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Elderberry: Health Benefits and Uses


 

black elderberry

SAMBUCCUS NIGRA

One of the best natural herbal medicines, used to blast those twin winter health threats of cold and flu, is the common Black Elderberry, Sambucus nigra.

Hippocrates’ “Medicine Chest”

Perhaps you’ve seen the bottles of “Sambucus” cough syrup or tonic in health food stores. Sambucus is a genus of flowering plants. The various species are commonly called elder or elderberry. What a plant! It has been used around the world for millennia and for good reason. It works and has a wide range of applications.  It can be used with every member of the family except babies There are medicinal elderberry recipes that date back to the early Egyptian and Greek civilizations. Hippocrates the ancient Greek father of medicine called elderberry a “medicine chest” due to its ability to treat so many maladies.

ELDERBERRY IS THERAPEUTIC FOR A WIDE VARIETY OF AILMENTS

This article focuses on medical preparedness and elderberry’s place in being ever more self-reliant.

Black elderberry is native to Europe and North America. In the form of tinctures, cough drops, syrups, teas, juice, gummies, and infusions it can be effective not only for the common cold, hay fever and influenza but can be used against HIV/AIDS, sinusitis, leg and back pain due to sciatica, nerve pain and even chronic fatigue syndrome. Some people take it for a laxative, weight loss, headache, toothache, increased cholesterol, heart disease, and gum inflammation! So it seems Hippocrates was right in using the term “medicine chest”.

Of course, elderberry fruit is also used for making wine and as a flavoring for food.

elderberry can cure the flu

Elderberry is renowned for its ability to significantly shorten the duration of colds and flu if you catch them within the first 48 hours.  It begins to work with a few doses of elderberry infusion, syrup or tincture.

They are rich in antioxidants and are an excellent immune system booster due to their chemical compounds called anthocyanins, which have immunostimulant effects. Because of their immune-boosting powers, one must be careful using this with illnesses like multiple sclerosis where it is dangerous to over stimulate the immune system. It is nice to have an all-natural choice to effectively treat seasonal complaints.

The high level of potassium in elderberries helps to protect the heart by relaxing the tension of blood vessels and arteries. As a vasodilator, potassium can significantly reduce blood pressure and keep your heart healthier!

A warning: If you have been diagnosed with hypertension (high blood pressure) see your doctor or a natural healthcare professional before consuming elderberries in an attempt to lower blood pressure and/or trying to reduce your current medication!

NEW SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

There is an interesting abstract written up in PubMed showing how infection of host cells with the influenza virus is mediated.

A 1995 study examined the effect of elderberry extract on a flu outbreak. In a double-blind clinical study, researchers found that those treated with elderberry extract recovered in 2-3 days, compared to six days untreated. Now 23 years later we know that elderberry strengthens our immunity and many people take elderberry tincture or syrup to avoid the flu altogether. That may be one of the reasons for the current shortage of elderberries and all medicines containing them. More on the shortage later.

New research points to elderberry’s ability to block avian and human influenza viruses from connecting to cells throughout the body. Researchers seem particularly pleased to see dangerous viruses like the swine flu virus included in the list of infections elderberry prevents. So according to this report, elderberry not only treats symptoms of viruses it seems to be a preventative as well through its abundance of flavonoids and triterpenes. 

You can see how the use of this knowledge could be a lifesaving tool in times of upheaval and allow one to be much more medically prepared!

FORAGING RESULTS

As you know from a past post I was able to forage enough elderberries to make a large bottle of tincture and several bottles of medicinal syrup. I had discovered three bushes but only one was old enough to produce fruit. Happily, this past summer, there were nine bushes and three were fruiting.  Of course each year requires repeated early morning trips to the pastures or hedgerows to gather berries before the birds devour all of the ripened ones.

If you are harvesting the flowerheads, that begins in mid-summer depending on your location. Berries are usually harvested in the late summer and into fall. I only take the flowers when the harvest is abundant and even then I leave most of the flowerheads to produce berries later on in the season.

foraging elderberries

WHY THE SCARCITY?

As far as I can discover there is no blight or disease that is causing the black elderberry shortage, but almost every place that sells bulk dry elderberries, including online, is either “Temporarily Out of Stock” or allow the purchase of only ½ pound to occasionally one pound per customer when they have some stock on hand.  I’ve also found terribly inflated prices. I saw some this year that was $37.00 a dry pound but last year I know they were $16.00 a pound for organic dried elderberries.

After speaking with friends at my locally owned health food store, this is what they speculate is the source of the scarcity. Over the past year, health magazines like Taste for Life, Natural Awakenings and several medical journals have carried studies about the possible benefits of elderberry products. The information has been carried in many mainstream publications as well. Combine this with the growing mistrust of Big Pharma who promote so many pills with adverse side effects that more and more people are fed up. People seem to be no longer listening to the hype and promises of the flu vaccine pushers either. So along comes the re-emergence of a natural powerhouse like the elderberry, which has left its historical mark on natural healing and it promises and delivers better outcomes. Hence, a shortage of that wonderful healing berry including all of the ready-made products available that have elderberry as their foundational ingredient. Right now this reminds me of sparce grocery shelves when a winter storm is predicted!

Personally, I love that people are finally being awakened to alternative, natural ways, and are willing to approach health and wellness from a new “unprocessed” fresh perspective. We will all be better for it and the scarcity now might create a higher production and greater availability in the coming years. That is the hope.

benefits and uses of elderberry

5 Reasons Why We Use Elderberry

  1. Respiratory Benefits: Anything that helps with the lungs is of interest to me. Keeping my husband away from the doctor and hospitals as much as possible is my goal and elderberry is one of those wonderful miracles that help with that objective. It is amazing what one little plant can do. It appears that there is no end to its value. We have used the tincture I made last year and have had much success with that form of this medicinal herb. When it comes to clearing up a sore throat, a cough, cold, bronchitis, bronchial spasms, or any other issue that affects the respiratory system, elderberry might be your best choice. Like many cough syrups, elderberries contain active bioflavonoids, that can soothe inflammation and irritation and also act as an expectorant and clear out phlegm that can trap foreign particles in your glands. Elderberry juice is even recommended by doctors for people with asthma. To make an effective homemade cough syrup, use elderberry!
  2. Immune System Health: It has certain antibacterial and anti-infectious qualities, and is very commonly used to ward off influenza during bad seasons where it seems that everyone is catching it. Elderberries can strengthen the immune system against itself too, protecting against the effects of autoimmune disorders. That is not a common occurrence since most autoimmune effected individuals get worse when taking immune boosters. Not so with elderberry.
  1. Inflammation and Bone Health: While the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds found in elderberries can help decrease joint pain and soreness due to inflammation, the high levels of essential minerals will help promote bone strength and the development of new bone tissue. Osteoporosis is a condition that millions of people face now and into the future, but increasing your bone density during your younger years can delay the onset considerably or avoid it altogether.
  1. Improved Digestive Health: Fiber is one of the major components to keep a healthy digestive tract and it is one thing that most fast food doesn’t provide. In fact, the western diet is very lacking in this important food component. Some think that lack of fiber in the diet is a major contributor to memory loss due to the well-researched connection between the gut and brain that has been noted in the past 4 or 5 years. Elderberries have more than 40% of your daily need of fiber in just one serving. This can seriously improve your digestive health by stopping constipation, reducing gas, and improving your overall gastrointestinal health and therefore memory and recall. You will also get more nutrients from your food with a gut that is cleansed daily by higher fiber intake. This is especially important for older individuals whose digestive enzymes are decreased or for those whose diet lacks sufficient fiber.
  1. A Plethora of Minerals, Vitamins and Amino Acids: The list is extensive but for brevity, I will cut it short. Minerals: Iron, copper, magnesium, potassium, calcium, selenium, and zinc. Vitamins: Vitamin A, six B vitamins, vitamin C. Mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and a long list of Amino Acids: including lysine which is a vision support and arginine which modulates the blood pressure. It contains protein and of course, loads of fiber.
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ELDERBERRY FLOWERS

The elderberry bush produces showy white umbel flowers in the late spring.

SAFETY DATA from PubMed Regarding Elderflower

Pregnancy and breastfeeding: There is not enough reliable information about the safety of taking elderflower if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.

Diabetes: There is a concern that elderflower might lower blood sugar levels. If taken with diabetes medications, it might make blood sugar levels go too low. If you have diabetes and use elderflower, be sure to monitor your blood sugar levels carefully. As usual please check with your healthcare provider to see if the dose of diabetes medications you are taking needs to be adjusted.

Surgery: Since elderflower might lower blood sugar levels. There is some concern that it might interfere with blood sugar control during and after surgery. Stop using elderflower at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery. Make very sure your doctor and surgeon are aware of any herbals you are using! Herbs are powerful substances.

UNRIPENED ELDERBERRIES

unripened elderberries

Be patient, at this stage they ripen slowly but when they begin to get pink they ripen over a period of five to fifteen days. If you want the maximum yield then forage early when they are flowering and easier to recognize, just to discover their location. Then when harvest time, in mid-August into late September, arrives you already know exactly where the berries can be found. You’ll be prepared. Ripening times vary depending on your zone so if you don’t want to miss the harvest check out ripening times for your area.

HOME CULTIVATION

cultivating elderberries

Make Sure you are Purchasing an Edible Variety

One way to assure that you have enough for yourself and your family is to plant a few Elderberry bushes. But make sure you are planting an edible variety. They need full sun to partial shade with well-drained but fairly moist soil. The bushes I forage are about 50 yards from small runoff pond.

There are several varieties that are beautiful but poisonous including the S. racemose cultivars; those with red or rose-colored berries. All elderberry varieties, even the edible ones, need to be cooked before eating and don’t eat the stems, seeds or leaves because they can make you sick. The leaves smell pretty awful and the cows in the pastures where I make forays leave them alone. In fact, they leave the berries alone too. No cookstoves in the pastures I guess!

(Do not confuse Elderberry with American Elder, Elderflower, or Dwarf Elder).

Growing Your Own Elderberries

If you would like to grow elderberry bushes (most of the commercial elderberries used in the US are sourced in Europe as European Black Elderberries) this site has an assortment of sizes and a US growing zone chart.

The heights for the new plant starts are generally available from 1’ to 6’ and the price range is about $7.00 to $60.00. There are smaller young bushes available but it is usually safer to get ones that are at least a foot tall.  Check with your nursery about local planting times. Bushes are hardy in zones 3 through 9. Check out the site for more detailed information for your area of the world. This nursery is very helping and they seem to know their stuff….and are happy to help you find what is best for your needs.

Elderberries fruit best when you plant at least two different varieties within 60 feet or less of one another. A single plant is almost entirely unfruitful because they are pollinated by butterflies from one elderberry bush to another. Three bushes are even better. I have never seen a lone elderberry bush while foraging.

They start producing when the plants are about 2 to 4 years old so if you want to harvest more quickly buy a bush that is a little older. You’ll have to pay a bit more for the larger ones of course. While all elderberries produce berries, there are several varieties of the American elderberry that are especially good fruit producers.

You can check with larger nurseries near you to find out which plants will thrive best in your planting zone. Since there are elderberry bushes with an assortment of leaf and berry colors (black and blue are usually the edible colors) make sure you are purchasing one that is more than ornamental, after all, you want to have as much hidden food and medicine on your property as possible.

You can see in the last photo above and the one below that there are varieties that appear to be more of a tree but there are lower bush varieties available with the added perk of being easier to harvest and being able to place berry bush screening over them when the berries begin to form. This ensures that you win the berry-picking contest with the birds!

A Taller Elderberry Variety

While this variety may not be the easiest to harvest, at least at the top level, it does look lovely in this walled garden. Unlike the mulberry trees and bushes, the elderberry trees can’t be shaken and then drop the fruit onto a clean sheet. A more accessible variety might be a bush about one-third the size of the one pictured above and has a nearly flat or slightly rounded crown. The fruit of the North American black elderberry is excellent for a variety of uses; it can be found growing wild in many areas, as well as in landscapes. It might be one that you want to consider buying for your garden area.

HOMEMADE RECIPES WITH ELDERBERRIES

Elderberry Syrup Recipe

  • 1 Cups fresh elderberries or ½ C. dried elderberries
  • 3 Cups water
  • 1 cinnamon stick, optional (but it adds health benefits)
  • 2  whole cloves, optional
  • 1 – 2 teaspoon peeled and shredded or thinly sliced fresh gingerroot, optional
  • 1 Cup honey (preferrably raw and local)
  1. Place elderberries, water, cinnamon stick, cloves, and ginger in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until reduced by 1/3, using care not to scorch. Use a potato masher to mash berries to release extra juice; strain the mixture through a fine sieve, retaining juice.
  2. Let juice cool slightly. Stir in honey until thoroughly dissolved then pour to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Keeps in refrigerator up to 3 months, but it will probably be consumed on pancakes, waffles or drizzled over ice cream before one-month passes and you have the added health benefit into the bargain! This is a small batch. It can be easily doubled or tripled. Note this is not an extra thick product.
  3. Instead of discarding the pulp I make it into a strong tea by putting it into a quart mason jar and pouring boiling water over it, placing a lid and ring loosely on top and allowing it to sit on the counter overnight. Strain and The result will be a tasty elderberry tea. Great either hot or cold. Add honey or other sweeteners to taste.

COLD AND FLU SYRUP

To make stronger medicinal syrup you can follow the directions above but before adding honey, reduce the elderberry mixture by almost a half. So if you start with 3 cups of water reduce it by simmering to 1 ½ cups, cool for a few minutes and then add the honey. Pour into a glass mason jar, cover and refrigerate. I usually triple this batch. This is a bit thicker than the pancake syrup.

Take a teaspoon of syrup at the onset of illness and repeat every 3 to 4 hours. If you do this at the earliest symptoms you will be able to reduce the duration up to three to four days according to clinical trials that were done several years ago in Denmark. We’ve even nipped it in the bud on that very first day. I give the pulp to the chickens….hmmm, must work for them too because I’ve never ever had one chicken in our flock come down with a case of the flu…. the avian type of course! And no the seeds didn’t hurt them.

Instant Pot Tip: Earlier this year I invested in an instant pot. I love it for making bone broth, roasts, chicken and for elderberry syrup. What a time-saver.

So this is how I do it:

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Put all of the ingredients into the instant pot except the honey and set the manual timer for 10 minutes. When the timer is finished you can do the manual pressure release, you don’t have to allow the cooker to cool down over time, just slowly release the pressure and open the lid away from your face to avoid a steam burn. If you double the above batch then you should increase the instant pot timer to twelve minutes. You may choose to reduce this mixture on the stove top to make it thicker if you prefer…. being watchful of scorching.

A Cup of Herbal Tea

If you are fortunate enough to find a bag of dried elderberries it is a cinch to brew up a warming cup of tea. (I think there has been a slight increase in availability over the past few weeks)

For a couple of mugs of elderberry tea simply:

  • Measure about 4 cups of water into a small saucepan.
  • Add 3-4 tablespoons of dried elderberries
  • Heat to an easy boil then turn heat to slow simmer for about 15 minutes, covered. Watch closely.
  • Remove from heat keeping lid on the pot. Wait 15 minutes to allow steeping.
  • Strain into teapot or mug.
  • Add honey to taste and savor with a friend or loved one.

A Preventative

For the past 7 or 8 years when a member of my family finds that they’ve been around coughing, sniffling, sneezing people they know to take a teaspoon of either elderberry syrup or tincture. It’s great to have on hand as a preventative and the worst winter illness we’ve had in those years is perhaps a brief scratchy throat. I attribute this not only to elderberry but to a few other herbals, essential oils, optimal vitamin D3 levels, as well as a healthy diet.

At the height of cold and flu season or before going to a place where there will be a crowd it’s a good idea to take a dose of elderberry. It’s easy insurance against those nasties.

elderberries herbal tea

FRESH ELDERBERRIES ~ The stems, leaves, seeds and roots contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside. Eating a sufficient quantity of these cyanide-inducing glycosides can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body and make you quite sick. Don’t eat the berries uncooked. Tinctured or made into cough drops or elderberry honey syrup, each method has its own wonderful health benefits— and your family will love it. This tasty medicinal is definitely not a “hard sell” to get your children to take it. In fact, most kids love this sweet fruity blend.

Recapping Health Outcomes

  • Lowering bad cholesterol
  • Improvising vision
  • Boosting immunity
  • Supporting the heart and lungs
  • Combating coughs, sinusitis, colds, sore throats and the flu
  • Fighting bacterial and viral infections
  • Reducing inflammation throughout the body

HARVEST TIME

When harvesting berries, bring along some sharp clippers and make the cut about where this person is holding the stem. Wear old clothes and gloves and have a wide shallow basket or box to carry the clusters. Since you don’t want to crush or damage the berry clusters don’t stack them on top of one another for more than two layers. When you get back home strip the berries from the stems (use gloves or wear purple hands for a few days).

Home drying your harvest

If you choose to dry the berries, place them on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet with side edges and allow them to dry either naturally in the sun or use a low temp oven, not over 135°.  Make sure berries are thoroughly dried before storing. A dehydrator works well and has a more controlled environment than an oven. Easier for you, just purchase dehydrated berries online or at your health food store if they are available.

If you have excess dried berries you may seal them in Mylar bags with an oxygen packet and they will be shelf-stable for up to two years. If you plan to use them within a year you can put them in glass Mason jars with tight-fitting lids. Sealing the ring and lid with a Food Saver vacuum sealing tool works well and gives extra protection. The online berries are usually sealed in Mylar bags.

HELPFUL TIP:

Here is a useful elderberry tip for you that my foraging mother taught me as a child. To make the removal of the berries from the stem easier and less messy, simply freeze the berries on the stems. When well frozen remove what you want from the freezer. Those berries just jump right off the stem with no mess or staining. Easiest way in the world and you can leave the rest for another day, another recipe! You may freeze the berries, after removing from the stem as well. They will keep for several months if well placed in a freezer bag in which most of the air has been evacuated.

One of Our Favorite Easy Elderberry Flower Recipes

Elderflower Pancakes

  • Put a generous amount of coconut oil into a large heavy frying pan.
  • Prepare your favorite, from scratch or from a box, pancake batter in a pouring bowl. I use the large 2 quart Pyrex spouted container
  • I use sprouted grains (and non-gluten for my husband) like buckwheat, quinoa, millet, and amaranth.
  • Toss in a good amount of individual elderflowers (remove all those little flowers from the large single flowers and use them in the batter)
  • Gently mix the flowers into the pancake batter.
  • Fry as usual till golden brown
  • Serve dripping with elderberry syrup.

I usually make several large batches in the late autumn and freeze them for healthy breakfasts during the cold and flu season. They give a whole new meaning to taking your flu medicine and they are chocked full of vitamin C.

Of course, you may just dip the whole flower cluster into the pancake batter and fry that up if you like. Just make sure to use plenty of oil. This Elderberry Flower Fritter has a unique flavor that is hard to describe so I won’t even make the attempt. But trust me; it is delicious and extremely health-friendly.

Elderberries contain 87 percent of the daily value in vitamin C, and of course, antioxidants to fight those free radicals; a trait of all berries.

COMMERCIAL OPTIONS

I know that not everyone can take the time required to make their own medicines. Never fear!……. there are several effective products available commercially. Below is a very popular choice and it’s available in cough drops, kids and adult formulas, capsules and gummies as well as the syrup. There are a number of other brands at local pharmacies, health food stores, and online. There is a sugar-free (sorbitol) version for diabetics.




TAKEAWAYS

  • Of course, there are times when regular medical assistance is absolutely essential. However it is a good feeling to know that you are prepared to take care of yourself and your family with herbs and oils, for a variety of ailments when other options might not be available or if you just want to take advantage of a remedy that provides a boost to your body’s ability to heal itself.  If there is a snow storm like we faced here a few weeks ago when my husband had a medical emergency and we could not get out, being as medically prepared as possible is calming. There were four of the herbs I needed for him in the apothecary pantry that I felt might be helpful. Thankfully they were effective and we were able to bring things under control in a matter of hours. I was finally able to contact the doctor at home after my husband was “out of the woods” and explain to him what had happened and what I had done. He agreed that the outcome was good and said to continue with the herbs since they seemed to be valuable.
  • We all should be thinking about and preparing for things that are most likely to happen within our family and neighborhood as well as for those larger disasters and calamities that are likely to occur in the world…
  • Elderberry is a versatile plant that contains many needful vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that our body requires to function properly.
  • Plant a couple of elderberry bushes nearby.
  • Know how to prepare, or where to buy simple cough syrups or tinctures.
  • Knowing the cautions and advantages of this wonderful plant is a blessing. Elderberry is capable of supporting our bodies naturally, making it better able to perform its functions properly.

Do you have a favorite herb that you have used with success? An experience with elderberry?  Please share with us in the comments so we can learn from each other. I’d love to hear about your experiences or just your comments.

Blessings,

Donna

Donna takes joy in being a wife / mother / grammy / forager / self-reliance seeker / food preserver / chicken chaser / herb and essential oil user / ham radio operator / spelunker / outdoor enjoyer / raw milk drinker / social media avoider / genealogy searcher / scripture studier / cub master / docent / reader / writer / learner / teacher / helper and faithful friend.



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