Elderberry Medicine: Potent and Powerful

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I began my love affair with Elder (Sambucus nigra /Sambucus canadensis) when I was in my teens. This vigorous shrub grew with joyful abandon along the creek sides and bordered the farmland where I grew up as a child. In the spring the branches of Elder were thick with fragrant creamy blossoms that were picked, dipped in batter, lightly fried, then served warm with Elderberry jam. Later, as summer progressed, the flowers transformed into thick clusters of dark berries. These berries were definitely sour and not by anyone’s definition delicious, but they were highly prized nonetheless and were turned into flavorful jams, jellies, wines, and pies not to mention an array of medicinal herbal products.

There is probably no plant in herbal history that has been written about with more enthusiasm ~ or surrounded with mystery ~ than the rather humble Elder. Though every part of the plant is considered useful and/or medicinal, it’s the blue-purple Elderberries that are key ingredients in many favorite remedies. Whether you’re a budding herbalist or have many years of medicine making experience, we hope you enjoy this overview of Elderberry’s best use and some very popular and effective Elderberry recipes.

Potent Medicine

Elderberry medicine includes a wide variety of herbal remedies made from the Elder plant, Sambucus nigra.

High in Vitamin A and Vitamin C, Elderberries can play a key role in supporting the health of the immune system. The berries also contain significant amounts of flavonoids and anthocyanins that are both heart protective and immuno enhancing. And the berries (as well as the flowers) contain important anti-viral properties. Studies have shown that early treatment with Elderberry extract can reduce the severity and duration of flu-like illness.1Zakay-Rones, Z., Thom, E., Wollan, T., & Wadstein, J. (2004). Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. The Journal of international medical research, 32(2), 132–140. https://doi.org/10.1177/147323000403200205

Elderberry could also have an important role in the treatment of cancer and autoimmune disease. A 2001 double-blind, placebo-controlled study notes “We conclude from this study that, in addition to its antiviral properties, Sambucol Elderberry Extract and its formulations activate the healthy immune system by increasing inflammatory cytokine production. Sambucol might therefore be beneficial to the immune system activation and in the inflammatory process in healthy individuals or in patients with various diseases.”2Barak, V., Halperin, T., & Kalickman, I. (2001). The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines. European cytokine network, 12(2), 290–296.

  • High in Vitamin C. There are 52 mg of Vitamin C per cup of fruit, which accounts for 57% of the daily value.3Mandl, E. B. (2021, March 12). Elderberry: Benefits and Dangers. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/elderberry#health-benefits.; FoodData Central Search Results: Elderberries, raw. (2019, April 1). U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE Agricultural Research Service FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171727/nutrients
  • Studies have shown that it is the presence of polyphenols (compounds with potential antioxidant properties) that are the source of much of Elderberries medicinal power. These compounds can “greatly affect the course of disease processes by counteracting oxidative stress.”4Sidor, A., & Gramza-Michałowska, A. (2015, October 1). Advanced research on the antioxidant and health benefit of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in food -a review. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464614002400.
  • Elderflowers are packed with flavonols. The flowers contain up to ten times more flavonols than the berries!5“Flavonols are a major class of the family of flavonoids, molecules that have interesting biological activity such as antioxidant, antimicrobial, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, and vasodilatation effects, and they have been considered as potential anticancer agents.” Sidor, A., & Gramza-Michałowska, A. (2015, October 1); Flavonols – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). ScienceDirect. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/flavonols
  • Good source of fiber. 1 cup of fresh Elderberries contains 10.2 grams of fiber and is considered a high-fiber food.6FoodData Central Search Results: Elderberries, raw. (2019, April 1).

Using Elderberry

Elder is one of those plants that crosses over from being good food into being a powerful medicine– you can use it for both! Once cooked and combined with a sweetener (local organic honey is my favorite), Elderberries transform into a delicious and nutritious remedy.

Elderberry syrup is a favorite form of Elderberry medicine that can be taken on its own or combined with sparkling water for a fizzy drink. Though Elderberry syrup is available for purchase in natural food stores and herbal pharmacies, it is far less expensive and quite easy to make your own syrup from the fresh or dried berries. You can also tincture the berries– but it’s so good as a syrup, that it’s hard to recommend this method!

Elderflowers offer their own magic and can be lightly battered and fried as a fritter or infused in lemon sugar water for Elderflower cordial. The beautiful cream-colored blossoms have long been made into a tea to induce perspiration, thus helping to lower fever. More than one popular commercial blend for winter health includes Elderflowers as a major ingredient due to their diaphoretic (inducing perspiration) and antiviral action. The flowers also serve as an aid for several types of skin problems. At one time, Elderflower water could be found in every pharmacy in this country as a cosmetic wash to improve the quality of one’s skin.

Fresh Elderberries, so abundant throughout the late summer in almost every state, can be frozen or dried for use during the winter months. Elderflowers, too, preserve well when picked just as they’re opening in the early spring and carefully dried for future use.

Words of Caution​

Do not eat the raw (uncooked) or unripe Elderberries in any great quantity. They contain lectins which can cause digestive upset and diarrhea in some people. Raw berries also contain small amounts of cyanide.7Fossum, G., Saboni, M., & Berit Samuelsen, A. (2014, January 28). Assessment report on Sambucus nigra L., fructus. European Medicines Agency. https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/documents/herbal-report/final-assessment-report-sambucus-nigra-l-fructus_en.pdf

Only the Black Elder is edible. The species (Sambucus racemosa) that has red berries is somewhat toxic. Learn to tell the difference before making these or you may end up with toxic medicine!

Two of My Favorite Elder Recipes

Elderberry Syrup

This may be one of the best Elderberry syrup recipes on the planet. It’s graciously shared by my friends Nancy and Michael Phillips, the authors of The Herbalist’s Way. Delicious enough to use just for sheer flavor alone, Elderberry syrup is also helpful for warding off or speeding recovery from colds and flu.

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts Fresh ripe Elderberries See variations below for using dried berries
  • 1/4 ounce Freshly grated Ginger root
  • 1/2 tsp Ground Cloves
  • Honey

Instructions

  • Combine the Elderberries with ¼ cup of water in a large soup pot and simmer until soft. Strain out the pulp, reserving the liquid. Compost the solids and return the liquid to the pot.
  • Add the Ginger and Cloves and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid reduces to about half its original volume. Pour the juice into a measuring cup and note its volume, then return to the pot.
  • Add the same amount of honey and stir until thoroughly combined. Let cool, then bottle. Store in the refrigerator, and use within 12 weeks.
  • To Use: To treat or fight off a cold or flu, take 1 to 2 tablespoons several times throughout the day.

Notes

Variations: I’ve followed this recipe using dried elderberries, and the syrup has turned out, while not quite as delicious, still effective. Use 1 quart of dried berries with 2 quarts of water. Cook over low heat with the lid slightly ajar so that steam can escape, until the water is reduced by half. Strain, add the ginger and clove, and continue as above.
Adding elder flowers to the syrup introduces a diaphoretic property, helping you to “sweat out” a fever. After cooking down the juice with the ginger and cloves, you can turn off the heat, add ½ cup dried elder flowers to the hot juice, put the lid on, and let infuse for 20 minutes. Then strain the flowers from the syrup and proceed with the honey.
Text and recipe excerpted from Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide © 2012 by Rosemary Gladstar. All rights reserved.
All Content [copy] 2022 The Science & Art of Herbalism

Elderflower Fritters

These are a delicious old-fashioned dessert. The Elder blooms generally in the late spring and has a rather long blooming period, so you can enjoy several batches of these fritters.

Ingredients

  • 3 Egg yolks
  • 1 cup Flour
  • 1 tsp Oil
  • 1/2 cup Milk
  • 20 to 30  Elder blossom clusters Leave a fairly long stem on them.

Instructions

  • In a large mixing bowl combine 3 egg yolks, 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon oil and 1/2 cup milk. Mix well.
  • Beat the egg whites to a froth and stir in. You will need about 20 to 30 Elder blossom clusters. Leave a fairly long stem on them. Check for insects; they love to hide in the small white blossoms.
  • Dip the blossom clusters in the batter and fry in a pan full of sizzling hot oil. Fry until a golden brown. Drain on paper towels. These are traditionally served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. I prefer them with wild jams or honey.

Notes

One word of caution, it is only the black elder that is edible. The variety that has red berries is somewhat toxic. Learn to tell the difference before making these or you may end up with toxic fritters.
All Content [copy] 2022 The Science & Art of Herbalism

The humble yet very special Elder provides a perfect introduction to herbal medicine. Though every part of the plant is considered useful and/or medicinal, it’s the deep blue berries that are my favorite. Whether you boil up a batch of Elderberry syrup to treat a viral or respiratory tract infection or add the syrup to sparkling water for a refreshing and nutritious drink, Elder embodies the idea of ‘food as medicine’ and certainly deserves a place in your home and apothecary.

I invite you to learn more about Elderberry medicine–as well as Elderberry recipes including Nutritive Tonic Berry-Good Tea, Gypsy Cold Care and Urinary Tonic Tea– in my book Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.

Edited by Mary McCarthy
Edited by Mary McCarthy

Mary joined The Science & Art of Herbalism team in 2016 and serves as Web Content Manager. Mary is a Master Gardener with a deep passion for plants and the natural world. She tends Hill House Farm, a small cut flower and sheep farm in Vermont.

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Frances Clark
Frances Clark
4 months ago

5 stars
I have 2 packs of dried elderberries I got from a herbalist in SC…I have a vitamixer…could I leave the berries in? Instead of straining….could the recipe using honey work with the mixture put in vitamixer before adding the honey?

Warm Herbal Greetings!

I’m Rosemary Gladstar. All my life I’ve had a deep love and fascination with plants. I have been learning, teaching and writing about herbs for over 50 years. It is my honor and joy to share what I have learned with you, and to introduce you to my fellow herbalists and plant lovers!

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