History, Identification, & Uses of Elderberry

You may have seen elderberry cough syrup on the grocery store shelf right next to the rest of the cough syrup. Recently, it has become a popular home remedy for treating colds and the flu but has been used for centuries to treat these things and more.

Elderberry

Elderberry juice was used to treat the flu epidemic in Panama in 1995 and the German Commission E (German FDA) approved elderberry for treatment of coughs, bronchitis, fevers, and colds. Though it has been known for centuries as a remedy to help treat some illnesses and boost the immune system, only recently has there been studies to show us the possibilities of the elderberry in modern day medicine.

There is a lot of folklore surrounding the elderberry plant. In Ireland, elderberry was once considered a sacred tree. The Danish believed that the elder plant was protected by Hyldemor, the Elder Mother. It was important to ask for permission before cutting an elderberry tree or else it could bring you bad luck and misfortune. The Elder Mother was later feared as a witch with the introduction of Christianity.
Elder has both positive and negative views. The Germans and English believed that it was unlucky to bring elder wood into a house as this would bring ghosts or devils into the home. The Scotish would put elder wood above their doors and windows to protect their home from evil spirits and witches. In parts of the British Isles, they believed that bathing your eyes in the juice of the wood would allow you to see fairies.
It was believed that the cross Jesus was crucified on was made of elder wood and that the tree Judas Iscariot hung himself on was an elder. These beliefs furthered the negative view of the elderberry plant.
It is said that elder wood is best for carving steaks in vampire lore.

Profile

Common Name: Elderberry, American Black Elderberry, Common Elderberry
Scientific NameSambucus nigra  subsp. canadensis
Identification:
Leaves-opposite-compound, serrated, usually 7 leaves but sometimes 5-11
Twig/Bud-tanish, lightweight, round to angled, white and spongy pith, prominent lenticels give it a bumpy sesame feel, twigs project outward and are multiple scaled
Flower-white, umbrella-like shape in clusters, 5 petals and 5 stamens, fragrant
Fruit-berries, flat-topped cluster, blue-purpleish-black in color, drupes
Height-shrub, 3-12 feet
Harvest Time: Flowers-June to July, Berries-July to September
Parts Edible: Fruit and flowers
Found: Native to most of the US, parts of Canada, rich moist soil, around ponds and marshes

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Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

Red elderberry is also native to most of the United States and Canada. Black elderberry appears to be more commonly found. There is controversy around the red elderberry as it is believed that its fruit is not edible. It is recommended that if the berries are to be consumed they must first be cooked and the seeds removed. It is not recommended to harvest and consume red elderberry. The red elderberry has been used to make  dye, insecticide, medicine, and musical instruments.

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Red Elderberry (source)                                                Black Elderberry

Red elderberries are easy to identify by their red berries. Some other identification markers are; brown pith, purple buds, and steeple-shaped berry cluster.

Historic Uses

-Iroquois used a tea made from the bark of the elderberry to treat measles and headaches and used it as a strong laxative, diuretic, and a poultice for cuts.
-Cherokee used a tea made from the berries to treat boils and rheumatism and used it as a diuretic, cathartic, emetic and made a salve to treat burns.
-Leaves made into a poultice were used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat bruises
-Bark tea was used to externally treat skin conditions such as eczema
-In Europe, extractions made from elderberry flowers and berries were used to treat colds and reduce fevers. It would also help increase bronchial secretions.
-Flowers made into a poultice have been used to ease pain and reduce inflammation
-Root was once used as an emetic and purgative, root is no longer used in modern herbal medicine
-Leaves have been used as an insect repellent and insecticide

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Elderberry Flowers

Vitamins, Minerals, & More

Fruit contains:
-Anthocyanins (water-soluble pigments)
-Vitamin A
-Vitamin C
-Vitamin B6
-Calcium
-Iron
-Tannins

Flowers contain:
-Flavonols
quercetin, isoquercitrin, and anthocyanins
-Chlorogenic acids

Preparations

-Some eat the berries right off the stem, though it is recommended that they are cooked before consuming
-Berries are dried and used in teas and to make tinctures and syrups (fresh berries can be used too!)
-Berries are used in desserts
-Flowers are eaten and used in baking
-Berries can be used as a natural dye
-Flowers and berries are used in teas, supplements pills or capsules, tinctures, and concentrates

black-elderberry-440801_1920
Ripe Berries

Precautions

-Bark, root, leaves, and unripe berries are considered toxic!
-Consumption of above parts can cause diarrhea and possible cyanide poisoning
-Some recommend cooking the ripe berries before consuming
-Since elderberry can stimulate the immune system be cautious and consult a doctor if you have an autoimmune disease
-It is recommended that you not take elderberry or elderflowers if you are on diuretics, diabetes medications, chemotherapy, laxatives, Theophylline (TheoDur), or drugs that suppress the immune system. Consult your doctor before taking elderberries if on these medications.
-Elderflower may cause gastrointestinal issues when eaten in large amounts

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Unripe Berries

Harvest

-You have a small window to harvest elderberries before the birds get to them!
-Harvest berries when they are nice and dark in color, they are ripe when they are dark purple/blue-black. Don’t harvest green berries! If you do, pick them out.
-Best way to harvest them is not picking them one by one, but cutting the stem right above the bunch of berries.
-Rinse berries before taking them off the stem
-Use your fingers or a fork to strip fresh berries off of stem
-Some people like to put them in the freezer for a few hours to easily take the berries off
-Make sure to pick off any green or not fully ripe berries

Recipes

Elderberry Jelly
Immune-Boosting Elderberry Smoothie
Elderberry Kombucha
Elderberry Infused Honey
ELDERBERRY MEAD
Fermented Elderberry and Honey Soda
MINIATURE ELDERFLOWER CAKES MADE WITH ELDERFLOWER SUGAR
Gluten Free Elderberry Pear Hazelnut Cake
Chilled Elderberry Soup
Elderflower cordial
Macaron Variations: Blueberry Vanilla & Elderberry Vanilla
Elderberry Pie
RASPBERRY AND ELDERFLOWER SORBET
Soothing Cooling Elderberry Lollipops
There are many, may more recipes out there!

Practicing Sustainable Wild Harvesting

  1. Only harvest plants you know are safe and can identify
  2. Only harvest plants in safe areas that are not contaminated or polluted
  3. Do not harvest on private property without permission
  4. Harvest no more than 10% or use the method: take 1 leave 2
  5. Know how to handle and prepare the plants you are harvesting
  6. Always check the legal status of the plant you want to harvest (is it endangered?)

USDA American black elderberry
Identify red and black elderberries
USDA red elderberry
Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra)
Elderberry as a Medicinal Plant
University of Maryland- Elderberry
Plants for a Future-Sambucus nigra
Tree Lore: Elder
The Elder Mother, Elder Tree
Elderflower
-Foster, Steven, and James Duke A. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.316-17. Print.
-Profant, Dennis. Trees, Shrubs, and Vines of Southeastern Ohio and Appalachia. By Bill Perine. 4th ed. N.p.: n.p., 2007. 210. Print.

Disclaimer: All information on Not Your Typical Hippie is for educational purposes only. I am not a doctor, veterinarian, dietician, or health expert. If you wish to have advice on a medical problem, please consult a doctor. I cannot guarantee that any information provided will work for every person. Please consult a doctor before making any health changes. I am not liable for any choices you make based on the information provided on this website. (Learn more here)

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  • Helen Claire Little

    Love the folklore behind this plant! Ours are starting to fruit now. What to do with them, going to have a look at the recipes listed. Thanks!

    • Plant folklore is so interesting! I wish I had some elderberries I could harvest this year. May you have plentiful harvest and success at making elderberry goodies!