Highly prized for its nutrient-dense food and powerful medicinal properties, the elderberry plant (Sambucus) has been cultivated by humans since prehistory.
When setting out to forage for wild edible plants this season, be sure to keep an eye out for this incredibly useful and tasty specimen…
Several species of elderberry can be found growing throughout North America. Most common are the American black elderberry (S. canadensis), blue elderberry (S. cerulea), and black elderberry (S. nigra).
Woody shrubs growing to a height of 10 to 26 feet, elderberry features feather-shaped leaves 3 to 4 inches long that grow symmetrically along the stem. Clusters of tiny white or cream colored flowers – called elderblow – bloom in umbrella-like flat topped corymbs, 6 inches across. Elderberry fruit resemble small berries that range from blue to purplish black when mature.
While the fruit and flowers of the elderberry plant are edible, the leaves, stems, and bark are toxic. Only harvest fully ripened fruits (the drupes should come easily off the stem) and leave all immature red berries on the plant. Avoid the temptation to pop a few ripe elderberries into your mouth on the trail; raw elderberry fruits contain hydrocyanic acid, a poisonous compound that can cause nausea in some people. Cooking elderberry fruits before consumption removes all danger of toxicity.
When foraging for wild edible plants, it’s always a good idea to bring a field guide with you to help safely identify berries and other fruits.
Where To Find Wild Elderberry
Elderberry plants can tolerate a range of growing conditions but they prefer the moist humus soils of the forest floor. Find them in partially shaded locations along stream and river banks, wet woodlands, trails and forest roads, and at the edges of fields.
Flower clusters bloom from late May to July while fruits develop from late summer and into autumn. Harvest fruits or flowers by snipping off the whole cluster. If you’re not ready to use your haul of elderberry straight away, preserve them for later use by freezing the berries and dehydrating the flowers.
Health Benefits Of Elderberry:
Both elderberry fruit and elderberry flowers have a long and varied history of use. Possessing anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties, elderberry was once considered key to restoring and maintaining good health and longevity.
Mild but sweet in taste, the elderberry fruit is enriched with vitamins C and B6. Berries are also a good source of iron with trace amounts of potassium, phosphorus, thiamine, riboflavin, and calcium. Both fruit and flowers contain a powerful suite of antioxidants, with higher amounts of flavonoids and anthocyanidins than blueberries, cranberries, and goji berries.
In folk medicine, elderberry was applied as a poultice to treat flesh wounds, heal rashes, and calm inflammations of the skin. Added to baths and oils, flowers and fruit had a healing and moisturizing effect on dry skin and sunburns. Steeped in water, the flowers of elderberry were used to reduce wrinkles and age spots, improve complexion, and soften the skin.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, referred to elderberry as his “medicine chest” because it had so many health promoting applications:
Cold & Flu – Consuming elderberry fruit can quickly ease fevers, headaches, muscle aches, and nasal congestion that often accompany colds and flu. In one study, 90% of patients were either entirely symptom free or had only mild symptoms 48 hours after receiving elderberry extract.
Antimicrobial – Elderberry flowers can help fight against bacterial and viral infections. In a study on its effects against hospital pathogens, elderflower extracts were shown to be most toxic against bacteria, including antibiotic resistant strains like methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Boosts the Immune System – Since elderberry is so effective against various strains of influenza, researchers tested its influence on healthy individuals and found that it does indeed help activate the immune system.
Lower Blood Sugar – As an adjunct therapy for diabetics, elderflowers steeped in hot water had the ability to stimulate insulin production as well as enhance muscle glucose uptake in an animal study published in 2000.
Obesity – Taken along with asparagus, both elderberries and flowers improved mean weight, blood pressure, and emotional well-being of participants in a 2008 observational study.
Constipation – Human trials have also found elderberry to be an effective natural laxative for people suffering from chronic constipation.
Prevent Disease – While more research is needed, historically elderberry was used to prevent the onset of various diseases and conditons including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and kidney disease, among many others. It is thought that elderberry’s ability to ward off illness is due to its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Elderberry & Elderflower Recipes:
Not only is elderberry so incredibly useful as a food and natural remedy, the fruit and flowers are very versatile and can be prepared for consumption in several different ways:
1. Elderberry Jam
A yummy spread for your morning toast, this jam calls for 25 ounces of fresh elderberry fruit, lemon juice, and caster sugar.
Get the recipe from Gin and Crumpets.
2. Elderberry & Apple Crumble
Combine one cup of elderberries with apples, rolled oats, seeds, and aromatic spices for a gluten-free dessert.
Full instructions can be had at Veganuary.
3. Elderberry Pie
You’ll need 4 cups of elderberries along with white sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch, and crust pastry to make this heart-warming pie.
Get the recipe from Allrecipes.
4. Elderberry Soup
A sweet soup, 4 cups of elderberries are mixed with lemon juice, cornstarch, and sugar. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.
Recipe via New England Today.
5. Elderberry Syrup Cold & Flu Remedy
So much better tasting than the over-the-counter cough syrups, this recipe combines elderberries with the healing powers of honey.
Get the tutorial at here.
6. Elderflower Tea
Steeped in boiling water, use either fresh or dry elderflowers to make a healthful tea.
Find the full instructions at Urban Herbology.
7. Elderflower Cordial
An old recipe that can be traced back to ancient Rome, elderflower cordial is a concentrated drink that can be mixed with flat or soda water.
See how it’s done at The Spruce.
8. Elderberry Wine
You’ll need to collect a lot of elderberries (3.5 pounds to be exact), but this rich yet cost-effective wine is totally worth it.
Get the recipe at Wine Turtle.
9. Elderflower Fritters
Lightly battered and fried until golden, elderflower fritters are a sweet treat topped with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.
Recipe from Lottie + Doof.
10. Elderberry Tincture
Fresh elderberry fruit infused into vodka or glycerin offers a way to preserve the therapeutic properties of this antiviral herb for three years or more. Take it by the drop to boost your immune system, treat cold and flu symptoms, and heal skin wounds.
Recipe via Homespun Seasonal Living.
11. Elderflower Water
Much like rose water, elderflower water makes for an excellent skin toner. Dab it onto your face to even out skin tone, reverse the signs of aging, and combat inflammations of the skin.
Get the step-by-step directions from Our Heritage of Health.
12. Elderberry Shrub
Shrubs – or drinking vinegars – offer a wonderful way to include more probiotics, enzymes, and vitamins into your diet. This concentrated elderberry shrub is easy to make, simply dilute the finished product with flat or fizzy water.
Get the recipe from The Kitchn.