In the late summer, just as you start to feel a tiniest hint of cooler temperatures slip in, the elderberries start to ripen and it’s a race to harvest before the birds eat them all. Every year, it’s me versus the birds and I can’t say there’s ever a clear winner, but I think that’s the way it should be. As a highly nourishing, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant plant, the food and medicine of elderberry is abundant and there’s enough for us all.
Say Hello to Elder
Meet elder. Elder is probably most known for its berry these days, as elderberry has become quite the herbal champion of immune health, ridding folks near and far of cold and flu symptoms. But there’s so much more to this plant. Here’s the skinny:
- Elderberry is a small tree or bush found commonly in pastures, meadows, and light forests.
- Often found growing near water, elderberry likes to keeps it roots a little wet. It grows well in the sun with a bit of shade and once it’s established, elder can survive drought and intense heat. Elder is an incredibly resilient plant.
- The flowers are creamy white and come in large clusters that eventually give way to clusters of small blue-black or deep purplish berries. Elderberry’s leaves are elongated, toothed leaflets arranged on opposite sides of the stem.
- Aside from the beautiful flowers and berries, another distinctive feature is its hollow stems filled with a white pith.
- There are many medicinal species of elderberry, but only the ones bearing bluish-black berries are safe to eat. Red elderberries are toxic and can cause stomach upset.
- The history is elderberry comes with some fascinating ancient lore!
- The generic name Sambucus comes from a Latin term for a musical instrument. Ancient legend says that the country folk thought that the most eerie and haunting music was made by instruments crafted from the wood of elderberry.
- In northern Europe, the elderberry tree was associated with a powerful woman called the Elder Mother. To pick the plant without making an offering was considered potentially fatal and it was most common to offer the promise of one’s body eventually being returned to the earth.
- Western European legends say that the elderberry tree served as a doorway to the Underworld.
“Planting an Elder in the corner of an herb garden is considered to be beneficial to the medicinal plants growing there because the Elder serves as a sort of [guardian] spirit for herbs.”Mathew Wood, from The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine
The Medicinal Benefits of Elderberry
In European tradition, it’s said that the elder tree was nearly an entire pharmacy in itself. And while all parts of the elderberry have historical use as medicine, today’s Western plant medicine only uses the flowers and ripe berries. The bark, stems, and roots are all considered toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant things.
However, the berries of the elder are nourishing and tonifying to the blood. They are antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. For this reason, they are important plant allies to our immune systems and overall health. We often see elderberries made into syrups, vinegar infusions, or oxymels (ie. an apple cider vinegar infusion sweetened with honey).
The flowers of elder are also medicinal and, like the berries, are anti-inflammatory. Elderflowers are nourishing to our nervous systems, soothing to our mucous membranes, and can help rid our bodies of excess mucus. The flowers can be made into teas, syrups, or tinctures. The medicine of elderberry is safe for all ages, a gentle and powerful herbal ally for both adults and children.
How Elderberry is Used as a Food
In addition to all the medicine you can make with elder, it’s also a delicious food plant. If you can catch the flowers while they are in bloom, the creamy white clusters can be dipped into batter and fried into fritters just like dandelions. Although, because the stems can cause stomach upset, just use them as little handles to nibble off the delicious fried flowers. Maybe drizzle with some dandelion flower infused honey?!
The flowers are also great for making infused boozy concoctions. They’re the star herbal ingredient in St. Germain (a classic elderflower liqueur), and are beautiful edible flowers to decorate your cakes and cookies with. Plus, doesn’t elderberry champagne sound delicious?!
Once the flowers give way to the small black-blue or deep purplish berries, they can be made into jellies and jams, or syrups to drizzle over pancakes or ice cream. They can be baked into pies and made into shrubs or other beverages as well. Although, due to the noxious potential of stems and seeds, the berries are best consumed cooked.
|Species||Sambucus mexicana & Sambucus nigra & Sambucus canadensis|
(blue & black varieties only)
|Family||Adoxaceae (the moschatel family) |
*Formerly part of the Caprifoliaceae (or honeysuckle) family
|Part(s) Used||Flower & ripe berries|
|Origin||Native to Europe, but now found in most temperate &|
sub-tropical regions of the world (much more commonly
found in the Northern Hemisphere)
|When to Harvest||Flowers are harvested through summer.|
Berries are harvested when they ripen to a black-blue and/or purplish color in the late summer/early fall.
|As a Medicine||Flowers:|
Soothing to the nervous system
Promotes wound healing (vulnerary)
Soothes irritated mucous membranes (demulcent)
Helps the body remove excess mucus (expectorant & anti-catarrhal)
|As a Food||High in vitamins A & C (berries)|
High in quercetin & bioflavonoids (that may
help reduce allergy symptoms)
|Caution(s)||The seeds of the berries can be irritating to the tummy.|
Unripe fruit, leaves, root, & bark can causes GI upset
including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Fruit is best eaten cooked due to the potential of GI upset.
**Always consult with a practiced herbalist or physician
knowledgeable about herbal medicine if you
are pregnant or have any concerns.**
|Other Uses||Elderberry juice is used as a colorant and natural food additive, and can be used to dye fibers.|
Hollowed twigs can be used to tap maple trees for syrup and have also been used to make instruments.
If you’ve been elderberry curious, I hope this fueled that curiosity into welcoming this amazing tree and its incredible medicine into your life. It’s a gentle medicine that is as much food as it is plant medicine, and those are my favorite kinds of plant medicines… the ones that end up on our plates and work their magic without us hardly even noticing.
DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. If you have any concerns at all, it’s always a good idea to check with your health practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if taking any prescription medications.