|Elderberry flowers make a soothing tea. Photo by Thomas G. Barnes @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.|
by Joyce White
Robert Henderson comments in “The Neighborhood Forager” that the elderberry (genus Sambucus) “is a case study in the dramatic conversion of North Americans from largely self-sufficient peoples to consumers.” Because of its variety of uses, elder bushes became a part of many homestead plantings, often growing alongside lilacs, forsythia and apple trees. We can still find ancient elder bushes on abandoned farmsteads, along roadsides, and in other unexpected places, usually in moist areas. Each time I move to a new location, I have to locate one of these old plants.
More than a dozen Sambucus species are native to Canada and the United States, while European red elder, S. racemosa, and black elder, S. nigra, are immigrants. One of our natives, common elder, Sambucus canadensis, bears dark purple berries and is the variety most often used in wine, pies, preserves and medicine. The red-berried S. pubens and S. racemosa produce acrid-tasting fruits that are mildly toxic to humans if eaten raw but are delicious to birds.
Henderson warns that while elderflowers and the juice and flesh of ripe common elderberries are edible, the stems, leaves and unripe berries contain unsafe levels of cyanic glucosides. He suggests that elderberries of all varieties be cooked before eating. They don’t taste very good raw anyway, so most people would not be tempted.
The white flower clusters, on the other hand, make delicious fritters, according to Fedco Trees, and the plants attract beneficial insects and other wildlife.
Finding Wild Plants
Elder leaves are oval or lance-shaped, opposite, sharply toothed and divided, with each divided leaf bearing five to 11 leaflets. It’s the early summer blooms, though, that will alert you to the plant’s presence, so if you want to spot elder bushes in anticipation of fall harvest, early summer is the time to note their location. Big, umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny, fragrant blossoms are white or ivory and contrast dramatically with surrounding foliage. The red-berried varieties bloom about a week earlier than common elder and ripen in midsummer, while the dark purple berries of the common elder are ready for harvest in September.
When the abundant flowers on these tall shrubs give way to small, green berries, elder bushes become difficult to distinguish from their green leafy neighbors. In September, after the small berries of the common elder have matured into large, purple clusters, they are again easy to spot. With luck, they won’t get mowed down and birds will leave some berries for humans. Humans, of course, need to reciprocate and leave some for birds.
Culinary, Medicinal and Other Uses
Before I had heard of the medicinal uses for elderberries, I had used the seedy, tart, slightly bitter purple berries for a beautiful, tasty jelly. A handful added to an apple pie gives it a lovely color and a piquant flavor. Most people have at least heard of the delights of elderberry wine.
It turns out that elderberries and elder blossoms have a long history of multiple uses and not just in North America. Humans apparently recognized elderberry as a useful plant even in prehistoric times: Evidence of its cultivation is found in Stone Age village sites in Italy and Switzerland.
The word ‘elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, meaning fire, apparently springing from an old-time practice of using hollow branches as blowing tubes to kindle fires. Children used them as popguns, thus the common names “pipe tree” and “popgun tree.” Henderson cautions that although “elder’s hollow branches have a long record of service as whistles, flutes, snorkels, taps and pipes, it’s best … to avoid putting elder wood in the mouth.”
As a medicinal plant, the use of elderberry stretches back into European history, where gypsies reportedly called it “the healingest tree on earth.” Hippocrates listed it among the prominent plants of his “Materia Medica,” and other ancient writers mentioned it for treating many diseases. Native Americans used elderberries to treat rheumatism, sciatica, coughs and other conditions. In England, the popular hedge plant was once known as “nature’s medicine chest.” Early settlers apparently brought the habit of cultivating elder bushes to this continent.
Elderberry is one of the most effective medicinal plants for preventing and treating upper respiratory infections and fever. It stimulates the immune system and has shown some activity in preliminary trials against herpes and HIV viruses. In the 2008 edition of Second Opinion, Dr. Robert Jay Rowen says that virologist Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu studied elderberry for most of her career and discovered the key active ingredient, which she found effective against flu viruses. She developed the commercial product Sambucol, which contains the antiviral compound AntiVirin extracted from black elderberry, as well as three flavonoids (antioxidants). A Norwegian study showed that Sambucol stimulates a healthy immune system by increasing production of cytokines, which enable immune cells to communicate with one another. Another study showed that Sambucol inhibited replication of many strains of human and animal flu. Preparations from the plant also relieve nasal congestion and sore throat.
A 2015 summary of the medicinal benefits of black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) appears on the EthnoHerbalist website, published by Dr. Kevin Curran.
In the United States and Europe, herbalists use both blossoms and berries in treating disease. Boiling water poured over a tablespoon of dried blossoms and left to steep for 20 minutes makes a healing tea. After the petals are strained, the tea is gentle enough to give to children to lower fever and to treat other symptoms of colds and flu. It can also be useful in treating hay fever, because it helps make the mucous membranes less reactive to allergens.
Making and Using a Tincture
I have made and used preparations with the ripe berries. After I clip a basketful of berry clusters, I sit on the deck and remove the individual berries from the stems and collect them in a large cooking pot. This job can be tedious – like shelling peas or cleaning fiddleheads – or it can be peaceful and meditative. Rainbow Farm, a sheep farm in Maryland, says that the berries can be removed directly from the bush with a large, wide-toothed comb with a handle. Hang a pail from your neck, hold a berry cluster in one hand, and comb the berries off the stems into the pail. You may have to comb the cluster repeatedly to get all the berries; trying to remove too many at once will result in more stems coming off with the fruits. (Stems can interfere with winemaking.) The Web site describes other methods for harvesting berries.
After washing and draining the berries, I pour a small amount of water into the pot and bring it just to a gentle boil. After they’ve cooled a bit, I mash the berries just enough to break some of the skins, and then ladle them into clean quart jars to about three-quarters full. Then I fill the jars with 80-proof vodka, cap them with screw top lids, label them with the date and shake each jar to mix the berries and vodka thoroughly. They rest in a dark corner for four to six weeks, getting shaken every couple of days until it’s time to strain them – a somewhat messy job. (Don’t wear your best shirt or jeans!) The resulting dark red liquid is elderberry tincture or extract. I use a teaspoonful in water three or four times a day when I feel the first signs of a cold, flu or pollen allergy.
The tincture retains its potency for at least two years. I also make a batch using vegetable glycerin for family members who don’t want to use alcohol – especially grandchildren – but the glycerin-based tincture should be used within a year.
You can make a tincture from dried elderberries in case your supply of fresh berries is suddenly eliminated—as mine was one year when the town mowing crew chopped down a huge old bush near the dam on Keywadin Lake. (Parts of it came back, giving a good harvest the past two years. I now remind the town crew every August not to cut that bush. We’ll see.) The year that I used dried elderberries from Mountain Rose Herbs in Oregon, I soaked them in water before doing the rest of the process. The tincture seemed fine, but I’d rather forage for my own locally grown berries. (You can also find dried elderberries at some food co-ops.) If anyone wants the benefits of elderberry tincture without the bother of making it, it is now available as Sambucol or as other, locally-made tinctures (such as Avena Botanicals).
Grow Your Own
After the town crew mowed down the local elderberries, I decided to start my own Sambucus canadensis bush. It had a few berries the second year after planting and last year the 4-foot shrub had several clusters of berries. FEDCO Trees and Pinetree Garden Seeds sell elderberry bushes, as does another very reliable supplier of fruit trees and berry bushes, Hartmann’s Nursery in Michigan; Western Maine Nurseries sell plants in bulk.
Elderberries are hardy from USDA zones 3 to 11 (depending on the variety) and are pest free. They can grow in full sun to partial shade, prefer a rich, moist soil, and can reach 12 to 15 feet in height and spread at maturity. Water new plants at least once a week the first year unless rain provides needed moisture. A mulch helps keep weeds from choking new bushes.
Fedco Trees says that two varieties are needed for pollination (although its ‘Goodbarn’ elderberry seems to be self-fertile). Hartmann’s advocates using a non-acid fertilizer every year at a low rate and pruning out stems after they have produced two crops. Pruning should be done only when the foliage has died back in late autumn or early spring. These plants can grow quite wide and tall if they’re not pruned. I remember some in the Frye Mountain area of Maine that were too tall to reach, except for the lowest hanging branches.
|Elderberry fruit, leaves and flower. USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. “An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions.” Vol. 3: 268.|
Elderberries from Maine Sources
Sambucus canadensis ‘Adams No. 1,’ selected by William Adams of Union Springs, New York in 1926, is vigorous and productive, with large berries and fruit clusters. Hardy to zone 3.
S. canadensis ‘Goodbarn’ is a chance seedling that Elwyn Meader of Rochester, N.H., introduced after finding it growing under the eaves of his barn. It has unusual hardiness and vigor and seems to be self-fertile. It blooms heavily and produces large, annual crops of smaller berries. Hardy to zone 3.
S. nigra ‘Eva Black Lace’ elderberry, hardy to zone 4 or 5, is a large (up to 10’ x 10’) variety introduced from Kent, England. Its highly ornamental, long, multiple stems have very dark, almost black foliage that is deeply incised, or “lacy.” Its pink buds open to white flowers in late spring, which produce black fruit in the fall. Deer are not attracted to this variety.
S. canadensis ‘Aurea’ is a yellow-leaved elderberry with bright red fruits.
S. nigra ‘Pulverulenta’, variegated elderberry, has green and white leaves.
S. canadensis, the native elderberry, is sold mostly for naturalizing and roadside plantings.
About the author: Joyce White gardens and forages for wild foods and plant medicines in the area around her home in Stoneham.
This article is for informational purposes only. Please consult a health care practitioner before treating medical conditions.
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Foster, Steven and James A. Duke, “Medicinal Plants and Herbs, A Peterson Field Guide,” Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Henderson, Robert K., “The Neighborhood Forager,” Chelsea Green, 2000.
Hutchens, Alma R., “Indian Herbology of North America,” Shambhala, 1991.
Martin, Corinne, “Herbal Remedies from the Wild,” Countryman Press, 2000.
Tierra, Michael, “The Way of Herbs.” Pocket, 1990.