The Definitive Guide To The Elderberry
Time honored as a food and a potent medicine, and the elder plant grows on every continent. Although no longer well known in the United States, it’s still at least somewhat familiar in the United Kingdom and some countries in Europe.
On this page, you will find everything from recipes to plant identification to information on growing it yourself.
Table of Contents
- Elderberry Food Recipes
- Elderberry Medicinal Recipes
- How To Grow
- Where To Buy Dried Elderberries & Flowers
- Where To Buy Live Plants
When you settle a share of land, first plant an Elder tree, then make your home there.” — T. Elder Sachs
The legend has been since medieval times that the cross of Jesus Christ was made of elder wood and that Judas hanged himself on an elder tree. The availability of the truth in either matter is long gone, but the myth persists to this day.
Some cultures hold the elder as an evil plant aligned with the devil, while others forbid cutting it down.
Elder has only recently become something uncommon in kitchens across the United States and worldwide. Previously, the plant was regularly used as far back as 400 BC, when Hippocrates stated that elder was so useful he referred to it as his medicine chest.
Although it is widely available geographically, yet most people no longer harvest it. They don’t know what they’re missing!
Black elderberries are edible when they are ripe and cooked. A few can be eaten uncooked by most people without issue, but most people cannot do this without some stomach upset. That aside, elderberries taste best cooked, anyway; why eat them raw?
Don’t pick dwarf elderberries (Sambucus ebulus); they look similar to normal elderberry, but the berry clusters stand straight up from the herbaceous (not woody) stem. Regular elderberries droop and connect to woody stems. While we have heard reports of people eating dwarf elderberry, until you learn to identify common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis in the United States), you should stick to identifying and picking it exclusively.
If you know someone who uses dwarf elderberry or otherwise knows for sure that it isn’t poisonous, leave a comment at the bottom of this page and tell us about it!
What separates elderberry from some other lookalikes is bark. Elder is a woody plant and has bark with small warts all over it.
Where To Find It
Image source: USDA Plant Database
Sambucus canadensis, a subspecies of Sambucus nigra, can be found in almost any state in the lower 48 United States. It is also commonly found along hedgerows in the United Kingdom and Ireland and grows wild in Europe and western Asia. Other species of Sambucus are found worldwide. S. canadensis doesn’t grow natively in Europe.
It typically grows towards the edge of forests where receives a good amount of light and it isn’t picky about soil quality, although it grows best where nitrogen is readily available. It can make its home in wet or dry soil.
Images source: NCWildflower.org
Common Name: Hercules’ Club, Prickly Ash, Devil’s Walkingstick
Most people are concerned about mistaking pokeberry for elderrberry, but the true worry is mistaking Hercules’ club for it. While the flowers and berries may look the same, Hercules’ club has thorns. Elderberry does not. Be careful!!
Images source: Ohio Perennial & Biennial Weed Guide
Images source: IowaPlants.com
Common Name: Spotted water hemlock
This is another plant you should worry about incorrectly identifying as elderberry. There are 2 main differences between the two. Elderberry is woody and has bark while water hemlock does not. The leaves of both are serrated, but the leaf veins of water hemlock end in the notches between the teeth. Elderberry leaf veins end at the tips of the teeth or fade before reaching them. The stems of water hemlock are also often streaked and have purple splotches.
Elderberry Nutritional Value
Nutritionally, elderberry is a star. It’s loaded with almost twice the nutrients of blueberries across the board. This could be attributed to the fact that elderberry is considered a weed and grows mostly without human intervention, whereas blueberries are typically a commercially farmed product.
Wild vs Cultivated Fruits
Elderberries are a wonderful example of the nutritional difference between plants that are grown in the wild or organically and those that are produced commercially. Today, we have to eat more of the same thing to get the same nutritional value that was available from the same plant 50 years ago.
More sugar, more calories, and more food intake in general leads to obesity and many other health problems. Sugar can cause acidity in the body. If our food today is nutritionally inferior to what our ancestors ate, it’s no wonder we have to eat more of it to feel satisfied now.
As stated before, elderberry is a nutritional powerhouse that modern agriculture has all but left untouched.
|Nutrient||Amount||Daily Value %|
|Vitamin A equiv.||30 μg||4%|
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||0.14mg||3%|
|Folate (B9)||6 μg||2%|
Black elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L) has been proven multiple times to be effective in shortening the duration of flu symptoms by at least 3 to 4 days. In one study published in the late 90’s, 93% of flu patients who took Sambucol to fight their illness were made well within 2 days. The other patients who took only a placebo took 6 days to recover.
One recent study shows that black elderberry extract is an effective treatment for cases of influenza A and influenza B. The group that didn’t take Sambucol didn’t recover until day 6. They took much longer to recover than the group that took the elderberry extract and to lessen symptoms, they required much more pain medication and nasal sprays.
Elderberry has been found to increase cytokine production, which is good for the immune system for most individuals.
Who Shouldn't Use Elderberry?
Elderberry stimulates the immune system and increases cytokine production, so no one with an auto-immune disease should use elderberry. This includes diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and many others.
Increased cytokine production has also been linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders and so anyone diagnosed with ASD should not take elderberry.
It is also high in vitamin K and so can cause problems for anyone who has a tendency towards blood clots.
You should always talk to your doctor before introducing any new supplement or food into your diet, but this is especially true for those who have serious medical conditions.
Elderberry Food Recipes
Recipes for elderberry jelly can be found on many websites, including the ones listed below. If you don’t want to spend the money on canning supplies or just want to try it first, there are a few places to buy it online.
Thebestgardening.com has a recipe that helps eliminate some of the guesswork in batch sizing.
HealthHomeHappy.com has a great recipe for elderberry gummy candy. Great for kids and adults, too!
A “shrub” is a vinegar-based, sweetened drink. Shrubs can be made with many different kinds of fruit.
TheKitchn.com has an easy recipe if you’re willing to give it a try.
EOmega.org also has a recipe to try that includes ginger.
AbesMarket.com has a wonderful smoothie recipe. It doesn’t get much healthier than this!
Honest-food.net has a good recipe for elderberry cordial.
While making cordials is simple, making wine requires a little more attention to detail and proper wine making equipment.
Commonsensehome.com has a recipe that incorporates muscat raisins.
Honest-food.net has one of the best recipes available, plus detailed information on the process.
Another good recipe can be found at FromGardenToPlate.
A wonderfully simple recipe for elderflower syrup can be found at GeorgiaPellegrini.com.
A great recipe for elderberry cough & cold syrup can be found at CrunchyBetty.com.
Fresh Eggs Daily has another great recipe with quality images and instructions.
RealFoodRN.com also has one worth a peek.
WellnessMama is another great resource for a syrup recipe.
Elderberry & Rose Hip Syrup can be found at RecipesToNourish.com .
One recipe for elderflower fritters can also be found, complete with detailed pictures, at GeorgiaPellegrini.com.
Elderberry Medicinal Recipes
- 5lb fresh, ripe, crushed elderberries
- 1lb loaf sugar
Simmer berries with the sugar and evaporate to around the thickness of honey.
Dosage: 1 to 2 tablespoons mixed with hot water and taken at night promotes perspiration and can be demulcent to the chest. After being made, the rob can be stored for the winter.
While cordials, wines, syrups, and fritters are good to eat, elderberry tincture is used medicinally. You can use either fresh berries for it or dried.
If you’re using fresh berries, you will need an alcohol that is high proof (over 100, but closer to 190 proof is best) for the tincture to store properly. The juice in the berries can dilute the alcohol to unsafe levels and it can spoil. Dried berries don’t have this problem, however, so tinctures made with them can be made using 80 proof alcohol. The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook describes making tinctures, syrups, and other herbal preparations in detail.
Nourishingherbalist.com has a recipe that incorporates other herbs to give the most nutritional effect.
Uncooked berries from the Sambucus genus are almost all poisonous to a certain degree. Sambucus nigra flowers are edible raw and the berries are edible when black and cooked, but no other part of the plant is safe to eat. The stems, bark, leaves, seeds, and roots are poisonous.
Red elderberries should be treated as poisonous, even though some research suggests that they may be edible when ripe, de-seeded, and cooked.
There have been few risks associated with elderberry consumption for around 5 days at a time. There have been no scientific studies on the long term effects of taking elderberry as a dietary supplement.
As with any food, there are some who may be allergic to elderberries or flowers and may react adversely when consuming them.
You should not take elderberry if you suffer from an auto-immune disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis.
Because elderberry stimulates the immune system, there is concern that it can decrease the effectiveness of medications that decrease the immune system’s activity. Some of these medications include:
- azathioprine (Imuran)
- basiliximab (Simulect)
- cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune)
- daclizumab (Zenapax)
- muromonab-CD3 (OKT3, Orthoclone OKT3)
- mycophenolate (CellCept)
- tacrolimus (FK506, Prograf)
- sirolimus (Rapamune)
- prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone)
Taking elderberry or elderflower supplements may increase the amount that you urinate, because of the diuretic effects of the flower. Anyone taking diuretic medications should not take elderberry or elderflower supplements without speaking to their doctor first.
How To Grow Elderberry
Elderberry grows prolifically in the wild and doesn’t need too much attention to prosper in your garden, but because you are actively choosing where to plant it, some things can go wrong.
Elder prefers a moist, rich soil for the best growth. They do, however, don’t need to be planted where water ponds when it rains. Good drainage is important.
Mulching around bushes is important for new plants to keep weeds from strangling them. This also helps the soil around the plant retain water, so you won’t have to water as often.
Full sun to partial shade
If you’ve ever seen elder growing in the wild, it always grows in locations where it receives several hours of sunlight per day. You’ll notice it growing along roadsides, the edge of forests, and sometimes in open fields. You’ll never find it growing exclusively in the shade.
Late autumn to early spring
Prune your elderberry plant only when the foliage has died back. This will happen in late autumn through early spring.
Where To Buy Dried Elderberries
Where To Buy Live Elderberry Plants
American elderberry plants can be purchased from WillisOrchards.com with prices starting at $5.95 for a 1 to 2 foot tall, 1 year old plant. Prices go up to $59.95 for 6 to 7 foot plants already fruiting size.
Nourse is a great place to get young plants, but they don’t seem to have older, fruiting size plants available like Willis Orchards does.
StarkBros has some different varieties of elderberry plants listed on their site, but they are unavailable as of 12/5/14.
Edible Landscapping has several varieties of elderberry plant available and some grow to different sizes than others.