Every late summer into fall, it happens without fail. Text messages, social media messages, emails, phone calls. . . . “Is this an elderberry?” Sometimes it is, but many times it is a poke or a Joe Pye or some other plant.
Now you might say, why is this noteworthy? After all, plant identification isn’t easy. But the elder isn’t just any plant. Historically it is the plant above all others—the plant with uses so deep and wide that it earned the moniker, “the people’s medicine chest.” Some say it is “that plant of God that heals everything it touches.” The elder is found in the works of everyone from Hippocrates to Shakespeare, in medical and pharmaceutical texts and children’s fairy tales, and in a thousand other works across almost every continent and country in human history.
This plant’s importance was so well known, in fact, that from Greco-Roman times to just a hundred years ago, books on plant use and identification did not even bother to describe it! Why? Because for two thousand years, everyone could easily identify the elder.
What happened to the elder? And why has it made such a tremendous comeback in recent years in the United States and in other parts of the world?
A PLANT WITH MANY USES
Most Americans’ experience with elderberry is as a supplement, usually with some type of “sambu” in the name. This goes back to the elder’s earliest uses, when the plant was known as the Sambucus. However, the elder also provided an excellent wood for making all sorts of useful tools and musical instruments. Sambu means “wind” or “fire,” and the elder was (and still is) used across the world for both.
The usefulness of the wood also extended to children’s toys. Historians attest to children searching for pieces of elder thousands of years ago to engage in the time-honored tradition of harassing siblings, with references to elder-enabled spitball fights in the days of ancient Rome. In American history, many books describe useful toys made from elder wood. Some varieties of the plant also provided wood for making arrow shafts and bows for hunting, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The plant’s historical usefulness extended far beyond its wood, however. Other parts were used to make dyes, salves and skin care products, and—similar to tobacco—the leaves, roots and other plant materials were made into an important and all-natural pesticide.
THE ELDER: AN OLD-FASHIONED REMEDY
The elder was one of the earliest permaculture plants, used extensively in landscaping, land design and improvement, living fences, screens and for many other purposes. Its shallow but extensive root system, along with its love of water, made it a perfect plant to establish on the roadsides to handle water runoff and stabilize embankments. Its dense, hedgelike growth also allowed people to keep animals in—and unwanted guests and ruffians out.
Of course, the elder also produces edible flowers and berries. In former times, people consumed both of these plant parts in a range of ways that would be mind-boggling to modern eaters: in fritters, cordials, wines, other beverages, syrups, salads and soups. The elder was also a featured ingredient in pies, jellies, honeys and tinctures. There are even recipes for traditional ketchup (which began as a fermented fish sauce) that include the elderberry!
While the elder’s practical importance was deeply entrenched across all of Europe and much of the rest of the world, its medicinal properties (and alleged ability to deter vampires!) were what elevated its stature above almost all other plants in history. For three thousand years, every famous herbalist and physician talked about the elder. So numerous were the conditions that the elder could treat that the number of medicinal uses easily surpassed the number of practical applications for which the plant was justly famous around the world.
Historically, the elder’s medicinal properties were found in every plant part, including the pith, buds, leaves and roots. In the 1300s, however, Conrad von Megenberg brought the immune-supporting properties of the berries to center stage and also wrote the first (but not the last) book completely devoted to this single plant. Indeed, these immune-boosting characteristics were so noteworthy that the famous children’s author Hans Christian Anderson—who gave us the stories of the “Ugly Duckling” and the “Emperor’s New Clothes”—penned an entire tale about the elder called “The Elder Tree Mother.”
Beginning in the 1960s, the elder experienced a brief eclipse in the U.S., when the motto of “better living through chemistry” took hold of the American consciousness. For a time, this paradigm saw the elder, along with so many other traditional foods and remedies, relegated to second fiddle and then forgotten. However, as the problems with pharmaceutical approaches have multiplied—and more and more studies have documented the superior solutions known to our ancestors—the elder is poised to make a tremendous comeback.
The elderberry is nutrient-rich, containing more antioxidants than almost any other berry and scoring higher in vitamins and minerals than most (though growing conditions and plant variety play a large part in its eventual nutritional profile). It is a good source of quercetin and various acids and anthocyanins.1 Elder flowers are especially rich in polyphenols and other health-promoting compounds, which may explain why our ancestors so often used them in teas, salves, soaks and treatments for inflammation, injuries and illnesses.
Modern research supports many of the historical uses and amazing benefits of the elderberry. Studies point to its ability to keep travelers from coming down with respiratory illness2 and its assistance in reducing the duration and severity of respiratory infections.3,4 Some of the ways in which the chemicals in elderberry better equip our bodies to defeat infections are defensive, and some are offensive in nature. On the defensive side, elderberry is both antibacterial and antiviral.5 In an Australian study of influenza, one of the lead investigators stated, “What our study has shown is that the common elderberry has a potent direct antiviral effect against the flu virus. It inhibits the early stages of an infection by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells.”6 On the offensive side, elderberry supports and strengthens our immune system, helping it function well without wearing itself out or revving too high or low.
Although more and more Americans are taking elderberry products during cold and flu season, the benefits of elderberry go far beyond these two conditions. Historically, elderberry was also used to treat allergies, measles and dozens of other conditions that modern research fails to remedy.7 Studies also show that elderberry may have protective benefits against the damage caused by strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.1,8-10 Even the U.S. military has displayed interest in elderberry because of its ability to help people adapt to and overcome stress.11-13 You will encounter many other uses if you go down the elderberry rabbit hole.
Modern Americans are increasingly enamored with the fruit of the elder. However, as I often emphasize when I teach about the elder, this plant offers us so much more than the syrups and supplements consumed during cold and flu season. Perhaps more than any other plant, the elder embodies one of its greatest proponent’s most basic dictums, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” May we all continue to make better use of this amazing plant.
BEWARE ELDERBERRY ADULTERATION
There are least two reasons to take great care when purchasing elderberry products. First, manufacturers and many others are raising the alarm about a dramatic increase in elderberry adulteration.14 The exploding demand for elderberry products over the past decade has caused the cost of both conventional and organic elderberries to soar; in response, adulteration is becoming more widespread. A second problem is that of plant misidentification. In just the last two years, I have seen over a dozen people selling “elderberry” products made from other plants. Thus the elderberry market’s rapid growth has created some risks for consumers.
- Simonyi A, Chen Z, Jiang J et al. Inhibition of microglial activation by elderberry extracts and its phenolic components. Life Sci. 2015;128:30-38.
- Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Elderberry supplementation reduces cold duration and symptoms in air-travellers: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):182.
- Zakey-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004;32(2):132-140.
- Hawkins J, Baker C, Cherry L, Dunne E. Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: a meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials. Complement Ther Med. 2019;42:361-365.
- Daniells S. Black elderberry extract shows anti-infection activity: Study. NutraIngredients, March 14, 2011. https://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Article/2011/03/14/Black-elderberry-extract-shows-anti-infection-activity-Study.
- Elderberry compounds could help minimize flu symptoms, study suggests. ScienceDaily, April 23, 2019. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190423133644.htm.
- Sayin I, Cingi C, Oghan F, Baykal B, Ulusoy S. Complementary therapies in allergic rhinitis. ISRN Allergy. 2013;2013:938751.
- Daily M. Interest in Missouri elderberries on the rise. Vox, October 29, 2020. https://www.voxmagazine.com/food/rise-of-elderberries/article_d8883948-0e8b-11eb-8ebc-3374cbd172cd.html.
- Spagnuolo C, Napolitano M, Tedesco I, Moccia S, Milito A, Russo GL. Neuroprotective role of natural polyphenols. Curr Top Med Chem. 2016;16(17):1943-1950.
- Neves D, Bernardo J, Valentao P et al. The bioactive compounds from elderberry to modulate mitochondrial dysfunctions underlying Alzheimer’s disease: PS205. Porto Biomed J. 2017;2(5):202-203.
- Kilham C. Elderberry enhances immune function. Fox News, March 23, 2011. https://www.foxnews.com/health/elderberry-enhances-immune-function
- Porta S, Wurzinger S, Wintersteiger R. Determination of physiological effects of elderberry biopolyphenols in humans using ICU equipment. Berry Health Benefits Network, n.d. http://berryhealth.fst.oregonstate.edu/symposium/seppportaabstract.htm.
- Schultz H. Nature’s Way finds more evidence of widespread elderberry adulteration. NutraIngredients, September 23, 2020. https://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Article/2020/09/23/Nature-s-Way-finds-more-evidence-of-widespread-elderberry-adulteration.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2020🖨️ Print post