Black elder (Sambucus nigra) grows as a bush or tree. It produces clusters of off-white flowers, and then small purple, dark blue or black berries. The berries often have a white coating when ripe. Please note that there are several species of elder. Red elder (Sambucus racemosa) produces red berries that are toxic and should not be ingested.
Elder berries are very small and tend to get crushed if you try to pick them one by one. The easiest way to harvest the berries is to cut off the entire cluster, put it into a plastic bag and put it in the freezer. Once frozen, the berries are easy to remove from the stems without crushing them.
Medicinal Uses of Elderberries and Elderflowers
Elder is a powerful medicinal herb with a wide range of uses. It has long been used as a remedy in many parts of the world, including Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. The flowers, fruit and leaves of the elder tree all have medicinal properties.
Elderflowers have diaphoretic (sweat inducing) properties, and drinking hot tea made from the flowers helps to relieve fevers at the onset of colds or flu. The expectorant and anticatarrhal properties of elderflowers make them valuable for clearing upper respiratory congestion.
Elderberries are effective against both bacteria and viruses, and act to prevent viruses from entering cells. Taking elderberry syrup, extract or juice can lessen the duration of flu symptoms. Elderberries contain anthocyanins, potent antioxidants that protect cells from damage. Anthocyanins also boost the immune system by inducing the production of cytokines, small proteins that play a role in regulating immune response.
For topical application, elderflowers can be made into a salve to treat burns, rashes and skin irritations. Elder leaves can be applied externally for bruises and sprains.
In addition to their medicinal properties, you can enjoy elderberries in all sorts of different ways. Elderberry jam, elderberry syrup, elderberry cordial, elderberry wine… the list goes on, and all will provide benefits for your health.
How to Make Elderberry Syrup
4 cups ripe elderberries
8 cups water
2-3 cups honey
1. Combine the elderberries and water in a non-aluminum pot.
2. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Strain out the berries and any stems.
4. Return the liquid to the pot, simmer over low heat to reduce volume to about 4 cups. The more you reduce the volume, the thicker the syrup will be.
5. Add approximately 1 cup of honey to every 2 cups of juice, or to taste.
There are no reported side effects or drug interactions with elder. This information is for educational purposes only. If you have a health concern, see your medical practitioner.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, 2003.