Plant Profile: Elderberry
Sambucus canadensis (species native to North America) – American Elder
Sambucus nigra (European species) – Black Elder
Flowers and Berries
The Elder, botanical Queen Mother; even its name suggests majesty, wisdom, leadership and authority. Often referred to as a tree, the bountiful elder is actually a shrub, common in English gardens, the North American countryside or on water’s edge. In planned herb gardens, elder bushes planted along edges symbolize protection or guardianship. Not a fussy grower, elder tolerates cold climates and poor soil. In moist soil, the little attention needed is sitting near it on occasion for spiritual inspiration. In full sun, elder bushes grow high as 30 feet, less in the shade to about 20 feet. Elder flowers bloom in creamy white, fragrant clusters, giving way to large bunches of deep purple, almost black berries that droop on the branches from weighty juice. Elderberries, themselves are small, an eighth to a quarter-inch round. They ripen in late August, early September and last for about 15 days. Pollinators, bees and birds, love elderberries and will compete for them but also keep your garden full of delightful song. Elderberry is not for picking and then eating, the seed contains a slightly toxic alkaloid compound and will cause a nauseous feeling. The leaves of elder are also toxic; Native Americans put them behind their ears to repel mosquitos.
I have a place in my yard selected to plant elder but when that happens I will still purchase berries and herbal preparations. Waiting for a year or two before picking berries encourages more growth. This is an easy to buy herb with excellent and reliable herbalists who also offer product sales. Buying fresh elderberries presents a challenge, though. At the end of summer they may appear in farmer’s markets especially in the northeast; although, I have yet to find them. Marx Foods, a food supplier available online, advertises frozen elderberries but a five-pound bag cost $110 and that seems expensive. The possibility of buying from small herb farms entices me most. Zack Woods Herb Farm in Vermont, although not close to me, is the first place I look for fresh herbs. To order there is a 10- pound minimum and you must call or email them, but the quality is trustworthy, stellar. They sell frozen elderberries, as well as dried. Mountain Rose Herbs retails dried elderberries, powdered elderberries, elderberry syrup, and elderberry extract. Horizon Herbs also sells dried elderberries. Manufacturing practices and product quality are important when buying prepared herbal products. My absolute go-to source for herbal extracts or tinctures is Herbalist and Alchemist (H&A). Available for online purchase, H&A sells elderberry extracts or tinctures, elderberry glycerite, which is an alcohol-free extraction, and elderberry solid extract, an eat-by-the-spoonful, jelly-like product, so delicious. Another of my most trusted herbal apothecaries is Avena Botanicals. Their elderberry elixir is one of the best tasting. If you have ever used commercially available Sambucus or Sambucol products, consider instead elderberry syrup made from an herbal supplier. That is my opinion, not a criticism. Of course, syrup can be homemade as well. On the other hand, the recipes for making elderberry wine seem daunting, technical and a lot of steps. I purchased Honey Run Vineyards Elderberry Wine from an online supplier. I am not a drinker and definitely not a wine connoisseur; however, this sweet wine tastes delicious and easily offers an adult version of daily dose herbal immune support. Amazon lists a variety of elderberry jams and jellies, some organic. Most exciting of all is a North Carolina farm dedicated to harvesting elderberry.
Norm’s Farm sells dried elderberries, syrups, jams and jellies online. With all of these options, growing elderberry becomes nonessential for your kitchen apothecary to be brimming.
Often a plant’s Latin name holds significance, but is known only to botanists. In elder’s case, Sambucus is common language for those who purchase immune boosting syrup commercially sold by this name. The etymology actually derives from the Greek sambuke, a stringed musical instrument similar to a harp made from hollow elder branches. Medicinal elderberry use dates back thousands of years. The late summer berries are a deep, dark reddish purple that stain hands during gathering. Energetically, astringent berries constrict and slightly dry. They have a cooling quality. Nutritionally, as with most berries, antioxidants such as Vitamin C and flavonoids, particularly anthocyanins, the compounds responsible for their purple color are abundant. Elderberries also provide potassium, calcium, beta-carotene, and phosphorus. The safety profile of elderberry is pristine, there are no adverse effects known making them excellent medicine for delicate populations like children, elderly, and those who are immunocompromised, plus they taste delicious.
Elderberries are predominantly sour, a bit tart, sweet, earthy. Fresh elderberries contain a chemical compound that cannot be eaten raw, so do not taste them. Cook elderberries or dry them before using in any way. Both change and mellow the tartness a bit. To balance their bite, elderberries combine well with sweeteners in syrups, jellies, and pies or as infusions in wines and vinegars. Their flavor adds a woody yet floral, deep berry richness.
Elder’s scent produces negative associations and characterizations that give the smell a bad name. Shakespeare immortalized it as “stinking Elder”. This is not about elderberries, though. As the flowers age they take on a narcotic urine-like smell, that some find unappealing. The fresher the blossom, the less they smell. But, berries smell like berries. I have never smelled fresh elderberries but when opening a bag of dried, the aroma is distinctively a mix of rich fruit, grapes and blackberries.
With so much legend about elder, it is hard to know where to begin. The name conjures images of the aged leader and senior community member influential and wise. Matriarchal symbols link Elder Mother, Queen of the Netherworld, and Lady Ellhorn with stories of mother goddesses, feminine wisdom of the Crone, and fairies from the spirit world. Respect for this plant drew from the belief that Elder Mother lived in the tree offering advice to her children and bringing punishment to anyone who used the tree wrongfully. Permission must be obtained from this Mother prior to using any part of the tree to prevent ill fortune. Steeped in European history, elder was recognized for medicinal healing renewal and its ability to ward off evil spirits. Witches, fairies, and the underworld all have relationships with elder trees. Harry Potter’s strongest wand was made from an elder branch. The Elder was sacred to the Celtic Druid, who believed if an elderberry remained on the tree in December it was a gift from the Earth goddess. Wine made from these berries could aid clairvoyance. As part of the midsummer festival, St. John’s Eve, people gathered in a circle holding elderberries that imparted strength and made the devil pass. In the 1980’s, Elton John sang about a different kind of transformation, one of happy bliss in his hit single Elderberry Wine. The lyrics go…can’t help thinking back to the time when you were a wife of mine, you aimed to please me, made elderberry wine, drunk all the time, feeling fine on elderberry wine, those were the days, we laid in the haze, forget depressive times, elderberry wine, elderberry wine. Truly, elderberry wine may be the sweetest wine you will ever taste. Better yet, it has antioxidant properties, so perhaps the wife that Elton John was singing about was keeping her husband happy and healthy at the same time. In 18th century Europe, elderberries were actually used to adulterate more expensive wine. Elderberries added red color as a base to water down wines such as tawny port. Mixtures of inexpensive port, vinegar, sugar, and elderberries were sold as the more expensive port versions. This became such a problem that in Portugal, growing elderberries was forbidden. But ironically, port wine began to be reputed as curing rheumatic pains, sciatica, and neuralgias. As scientists further investigated, the realization that only the port adulterated with elderberries had this effect and pure port wines had no pain reducing benefit added to reverence for the elderberry.
Culinary and Cooking
No fresh elderberry eating. Heat deactivates a toxic chemical, which unleashes them for ingestion so cooked or dried elderberries are magnificent additions to a world of culinary possibility. Jams, jellies, syrups, wines…these are the amazing treasures of culinary elderberries. In 17th-18th century Europe, elderberries were added to cooking for taste as well as their medicinal properties. The elderberry rob, a thickened and sweetened berry juice, was added to broth or other soups as a way of treating colds. Several recipes were published in medical textbooks and pharmacopeias. Elderberries are usually sweetened with sugar or honey to offset their tartness. Varied additions such as fennel, ginger, allspice, pepper and cloves complement their flavor. In addition to jam and jelly, elderberry makes lovely chutney and even ketchup, but most famously, pies and cobblers
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Elderberry has been called the remedy “against all infirmities of whatever.” As with many herbs, medicinal evidence exists from the dawn of man. In 17th century Europe, praise for elder reached its height in a medical practitioner’s handbook titled Anatomie Sambuci or The Anatomie of the Elder written in Latin then translated to English and German. Known as “the medicine chest of the country people…” plant material was abundantly available and every part utilized. Flowers contribute much of the medicinal aspects; however, improved quality of life and increased longevity belong to the berry. The antioxidant compounds in elderberries, proanthocyandins and flavonoids, protect the body from free radical damage and oxidation, contributors to diseases such as cancer, arthritis, asthma, and atherosclerosis. Additionally, these compounds strengthen blood vessels such as veins, arteries and capillaries and thus restructure varicose or spider veins. Antioxidants also affect the eyes strengthening sight and protecting against conditions such as night blindness and macular degeneration. Perhaps the nicest benefit of all is its taste. Many herbs are tolerable but not pleasant. Elderberry tastes good, which makes administration to children and taste sensitive adults less difficult. Other less tasty herbs can be mixed in a base of elderberry syrup to make the medicine easily go down.
Immunity and elderberry go hand in hand, they have been married together in history for cold and flu prevention and treatment. In the English countryside where elderberry hedges flourished, wine and cordial remedies were staples long before bottled elderberry immune boosting syrups appeared. Hot elderberry wine before bed was well-known to induce sweating and rid the body of a cold. Elderberry tea with added cinnamon warmed the chills of flus and eased breathing difficulty from congestion. Research now supports these therapies.
The diaphoretic activity of elder stimulates sweating, the body’s natural way of clearing heat and toxins. Antiviral activity present in a variety of elder’s chemical compounds supports its use as a remedy for colds, influenza, and bronchitis. An Israeli virologist, Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, first studied the antiviral activity. Based on long history of traditional use, Dr. Mumcuoglu began researching compounds in elderberry to determine what made it such a good flu remedy. She isolated antiviral compounds and antioxidants that specifically showed powerful effectiveness against influenza viruses both for prevention and improvement in symptoms in the presence of flus. The anti-inflammatory compounds also reduce symptoms, fever, muscle aches, and soreness, speeding up recovery. Based on her research, Sambucol, a commercially available elderberry syrup was developed. It makes sense to use on a daily basis at the worst of the cold and flu season for protection and immune support.
Elderberry juice traditionally was applied topically as a hair dye, the Romans are known for this. The famous visionary 18th century English herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper wrote of its ability to color hair black. Perhaps there is future here in the search for natural beauty products.
Combine 2 tablespoons dried elderberries and 16 ounces of hot water in a coffee press or other tea-making vessel. Steep for 30 minutes and then strain.
This recipe for Rob(thickened juice) from Maude Grieve’s The Modern Herbal combines 5 pounds ripe, crushed elderberries with 1 pound (2¼ cups or 454grams) sugar in saucepan, then simmer until thickened to the consistency of honey, thicker than syrup. Elderberry rob has laxative and diuretic efffects. One or two tablespoons can be added to a cup of hot water and taken before bed to induce sweating and chest decongestion for a cold or flu. Also known as Succus Sambuci, this may be the inspiration for commercially available products such as Sambucol or Sambucus.
There are different ways to make syrup and elderberries lend themselves to them all as their rich berry goodness adds sweet flavoring to any of the syrup bases. My favorite elderberry syrup is a recipe from Rosemary Gladstar, a most beautiful and wise herbalist. She recommends preparing the syrup with fresh elderberries, but I do not have access to these so I have always used dried. This syrup uses honey, which adds to the healing quality and immune system supporting aspects of the elderberries. Begin with ½ cup dried elderberries (if you have fresh double to 1 cup). Place the berries in a medium saucepan and cover with 3 cups of water. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30-45 minutes until reduced by about half. Strain through a fine strainer into a large glass measuring cup, you should have about 1 cup of liquid. Add equal portion of honey (about 1 cup) and stir to thoroughly blend in honey. This can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. To add to the flavor of the syrup, a small piece of ginger and a pinch of cloves can be added while the liquid is simmering.
Dried elderberries are best for making infused honeys. The water content of fresh elderberries creates a need to keep it refrigerated to prevent mold formation. Combine equal parts dried elderberries and honey in the top of a double boiler. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine. For example, if you are using 1 cup elderberries, use 1 cup honey. In the bottom of the double boiler, bring a small amount of water to a boil, reduce heat and maintain at a low simmer. Place the top of the double boiler pot with the elderberries and honey over the simmering water and heat this mixture for approximately 6 hours, uncovered. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon. After the infused honey has slowly heated, strain while still warm using a cheesecloth. Alternately, dried elderberry and honey mixture can be heated in a yogurt maker, which is ideal as a low heating element. It is important when making infused honeys to keep the heat extremely low to not destroy any of the medicinal qualities of the honey. If using a yogurt maker, infuse the honey for at least five days before straining.
Wine making is a bit of a daunting process. There are detailed recipes available online. The method begins by making an infusion of elderberries and water, straining and adding sugar. Then a fermentation additive such as wine yeast must be added and the mixture kept in a warm, dry place to ferment for at least one week or up to six weeks. James Green says of herbal wines that they are more like flavorsome foods, festive and offering the human mind and body mental and spiritual health. Perhaps this is what Elton John was singing about in his song.
The specific way to make an elderberry extract uses grain alcohol in the proportions 1 part dried elderberry to 4 parts liquid. The alcohol should be diluted with water to 30 percent. Keep in a cool, dark place and allowed to infuse for 6 weeks, then strained.
This recipe is a traditional recipe written in The Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve and uses fresh elderberries but I imagine dried could also be used. The berries are brought to a boil with chopped onion, vinegar, salt, ground ginger, cayenne pepper, and mustard seeds and allowed to simmer until thickened. I have never tried to make this but it sounds like a delicious kitchen immune system boosting remedy, a spoonful a day keeps the doctor away.
Green, James: The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. Crossing Press, Berkeley CA, 2000.
Grieve M: A Modern Herbal. Barnes and Noble Books, New York; 1996.
Wood M: The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California; 2008.
Gladstar R: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing, Massachusetts; 2012.