Sometimes propagated as an ornamental shrub, the elderberry bush is a member of the honeysuckle family. It's actually a small tree, with an abundance of delicate white flowers emerging as berry clusters generally between August and October, mostly in cool-to-warm areas of the country, like the Northeastern and Northwestern areas of the US and Canada.
A uniquely American fruit familiar to the nation's first inhabitants, traditional uses for elderberries by Indians, who made use of every little part of the plant, included tools crafted from the branches, such as arrow shafts and pipes, as well as the berries.
Still a novelty to many Americans, this tiny black fruit yields an abundance of juice for its small size. When cooking elderberries for sauce, some may prefer a little extra sweetness.
Elderberries freeze in a glass jar after washing and patting dry. For sauce or syrup, dissolve honey in warm water, chill well, and then pour over the elderberries packed in freezer containers.
When elderberry hunting, only the blue variety (also identifiable by the white surface coating, similar to blueberries) is good for eating, although they require cooking, because the raw berries contain a cyanide-like chemical. Green, unripe, or bright red elderberries (Sambucus ebulus) are bitter and possibly toxic, even when cooked.
Health Benefits of Elderberries
In 1899, an American sailor accidentally discovered that cheap port wine colored with elderberries relieved his arthritis. This may have been the basis for a number of experiments on the healing properties of this fruit.
Sambucus nigra – European or black elder – may be the cultivar most often used for medicinal purposes throughout the world and over decades and centuries of application. Modern research holds that elderberries may have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anticancer properties.
Flavonoids are another ingredient that places elderberries in the category of "antioxidant-rich," capable of preventing cell damage. One study suggested that the elderberry extract called Sambucol could shorten flu duration by up to three days.
Other traditional uses of elderberry flowers are as external antiseptic washes and poultices to treat wounds, and as an eye wash for conjunctivitis and eye inflammation. It's been used for cosmetic purposes for millennia due to the reputation of distilled elderberry flower water to soften, tone, and restore the skin and lighten freckles. The flowers can also be steeped in oil to make a lotion that relaxes sore muscles and soothes burns, sunburn, and rashes.
Chemicals in both the flowers and berries may help diminish swelling in mucous membranes like sinuses and help relieve nasal congestion. Herbalists still use it to soothe children's upset stomachs and relieve gas. Elderberries are reputed to have diuretic and detoxifying properties, and therefore considered good for weight management.
Some doctors recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid eating elderberries.
To begin with, elderberries are a very good source of fiber vitamin A, providing 17 percent of the daily value, but eclipsed by infection-fighting vitamin C with 87 percent – reportedly more than any other plant besides black currants and rosehips. Other prominent ingredients in elderberries include iron (13 percent of the daily value) as well as potassium, vitamin B6, and lots of betacarotene.
Elderberries Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), raw
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie
Studies Done on Elderberries
When the phenolic, anthocyanin, and antioxidant capacities of the American elderberry were tested for free radical scavenging abilities, researchers found they had effects similar to blackberries, black raspberries, and other small, deep-hued fruits. Anthocyanins had the most significant and positive results, resulting in researchers' recommendation for further study and development of elderberry compounds for this purpose.1
Antiviral components of elderberry fruit extract were tested and found to effectively inhibit Human Influenza A (H1N1 virus) in vitro, possibly by blocking the ability of the virus to infect host cells. The extract was so effective, that researchers compared it with the prescription medications Amantadine and Oseltamivir (Tamiflu).2
Elderberries Fun Facts
As a moniker, the term "elder" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "aeld," meaning fire, because the hollow stems of this plant were used to gently blow on flames to intensify the fire. "Sambucus" is a Greek word meaning "wind instrument." Native Americans once used elderberry branches to make flutes, so the tree was sometimes called "the tree of music."
Elderberries have been used not just for their unique tartness, but for many different traditional and Native American folk remedies. The dark berries are the good ones, with a history of treating conjunctivitis, cold and flu symptoms, reducing congestion, relieving arthritis pain, soothing upset stomachs, relieving gas, and for detoxification.
Elderberry flowers are popular for making solutions to soften, tone, and restore the skin, relax sore muscles, and sooth burns and rashes.
Besides lots of flavonoids and free radical-scouring antioxidants, elderberries contain 87 percent of the daily value in vitamin C, and high amounts of vitamin A, potassium, iron, vitamin B6, fiber, and betacarotene.
Elderberries add a bright, tart, and delightful flavor to various foods. They can also be used to make wine.