ripen on S. cerulea. The bloom protects the berries from UV damage.

Elderberries with whitish bloom
Elderberries ready to harvest

When I moved to Sleepy Hollow Homestead twelve years ago, I couldn’t identify an elderberry shrub if it was growing in front of me. But as I immersed myself in the study of plants and herbalism, focusing on my bioregion, I was thrilled to discover that I was surrounded by elderberry shrubs. 

Unfortunately, my homestead is surrounded by private timber lands which are clear-cut and replanted with two fast-growing tree species intended for commercial harvest.

A very small removal of large old trees.  Clear cutting is the modern method of tree harvesting. Slash piles are left to burn in the fall.
A very small removal of large old trees. Clear cutting is the modern method of tree harvesting. Slash piles are left to burn in the fall.

Within a few years after what can only be called a scalping of a forest ecosystem, elderberry shrubs are some of the first wild plants to grow (along with other healing plants like yarrow, St. John’s Wort, and mullein). Over time, as the Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine seedlings grow and block the sun, the elderberries disappear. New clear-cuts occur each year so there is an abundance of elderberry shrubs within a few miles of my home. 

Five years after a clear-cut, elderberry bushes pop up throughout the site.
Five years after a clear-cut, elderberry bushes pop up throughout the site.

Because of the abundance, the elder plays an important herbal role in my life. I love to watch the plant through the seasons: bright green leaves in early spring, tiny white aromatic flowers in early summer, unripe, olive-green berries in mid-summer, dark blue berries with a whitish bloom in the late summer/early fall, and the rough-barked branches of winter. 

Each year, I make gallons of elderberry cordial, drinking a morning shot to support my immune system. I harvest enough of the flowers and berries to make my annual Solstice gifts of remedies for winter viruses. On the winter solstice, my friends are gifted with a herbal care package that includes elderberry tincture, cold care tea that includes elderflowers, and herb-infused honey for sore throats.

Elderberries In the Wild & Garden

Elderberry species grow throughout North America and Europe. My native species is S. cerulea which is a shrubby and thicket-forming tree that can grow to 30 feet tall. Though elders are often seen near water and prefer moist soil, this western species pops up on disturbed land with no summer moisture on the much drier east side of the Cascades mountains.

Wildlife loves elderberry! Over 50 species of songbirds, upland game birds, and small mammals enjoy its fruit, twigs, and cover/shade offered by the large umbrella-like canopy. On an early morning walk a few years back, I heard a snap and then a thump and looked over to see a young bear picking ripe elderberries off a branch he had just yanked off the shrub. (This is not a tree for climbing, branches break easily.)

Elderberry thicket which includes lots of broken branches.
Elderberry thicket which includes lots of broken branches.

Native species of Sambucus may not be well-suited to a suburban or urban yard because of their size (20-30 feet tall) and suckering growth habits. There are smaller and better behaved ornamental varieties available from nurseries.

Elderberries In the Kitchen

Probably the two most favored ways to cook with elderberries are making syrup and jam. The berries can also be used to infuse vinegar and alcohol. And of course, elderberry wine is popular …though I don’t know why – there are far better-tasting fruit wines! Elderflowers are used in the commercially-made Saint Germain liqueur; I’ve never tried it but once made homemade elderflower cordial…too sweet and floral for my tastes.

Upclose elderberry with peduncles
The little stems (peduncles) that attach the berries to the larger stems should be removed.

The berries are small and seedy and have little peduncles (stems) that should be removed. De-stemming is time-consuming but necessary. The stems and bark contain cyanogenic glycosides and alkaloids that can produce stomach upset, diarrhea, and vomiting if large amounts are ingested. Avoid eating raw berries for the same reason. Skin irritation may occur from touching elderberry in susceptible individuals.

Elderberries As Medicine

Elderberry has a long history as folk medicine in Europe. 

Flowers are considered a relaxing diaphoretic and are infused as teas that will induce a mild sweat when fever is present but there is no sweating. I wildcraft and dry about a quart’s worth for the traditional remedy “Cold Care Tea” which is useful for colds and influenza.

The flowers have also been used as a topical application for inflamed skin. Flowers can be steeped in warm water and used as a wash. Flowers can be infused with oil and made into a cream.

Traditionally, berries and flowers have been used to assist with allergies and improve respiratory health and a few small clinical trials have supported these uses. Several herbalists have reported successfully using elderberry elixir for lung ailments that are rooted in general weakness that comes with smoking, asthma, and other stressors by improving the strength of the lungs.

Elderberry as an Antiviral Herb

Current research is focused on its anti-viral properties, especially with regard to influenza. Both the flowers and berries have strong antiviral actions. Specifically, using elderberry extract at the first symptoms of flu has shown that the extract can reduce the amount of time sick by up to half and lessens the effects of symptoms.  It is believed that elderberry works on the flu virus cells by blocking their ability to adhere and enter cells, thus reducing the virus’ ability to reproduce and spread.  These studies used Sambucol, a proprietary elderberry extract and studies have not been done using homemade tinctures/extracts.

If you don’t have wild elderberries growing in your area, dried elderberries and elderberry extract can be purchased through retail herb suppliers like Mountain Rose Herbs and from independent wildcrafters and farmers on etsy.com. You would be wise to order them before the influenza season begins and have them on hand to make your remedies ahead of time. A few years ago, suppliers were sold out as a nasty virus was making its way across the globe.

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