Today, I’m going to give you a good visual, practical, and historic tour of elderberry and elderflower.
I’m embarrassed to say that it took about two years for me to finally appreciate this herb for what it has to offer, especially since it’s so common, easily available, and has such a rich history.
This is a nice stand that I discovered one June a couple of years back. This is what elderberry looks like…sort of a gangly, weed-bush-tree, with big white flowers. Pretty much just a common roadside weed here in Georgia. Check out this native plant map to see if it grows in your state!
In the winter time, you wouldn’t even know it was there at all, as it dies back to the twigs.Elder prefers sunny spots with damp ground, and can often be found on the edge of wooded areas, or along the banks of sunny creeks and rivers. Elderberry plants are in the honeysuckle family, and are very hardy. A friend of mine even has some growing in her backyard that came up on its own.
There are many varieties of elderberry, but this one is VERY common over most of the US and Canada. It is known as American Black Elderberry, or Sambucus Nigra. Some of the other varieties, like the red elderberry are not as tummy friendly or as effective in regards to antiviral activity, so be sure to positively ID your find before using it. (more on that below in the warnings)
As you can see, June is too early to harvest the berries, but it’s the perfect time to gather some of the beautiful flowers, which was my first goal.
Isn’t it gorgeous! It’s like a giant Queen Anne’s Lace flower!
My sweet husband was willing to let me cut some of the flowers, so we pulled off the road into a safe spot, and I hopped out with my scissors and a shopping bag, and harvested several large blossoms. My main goal, though, was gathering the berries, so I left most of the flower heads intact to bear fruit…I’ll be back for those later.
The flowers are the gentlest part of the elderberry plant, medicinally speaking,1 which is why they are perfect to use for children. I let the flowers air dry, and then stored them in a jar. I toyed around with making a tea blend with them. The blossoms are bitter, but blended with peppermint it had a nice flavor that even my kids like. The tea was pleasant, but making cup after cup of tea for hourly dosing just wasn’t going to be practical for me. I still love the idea of using the blossoms, and have some of the dried flowers still on hand to play with. What I really wanted were those berries.
Eventually, the whole flower head is transformed from an arched umbrella of flowers into a heavily drooping cluster of lovely ripe berries. Two years back, I missed the best harvest time, and was only able to get a handful of berries, but wasn’t sure what to do with them. This past summer, I made a point watch for them, and harvested about 1/2 of them, leaving the rest to reseed and for the birds and animals to enjoy. Important Note: Only the blue or purple berries of elderberry are edible. The red berries of other species are toxic and should not be gathered.1
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the fresh berries, since we usually aren’t battling colds in July. I’m not set up with juicing equipment, and I felt like it would probably ferment by the time we needed it. I know that I can order dried elderberries, so I really wanted to take advantage of the properties of the fresh berry. That’s when this recipe for elderberry shrub, caught my attention. A shrub is an old fashioned sparkling drink based on a vinegar extraction of elderberries, that’s sweetened with sugar and mixed with sparkling water.
The first part of the recipe describes how to make a strong elderberry vinegar, which brought to my mind a couple of articles that I’d read about different substrates to extract the properties of herbs. Water, glycerin, alcohol, and vinegar are common substrates used in extracting herbs, and each one pulls different qualities.
The water or glycerin pull out the gentler, nourishing properties of the herb, like water-soluble vitamins and minerals. Alcohol extracts the stronger, medicinal properties of the herbs, but I’m not as comfortable using this with my kids for daily dosing. But vinegar pulls out a good mix of both medicinal and nutritive properties. And with vinegar extraction, there is no heat required…the acetic acid acts on the berries (or other herb) over time, so you get best of both worlds. Yes!
So, I tossed my fresh berries into a jar of cider vinegar, and shook them up. I let the berries sit in the vinegar at room temperature for a few weeks until the it turned very dark, shaking daily (or as I remembered), and then I tucked the jar away in the fridge labeled “Elderberry Vinegar”. And you’ll hear more about that in my next post. I think I’ll do the same thing next year with my harvest!
The History of Elderberry
Historically, they are used both as a food, and as traditional ‘medicine’ by many native cultures. In the kitchen, elderberry and juice has been used to make jellies, jams, pies, wine, juice, and even flower fritters, made by batter dipping and frying the flower heads!1
Elder is derived from the word ‘ellen’, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning kindler of fire.1 The dry branches and pith from the hollow core make excellent kindling, apparently enough so that the plant was named for this.1 The edible berries and flower have long been used for folk medicines, and the stems are used to create a rich black dye used for basketry, arrow shafts, and many other wooden items.
2The wood is hard and was often fashioned into many different items, including combs, spindles, pegs, arrows, and more. The hollow stems make it especially useful in constructing flutes, clapper sticks, and blowguns or water guns.1
Using Elderberry for Health and Beauty
Almost all the parts of the plant may be used for various remedies for nearly every part of the body, and the plant has been considered a valuable healing plant and food source in many folk medicine traditions worldwide.1 The plant was considered to be a sort of cure-all, engendering loyalty among both the common folk, and the respect of respected men of medicine.One famous doctor was said to never pass a clump of elderberry without tipping his hat!2
Historically, elderberry was used for a number of actions: to purge or stimulate waste removal systems and secretions, as an anti-inflammatory for swelling (especially edema), as a soothing agent for the skin and digestive tract, and for it’s amazing ability to enhance the immune response and eradicate viruses and infections. 3
And though we often hear “There is no cure for the common cold,” even the modern Medscape Reference lists elderberry to be efficacious against “the severity and duration of cold, flu, cough and mouth ulcers”, as well as combating the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol.4
Let’s take a look at the different parts of the plant, and how they may be used.
The dried flowers are the gentlest part of the plant, and are often prepared as a tea, which is “used to break dry fevers and stimulate perspiration, aid headache, indigestion, twitching eyes, dropsy [edema or swelling], rheumatism [arthritis], appendix inflammation, bladder or kidney infections, colds, influenza, consumption [pulmonary tuberculosis], and is helpful to newborn babies” (Hutchens 1991). 1 Another reference suggested that small doses are useful for clearing nasal passages of infants.3
According to the Kings American Dispensory from 1898, a warm infusion of flowers promotes sweating/cooling, and gently stimulates the waste removal systems of the body. 3 These would include the intestines, kidneys, lymph, liver, sinuses, etc.
A cooled tea, however, was considered diuretic, “blood cleansing” (stimulates the liver), and cooling. 3 This preparation is good for edema, liver based problems, and specifically for rashes. Especially the rash caused by strep throat called St. Anthony’s Fire, and similar skin eruption3 that often extend from liver stress or illnesses (bacterial, viral, or even fungal infections).
Elderflower is one of the ingredients in a classic “Children’s Composition” that has been documented as far back as the Iriquois and pioneer families.5 It contains elderflower, yarrow, and peppermint blended together. Lemon balm is another good addition to this mix. The blend can be steeped as a tea, or made into a glycerite. (see More Than Alive in the resource links below for more recipes and information on this blend.) It is generally used for colds and fevers, as well as an upset stomach.
The anti-inflammatory and healing properties of elderflower tea make it very useful for external remedies, and has been used as a wash for wounds, sprains, and bruises, as well as for sores on domestic animals.1
Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-September-03
Leaves and Twigs
The leaves, twigs, and stems have a stronger action than the flowers. Care should be taken not to ingest the leaves or twigs/stems or leaf buds, which may induce vomiting that “sometimes acts with violence”. 4 There are even reports from history of boys becoming “ill” after using the fresh branches for whistles. (Am I scaring you yet? Good. We can be scared together.)
However, just like the flowers, the leaves, bark, and twigs all have valuable anti-inflammatory properties for external use.1 In fact, the inner green bark and young leaf buds are thought to contain very high concentrations of the effective alkaloids, it was the preference for external uses, which included poultices/compresses, strong teas (decoctions), and ointments.3
Apparently, the inner green bark is so potent, that even boiling only tames down its purging qualities. One preparation says to make an infusion (tea) of it in cider or wine. 3 Doses of this preparation, from ½ to 1 ounce, were prescribed to “purge moderately”, but small doses were used as an expectorant and as an effective diuretic to treat cases of edema. 3
I’d definitely leave the internal use of bark/twigs to a professional herbalist, but it’s interesting to note its effectiveness and uses. Sort of like a historic version of “syrup of ipecac”…which definitely holds an important spot in the medicine cabinet if you should need it.
For external use, the method of preparation suggested is to make a strong tea by combining 2 oz. of the inner green bark in 1 quart of water, and boiling it down to a pint.3 This was also used to create an ointment “beaten up with lard or cream” to treat a variety of skin conditions.3 Burns, scalds, cradle cap, eczema, rashes from diseases (Scarlet Fever is mentioned), old ulcers with weepy swollen edges, and areas of the body that are effected by edema or water retention. Much mention is made, in Kings, of elder being very effective in cases where you find fluid retention or weeping of the skin or tissues, and also in the case of rashes caused by fevers or diseases. 3
One use that really stood out to me was that it was effective against cradle cap, 3 which, according to my husband’s dermatologist is caused by the same stubborn fungal infection as dandruff or seborrhic dermatitis. It’s something that we’ve dealt with here, and I realized that the break outs had stopped a few weeks back…and after reading this, the light-bulb went off that it disappeared during the time that we were all taking elderberry syrup regularly.
After doing a bit of digging around, I see several dandruff preparations offered for sale featuring elder, so I’m excited to tinker around with using leaves and stems to create a preparation for this as soon as I can get my hands on some fresh elderberry. I’d love to test its effectiveness on eczema, as well with my niece and nephew.
Chamomile or Plantain are excellent companion herbs, mixed half and half with elder in anti-inflammatory poultices or compresses. A blend of these herbs, crushed and dampened with hot water can be applied in a clean cotton tea towel on the skin for swelling, soreness, inflammation, stiffness, and to reduce the swelling of insect stings. 1 Medscape also notes that the leaves are used for “bruises, sprains, wounds, & burns.” 4
Another impressive use for the leaves is in repelling insects, both on humans and plants. One of the defining characteristics of elderberry is that the leaves have an offensive smell when crushed, which may be useful for this application. A tea made of the leaves is supposed to deter mosquitoes and flies, when rubbed into the skin.2 In the garden, elderleaf tea has been used to repel aphids and small caterpillars from delicate plants and blooms. Historical notes have also been made on the use of elderleaf and shoot to repel blight from fruit trees, cabbage, corn and turnips. A recipe is given in Chemist and Druggist, January 6, 1923 for one such concoction:
“A liquid preparation for preventing, and also curing, blight in fruit trees, wherein the base is a liquid obtained by boiling the young shoots of the Elder tree or bush, mixed with suitable proportions of copper sulphate, iron sulphate, nicotine, soft soap, methylated spirit and slaked lime.” 2
Berries and Juice
The berry juice has really been my main focus and experience with elder.
First, let me warn you of the effects of the raw berries and juice. The raw juice has been used since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, as an excellent laxative in small doses (1/2-1 oz),1,3 and is known to cause significant ‘purging’ in larger doses.2,6 Larger amounts of fresh juice have also been used2 to induce vomiting, with the effects increasing with the amount ingested.6 These actions were recently proven to be highly effective, much to the chagrin of a religious group in Monterey, CA who served raw elderberry punch one afternoon.6 So if you’re into raw foods, I’d steer clear of elderberries in the smoothie, unless you’re looking for a good double cleanse.
Update: Several herbalist friends who have a lot more experience with elderberry than I have, have gently let me know that elderberry is really not “poisonous” or to be feared. They eat raw berries while harvesting, and suffer no ill effects. So they are of the opinion that the “purging” qualities are either attributed to eating massive amounts of berries, or getting twigs into your punch fixings.
The prepared/cooked berries and juice is where it’s at. These have been enjoyed safely for centuries in treats, and also as a much respected and beloved ‘universal remedy.’2 Kings Medical Dictionary references the “expressed juice of the berries” to be beneficial in cases of tuberculosis that has settled into the lymph glands of the neck, skin diseases, syphilis, and arthritis/joint pain. 3 But the more modern focus, and how the common housefrau used elder back then, 1 have been on using the juice to foil colds and flus.
I have been so impressed with the elderberry syrup I made (recipe coming next!) I have personally experienced the effectiveness of elderberry syrup in shutting down colds and viruses in our family this year. It’s really amazing, and has worked very quickly to allay respiratory inflammation, congestion, and even the aches and pains of fever if taken at early onset of symptoms.
Elderberry juice is also very soothing for the digestive tract, and is very useful in inflammatory bowel diseases.8 Internally, it calms cramping, inflammation and diarrhea. 8
So, how does this work, exactly? Well, that’s the beauty of using herbs, in my opinion. Medications are generally built around just a few or even just one active ingredient. Herbs, however, are just teeming with compounds that act upon one another and the body in such complex ways that even modern science has not yet been able to unravel all their secrets.
What we do know is that the actions of elderberry in the body can be seen, felt and observed. Modern science has also taken a look at elderberry, and is finding that the actions that we read about in old medical texts can be measured, observed, and replicated in scientific studies.
Based on what researchers are seeing, elderberries contain compounds that inhibit cold and flu viruses from adhering to and entering our cells to reproduce.8,9 One double-blind, placebo study, looking to assess the usefulness of elderberry extracts against the flu, found that in the group of flu patients that were taking the elderberry extract were reporting the maximum level of improvement of symptoms within 3-4 days of the onset of the symptoms, while the group receiving the placebo felt well again on average of 7-8 days.9
The elderberry group reported 9 out of 10 in improvement in aches and pains, quality of sleep, mucus discharge in the respiratory tract, and nasal congestion by day 4.9
In my experience, I’ve found that if I take it at the very first sign of an illness, I can often completely bypass any symptom development. In the one case where I got sick overnight, I was able to control symptoms by taking the extract regularly, and was completely well in 3-4 days.
Updated to add: If we are out of elderberry syrup, and someone comes down with a cold the day before I can get a batch made, then the syrup seems a lot less effective once full blown cold symptoms are on board. The most powerful effects, in my experience, come from taking it at the very first sign of an illness.
Let’s take a look at the just a few of the discovered compounds in elderberry. Alkaloids are compounds that work strongly within the body, displaying medicinal, chemical, and/or even poisonous actions in some cases. They are often studied with the intent of using the compounds to develop drugs/medications.
The active alkaloids at work in elderberry are hydrocyanic acid and sambucine…these are the chemicals that cause nausea when ingesting raw elderberries/juice.1 Other compounds that have been identified are rutin, which is used to strengthen capillaries, and flavanoids, which are the pigment in elderflowers. Both of these are known to improve immune function.1 The flowers also contain tannins, which are bitter, astringent compounds that aid in digestion and tighten and tone tissues. The tannins are probably responsible for the effectiveness of elder to reduce bleeding, diarrhea and congestion. Elderberries are also a great source of vitamin C.1
Warnings & Contraindications for Elderberry
I hope that I’m not coming across as being negative about this amazing herb with the emphasis on warnings. I just feel that it’s super-duper important to really *understand* and respect that herbs have strong medicinal actions. The actions that I am presenting as warnings are valid, medicinal uses…they were used by doctors to induce vomiting in instances when that was the desired and necessary treatment. So, these are not “negative” actions, unless you’re not on the market for a “violent purge.” In which case, I’d love to help you avoid that.
So, let’s review. Only the dark black or blue elderberries are edible, and, as we’ve seen previously, eating the berries raw or drinking raw juice may cause nausea or stomach upset (especially if eaten or taken in large quantities). Cooking deactivates these compounds, however, and cooked elderberry juices and dishes have been enjoyed for centuries with no unpleasant side effects.1
Ingesting stems, shoots, leaf buds and leaves will also cause nausea in even small doses, and is capable of more “violent purges” depending on how much is ingested. A tea, made from the inner green bark being most noted for it’s ability to produce a laxitive effect quickly. The compounds that cause purging are highest in the young leaves and shoots. For this reason, do not eat the leaves, roots, or young shoots of the elderberry plant.6 I think it’s wise to try to remove all of the leaves and twigs from your berries before cooking them down or juicing them. I am not super-vigilant about removing stems, and haven’t had any problems with those.
It is speculated that under certain circumstances6, a mild cyanide toxicity may result as the body breaks down the alkaloyd and glucosides, thought this process is not yet fully understood by modern science.10 The internal uses of anything but cooked berries, in my opinion, are best left to very experienced herbalists. Of which I am not.
A very serious warning is also necessary for those who are looking to identify and harvest wild elderberry. In the past, it has been confused with a similar looking plant with white flowers that is *very* poisonous: Water Hemlock, Cicuta Mexicana. These plants share an affinity for damp growing conditions, and are very similar in growth habits, so you’ll want to pay careful attention to details in identifying true elderberry.
Water Hemlock is herbaceous (think a large weed) and not a tree or shrub, so it does not have a woody or bark covered stem. 11 They will often have purple stripes on the stems, and the stems are hollow inside,10 though I would be highly cautious to even touch the plant with gloves on. The veins of the Water Hemlock leaf extend all the way to the toothed edges of the leaf, and are well defined. A few (reputable!) websites mention that Water Hemlock can be identified by its alternate leaf (branch) spacing, while Elder has leaf shoots that are directly opposite one another.
Elderberry, on the other hand, is a shrub, with stems that are woody and contain a white or light gray pith in the center when cut in half. The veins of elder leaves are less pronounced, and they fade before they reach the toothed edge. Elder foliage also has a “rank, acrid odor when crushed.” 10 Here are some illustrations of both plants…they may look very similar at first, but can you see the differences?
This is an excellent webpage from forager Green Deane, with more images that help you see the differences between elderberry and water hemlock. As Deane points out in the article, once you get to ‘know’ elderberry, and your eye is trained to it, the water hemlock will no longer look similar. It’s very important to properly identify a wild plant before using it for any purpose, but if I am unsure of what I’ve found, I will take photographs of it, and study it further before touching the plant, just to be on the safe side.
Elderberry is an amazing herb. The juice of the berries is a very effective treatment and preventative for the common cold, as well as the flu, and the rest of the plant has strong medicinal actions as well, but it’s safest to use these externally. It’s historically been used for several common, but difficult to treat skin conditions, such as eczema, cradle cap, and rashes. Elder is common throughout Europe and North America, and has a long history of use both as medicine and food. And after our winter of no colds…well, let’s just say it will have a long history of use in this house as well!
Many thanks to the following resources:
- King’s American Dispensatory, 1898, Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John UriLloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D. http://www.henriettesherbal.com/eclectic/kings/sambucus.html