Elderberry Benefits

Learn all about the uses and natural benefits of elderberry along with folklore of days past.

  • Elderberry shrubs are a popular wildlife haven for hummingbirds, warblers, and vireo birds.
    Illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett
  • Gummies made with elderberry syrup can be a good way to give kids an immunity boost during cold and flu season.
    Photo by Mars Vilaubi
  • Elderberry stems are easily hollowed-out and pounded into tree trunks to be used as spiles for the collection of sap from maple trees.
    Photo by Mars Vilaubi
  • Elderflower fritters make an amazing dessert.
    Photo by Getty Images/Foodcollection

Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine (Storey, 2016) by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “M” section.


Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis), blue elderberry (S. nigra subsp. cerulea), and red elderberry (S. racemosa)

When I was in college, my parents lived in a house with an elderberry hedge that surrounded their backyard. When the bushes bloomed, the fragrance was intoxicating, but the bigger event was when the berries ripened. Even after the flocks of birds had shared the harvest, there were still plenty of berries for us to turn into jam and to dehydrate. We ended up with gallon jars of them, which we powdered and used for sweetening beverages, sprinkling over ice cream, and mixing into pancakes. I still think back to that bountiful harvest whenever I’m picking a single bowlful of berries from my own small elderberry bushes. 

Elderberry in your Herbal Medicine Cabinet

Elderberry fruit and flowers from black or blue elderberry are wonderful as herbal medicine. The berries and flowers can be used individually, or combined together, to relieve the symptoms of colds and flu, soothe a cough, reduce a fever, and relieve stomach and intestinal cramping. The berries contain high levels of flavonoids and vitamins A and C, and are a good source of minerals. In addition, medical research is looking into the benefits the berries offer in treating influenza and other viruses, as well as some kinds of bacteria (such as streptococcus and E. coli). Elderberries are rich in flavonoids like anthocyanins, which are stimulating to the immune system; they work by reducing the influenza virus’s ability to spread, so that fewer cells in the body are infected. Research is also looking into elderberry’s potential for cancer treatments, and pharmaceutical drug companies are interested in its potential as a plant-based medicine.

Sweet Spouts and Sweet Sounds

Sambucus, the Latin name for elderberry, refers to the sambuca, an ancient harplike musical instrument that was made with elder wood. The green stems are easily hollowed out; whistles and flutes have been created from them. Once dried, the hollowed-out stems are surprisingly sturdy! Another use for them is to make spiles, or spouts, for collecting maple sap; the dried stems are pounded into the trunks of sugar maple trees to channel the sap into buckets, so that the sap can be gathered and boiled into maple syrup.

A Poison Cousin

Elderberry does come with a couple of cautions. Although the blue- and black-berried species are used as food and medicine, eating the red-berried species (Sambucus racemosa) will leave you nauseated and vomiting (hence its nicknames poison elder and stinking elder). In addition, the green unripe berries, leaves, stems, and twigs of all species of elderberry are mildly toxic; they contain a compound called sambunigrin, which is a cyanogenic glycoside. The bark also contains calcium oxalate crystals, which are toxic, too. Only flowers and ripe berries of the blue or black elderberries are safe and useful.



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