Elderberry is our herb of the month for January, a fitting time for this delicious, highly nutritive little berry and its health supportive properties.

Botany, Growth & Habitat
European Elder, also known as, Sambucus nigra L., is a member of the Caprifoliaceae family of plants and is native to Europe, Northern Africa and Central Asia.  There are nine species within the Sambucus genus of plants.

Elder grows as a shrub or small tree being anywhere from 4 to 25 feet in height.  It has pithy stems with leaves that are compound, in pairs of two-to-four leaflets and a single leaf at the tip.  The delicate, cream-colored flowers bloom in late spring through summer and occur in dense, pyramidal clusters.  The berries that form from these flowers can range in color from red to blue or purple. 

They can be found growing throughout most of Europe, in a similar growing habitat as those found growing in North America.  It can grow in a variety of habitats from riverbanks and streams, edges of ponds and lakes, in rich forests, pastures, fields, and even in backyards and gardens. 

History and Tradition
Throughout history, elder has been seen as a sacred plant.  Superstition regarding the cutting or harming of elder trees was said to anger supernatural beings who resided in the trees.  Elder was also considered a symbol of protection and people would hang elder branches around doors and windows to keep witches away.

Sambucus, the botanical name of the genus refers to a type of harp made from elder wood, while elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word æld, meaning “fire,” as blowing through the hollow stems was a way to stoke fires. 

Written history of the medicinal uses of the elder tree date back to the 5th century, in the writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder.  Much of the traditional use and modern research have focused on the flowers.  Historically the flowers have been used to encourage sweating and the dispersion of heat, bringing the temperature back into balance.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the elder flowers are said to be acrid, bitter, and cool energetically, entering the Lung and Liver meridians. 

Modern Uses
In more modern times, and especially in the last decade, much research has been done on the berries.  This is now the more common and well-known part of the plant used for health purposes.  The berries are rich in flavonoids and anthocyanin compounds which have may have a number of health benefits and show support to the cardiovascular system. 

The more popular use of elderberries is supporting the immune system responses to seasonal challenges, especially those that affect the respiratory tract.  Using elderberries when dealing with seasonal concerns may support the body in its transition to recovery in a timely manner.  Through their support of the mucus membranes, elderberries can also help the body deal with congestion and soothe irritations throughout the respiratory tract.

As our focus is on the berries, we’ll discuss the preparations as such.  The most common preparation of the berries is as a syrup, either alone or combined with other herbs. Here’s a link to one of our recipes.

Another common method is to use a tincture, extracted into a combination of alcohol and water and sometimes glycerin.  You can also find elderberry extract in herbal lozenges. 

Lastly, elderberries have been made into pies, jams, and even wine throughout history for their flavor and health benefits.

Dr. Shawn Manske attended the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, one of seven accredited four-year, post-graduate Naturopathic Medical schools in North America, and received his Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine.  He practiced as an ND for five years in Ontario, Canada, before moving to Colorado.  He’s currently a Territory Accounts Manager and Senior Educator at WishGarden Herbs.

For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.