Sambuccus nigra, a. k. a. Black Elderberry, Blue Elderberry
Elder was called the “country people’s medicine chest.” Elder keeps viruses at bay by blocking the virus from entering the cell itself. All flu viruses have trouble with elderberry’s blockades. The symptoms of flus like coughs, sore throats and sinus congestion melt under this herb’s attention.
Elder is a graceful shrub with elegant arching branches, vibrant green leaves and white sprays of flowers that turn into irresistible berries at the end of summer. Black elderberry is native to Europe and North America. Its availability increases its appeal. The elder species have several variations. Elders that produce blue-black berries are considered to be in part of the Sambuccus nigra species. Black and blue elderberries, in my opinion, taste the sweetest.
Medicinal Properties of Elderberry
Elderberry holds a bounty of flavonoids and triterpenes packed within its tiny fruit. These chemicals seem to be the key to elder’s anti-inflammatory, antiviral and immune stimulating effects. New research points to elderberry’s ability to block avian and human influenza viruses from connecting to cells throughout the body. Researchers are particularly pleased to see dangerous viruses like the swine flu virus included in the list of infections elderberry prevents.
Many symptoms connected to colds and flus are effectively treated with this tiny berry. Coughs, fevers and sinus infections all bow to elder’s healing touch. This makes elderberry a rare herb as it not only prevents infection but also treats the infection after it’s taken hold.
Elder is an important herb for the immune system, but it needs to be used as a daily supplement. Elder constituents do not cling to the tissue, which means daily treatment is not only safe but necessary to block viruses. It doesn’t overtax the immune system or cause imbalances in the digestive tract that allow yeast infections to take hold, either, making it safe for daily consumption.
Conditions Best Helped by Elderberry
Elderberry is best for flus and symptoms of flus. It stimulates the immune system in ways that also prevent herpes simplex from taking a hold in the body. Scientists hope this immune stimulation will prove to be useful against more serious infections like HIV. Elderberry has Sambuccus nigra agglutinins (SNAs) that keep the cell walls barred against viruses.
People with compromised immune systems due to allergies or asthma benefit from this herb’s attention. Those who suffer from bronchitis would do well to add elderberry into their diet as well.
Elder flower has been traditionally used to treat skin inflammations. It’s useful in creams and ointments. A rash caused by allergies or bug bites can be soothed by elder flower after just a few treatments. Many years ago, Elder Flower Water was a common skin treatment for sunburn and pimples. It was said to contain elder flower tea, glycerine and borax.
For more information on the conditions best helped by Elderberry, see the topics in The Practical Herbalist Conditions, including:
- skin inflammations
- ear, nose and throat infections
- weak immune systems
List of Elderberry’s Medicinal Actions
Antiviral, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, astringent, and alterative.
Medicinal Processing of elderberry
Elderberries and elder flowers make wonderful tinctures. The herbs may be processed with a 1:1 plant weight to solvent weight ratio. It is processed with about 50 percent water to 50 percent pure alcohol. The range is flexible with this plant, so feel free to play around with what suits your needs best. Brandy is a perfect alcohol with which to to process elderberries and elder flowers since it’s generally around 100 proof thus it needs no watering down.
Elderberry makes a delicious syrup or moxey. It’s easy to cook into glycerite in a slow cooker or the stove top. The natural sweetness of the berries cook easily in to syrup so less cooking time is required. A standard 70 percent glycerin to 30 percent water formula is required. The usual weight ratio is 1:5 or 1:4 depending on the strength required.
Elder tea is an excellent way to start a morning and stave off the flu viruses lingering in the rest of the day. Drying elder flower takes only a day or two upside down away from light. Elderberries should be dried in a food dryer or in the oven on low for a few hours. Check the berries frequently so they do not over dry and become tasteless.
Elderberry may be frozen or cooked into jams or jellies. If you want a creative way to introduce elderberry as medicine into the lives of your family, try spreading their medicine on toast. The jam is a little seedy, but it may be combined with blackberries or raspberries if need be.
For more information on basic herbal preparations, see the topics in The Practical Herbalist Herbal How-to.
Gardening and Gathering Elderberries
Elderberry likes to grow in damp, well-drained, fertile soil. It does best in full sun but will also tolerate partial shade. Soil acidity of 5.5 to 6.5 is optimum. A light, airy place, such as in the middle of a field, will offer elder the best opportunity to develop into a tree with a wide, airy canopy.
Elder can also be planted as a hedgerow, which will take goodly shape within roughly three seasons. Regular spring pruning after the third year is advised if you want to encourage an abundant crop of flowers and berries.
Propagation of elder is from hardwood or softwood cuttings and from suckers or rootstock. Expect your first elder flower and berry harvest in the third year after planting. Elder is shallow rooted, so watering well during the first year and possibly the second is wise.
For more information on elder propagation, see elderberries.com.
Gathering Elder Flowers and Elderberries
Flowers are picked in spring when the buds have first opened. Be certain to leave plenty of flowers on each bush so plenty of berries will form and ripen for all to enjoy. As elder is an early bloomer, its flowers offer an excellent food source to native pollinators, making reserved harvest of elder flowers that much more important. Do not consume the elderberry stems since they contain trace amounts of cyanide.
Elderberries are ready to eat at the end of summer and often are even tastier well into fall if the weather remains warm. Pick the entire cluster to separate later. Leave enough for wildlife on each bush. Elderberries dry on the stem and offer cold weather fruit to hungry birds in winter. Elderberry harvest branch hooks make gathering this fruit safer and easier. Check out our DIY instructions on making this valuable tool.
Elderberry needs to be processed before use. Raw elderberry will make you sick to your stomach if you eat more than a dozen. (See Cautions below) Freeze or dry elderberry before using it in tincture, vinegar or syrup.
The stems can be problematic. If you can a bowl of elderberry that is too much for you to pick from the stem with out damaging the berries, place the berries in a plastic bag and freeze them first. Then take them out and roll the berries between your fingers. The fruit will easily separate from the stem like little BBs. Promptly lay them on tray to dry them. The berries will defrost quickly.
Be certain you have your elderberry identified properly. Red elderberries are not known to be edible. There is no problem with red elder’s flower however.
Appearance: Cream colored flowers that dry to a yellow color. The purple flower stems hold the flowers and berries in a terminal cluster that has an umbrelata shape. The oval leaves are green and slightly serrated. The deciduous bush can stand between 6 to 8 feet tall with long straight stem that are pithy in the center.
Taste: Flowers have slightly sweet flavor and berries are slightly tart with a deep sweetness reminiscent of blackberries.
Odor: Leaves and flowers have a musky scent. Berries have a sweet, fruity scent.
Using Elderberries to Care for Animals
Elderberry is safe to feed birds in small doses. I like to give my chickens an elderberry supplement when the cold autumn weather comes in. Birds are susceptible to respiratory diseases. Add a few dried elderberries to the feed dish when conditions grow damp or if your bird starts to look listless.
Wild birds are big fans of native elderberry. As elderberries dry on the twig, this becomes a valuable food source when wild fruit sources disappear. Bird watchers do well to plant a native elder bush in their yard. It is sure to be busy with feathered friends all year round.
Elderberry syrup or glycerite is easy to feed to a sick pet with an herbivore or omnivore diet. An elderly animal like a dog or a goat with a compromised immune system will tolerate the pressures of winter with the help of a daily dose of elderberry. Cats are carnivores and don’t medicate without a battle. Good luck.
Household Formulas and Non-medicinal Uses of Elderberry
Elder flowers and berries have been used as beauty treatments since the middle ages. Mixed with vinegar or water, elder berries are reputed to make a good dye for black to brown hair. Washes made with elder flowers were used to lighten the skin. Today, elder flower infusions provide a gentle astringent with healing properties for normal to dry skin. Elder flowers are also used occasionally in perfumes and are said to provide relief to irritable skin and nerves when used in the bath.
Elder can be used in incense formulas, particularly those designed to provide protection against those who would infringe on your boundaries or do you harm or designed to honor a crossing, such as a death or birth, or to invoke the guardian who stands at the gateway you desire to cross.
For more recipes and ideas for using Elderberry, see The Practical Herbalist Recipes.
Cautions for Elderberry
Too much raw elderberry can upset your stomach and cause diarrhea. Pregnant or nursing women are advised to use caution when consuming this herb.
For more information see our History, Folklore, Myth and Magic page on Elder.