I always love spring. Today I found myself crisscrossing a neighbor’s farm, looking over cows. Birds sang. Squirrels foraged. And while we went along ponds, around sinkholes, and along wood and fence lines we found… elderberry! It was once said that you couldn’t go more than a hundred feet in most of the US without running into one. Now, this important plant is far harder to find. But why is the elder so valuable?
Historically, the elder was used for EVERYTHING…
What is everything? Everything! From the earliest origins of medicine with the Greeks and Romans and other groups all across Europe and Russia, to the earliest Native American tribes and beyond, the elder was prized for its seemingly limitless medicinal uses.
It clearly earned the title it would carry for almost 1000 years – “the people’s medicine chest!”
But why is elder so beneficial? There are many reasons modern science sheds light on.
First, it is a nutritional powerhouse, especially its phytonutrient content. These phytonutrients – polyphenols and anthocyanins among others – have all sorts of plant superpowers. Studies show that they can inhibit viral attachment and replication (which explains why for many hundreds of years elder was used for flus), boost our immune system (which explains why it was also considered a surefire remedy for colds!), reduce inflammation (which is why it was used for allergies and other inflammatory problems), and so… much… more!
As one researcher put it, “What our study has shown is that the common elderberry has a potent direct antiviral effect against the flu virus,” said Dr Golnoosh Torabian.
“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”… The phytochemicals from the elderberry juice were shown to be effective at stopping the virus infecting the cells, however to the surprise of the researchers they were even more effective at inhibiting viral propagation at later stages of the influenza cycle when the cells had already been infected with the virus.
“This observation was quite surprising and rather significant because blocking the viral cycle at several stages has a higher chance of inhibiting the viral infection,” explained Dr Peter Valtchev.
Pass around some elderberry, anyone?
1773 Nova Scotia Calendar – Sore Throat Remedy
Elder has numerous practical benefits. First, it is beautiful. An elder in flower or full berry is a beautiful sight on any landscape. Even in the most restricted places an elderberry is generally considered an ornamental, so there is almost no where you can’t grow one… though I recommend you grow many!
Yet this beauty isn’t without purpose. Elder make great living hedges and fences. They can serve as an excellent wind break or privacy screen, and historically were used for such purposes, like keeping “rude minchers,” that is thieves, out of people’s gardens. So the elder can not only provide you with food and medicine, it can serve as an important piece a well designed, productive landscape around your home or homestead.
The wood of the elder has a long history of many uses, which is why so many elderberry products contain the word “sambu,” from the word wind or fire. Some of the earliest uses of the plant were to create wind instruments or tools for starting and maintaining fires. These early practical uses soon gave way to more playful ones, and some of the earliest spitball and potato guns in history were made from our esteemed elderberry.
Elderberries are particularly rich in flavonoids, especially anthocyanins which are responsible for their deep purple (almost black) colouring. These powerful antioxidants work to keep the immune system strong and resilient. Dr Gerhard Rechkemmer is the President of Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Nutrition and Food. His research has shown that the anthocyanins in elderberries boost the production of cytokines – proteins that act as messengers within the immune system – thereby enhancing the body’s immune response. Cytokines play a crucial role in the immune system’s response to disease and work in ways very similar to hormones. They can be both inflammatory or anti-inflammatory depending on what is needed and are released by immune cells either directly into the blood stream or locally into body tissue during an immune response.
These tiny berries are also believed to contain antiviral agents– compounds so potent they are thought to deactivate viruses. Viruses are unable to multiply on their own and need to get inside a healthy cell to do so. They are cleverly coated with something called “haemagglutinin spikes” to help them pierce the cell wall. These viral spikes are also covered with enzymes which the virus uses to break down the cell wall. Elderberries have high concentrations of bioflavonoids which appear to inhibit the action of this enzyme, thus deactivating viruses and rendering them unable to pierce the cell wall and replicate.
The Elderflower is also packed with bio-flavonoids that help to boost the immune system. Research has shown that Elderflowers are also effective in killing common pathogens.
The humble elderberry is perhaps most famously used for the treatment of colds and flu. There is much evidence for its effectiveness, with a double-blind, placebo controlled trial conducted during an outbreak of influenza B in Panama in 1995. The study found that within 2 days there were significant improvements in symptoms, including fever, among 93.3% of those taking elderberry syrup. 90% of the elderberry group were completely well again within 2 – 3 days compared to 6 days in the placebo group.
In 2016 another study by School of Pharmacy, Griffith University, Australia published in “Nutrients” , showed that supplementation with elderberry can reduce the symptoms and duration of a cold in air travellers. Travellers who used elderberry for 10 days before travel and up to 5 days after arriving overseas experienced an average 2 day shorter duration of their colds, and a noticeable reduction in their symptoms.
The Elderflower is an "anti-catarrhal" herb, meaning it is extremely effective for runny noses and congestion. Anti-catarrhal herbs prevent excess mucous formation and aid in removing mucous and reducing inflammation in the body.
Cystitis/Urinary Tract/Bladder Infections
Most commonly affecting women (although men are certainly not exempt), UTI’s, cystitis and bladder infections cause a world of misery and pain. The constant urge to urinate, accompanied by a burning sensation can leave the sufferer feeling housebound and depressed. Elderberry tea may bring significant relief from this debilitating condition – first and foremost acting as a diuretic. This is important as it causes the kidneys to continually flush out toxins whilst increasing urination. This in turn helps to flush out the bacteria that cause cystitis, reducing the likelihood of the infection spreading to the bladder and/or kidneys and may also help to reduce its duration. Its anti-inflammatory properties may help to reduce inflammation, potentially reducing the burning and pain that accompanies urination.
Elderberry’s immunostimulating and anti-inflammatory properties make it a great natural remedy for allergy symptoms. Inflammation of the sinuses, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, swelling and a runny or stuffy nose can all benefit from this potent herb. It is thought to be particularly good for hayfever and strengthening the upper respiratory tract.
Elderflower's anti-catarrhal action is also effective in clearing congestion and runny noses caused by seasonal allergies.
The high fibre content of elderberries can help to eliminate constipation, reduce excess gas and generally increase the health of the gastrointestinal system. The dietary fibre contained in these berries can also increase nutrient uptake efficiency, especially in the gut, helping you to get more out of the food that you eat.
Elderberry - Elderflower Products
Folklore and history
Over the centuries, elderberry has been used to treat colds, flu, fever, burns, cuts, and more than 70 other maladies, from toothache to the plague. In the 17th century, John Evelyn, a British researcher, declared, “If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy (from the elderberry), either for sickness or wounds.”
Elder is sacred to many goddess traditions, especially those dedicated to the goddesses Venus and Holle. Pagan tradition holds that the spirit which inhabits the Elder tree is the Elder Mother who holds the power to work her magic in this world. It was said that one who falls asleep under the branches of the Elder Tree would have vivid dreams of faery realms and be transported to Celtic faery lands.
At sites in Switzerland and Italy, researchers have uncovered evidence that the elderberry may have been cultivated by prehistoric man. There are also recipes for elderberry-based medications in the records dating as far back as Ancient Egypt where some Ancient Egyptians even had the tincture buried with them. Historians, however, generally trace the tradition of the elderberry’s healing power back to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek known as the “father of medicine,” who described this plant as his “medicine chest” for the wide variety of ailments it seemed to cure.
Dried Elderberries can be used to make a delicious tea or syrup. They can also be added to baked goods such as muffins and pancakes. They can also be used in herbal remedies.
Elderberry: Flavonoids (rutin, quercetin), terpenes, sambunigrin, sambucine, chlorgenic acid, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Potassium.
Elderflower: Flavonols; quercetin, anthocyanins, and isoquercitrin. Chlorogenic acid, erythrodiol and oleanolic acids.
Do not consume raw berries, can induce vomiting and diarrhea. Can occasionally cause a mild allergic reaction - consult your healthcare professional if you think you are having a reaction. Do not take if pregnant or breastfeeding. Not recommended for children.
Consult you're healthcare professional if you have an autoimmune condition as elderberry may stimulate the immune system.
Do not take if you have had an organ transplant. Consult your doctor if you are taking any medications before using elderberry.
Elderflowers are considered safe, however please consult with your healthcare professional if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking prescription medications.
How to Use Your Elderberry Syrup (How Much Should You Use?)
Really, you can use as much as you like. Especially if you are drizzling it over pancakes, you'll be using a quantity. Just keep in mind that some people have a bit of a laxative reaction if too much is used.
For medicinal purposes, it's great to take a tablespoon a few times a day if you feel a cold or flu getting started. You can also take it as a daily tonic for health and prevention of cold and flu, too. It's an absolutely delicious herbal syrup!
**NOTE: For infants under a year, do not use elderberry syrup made with honey. I have heard you can substitute with date sugar, and I'm sure organic cane sugar is fine too. Also, for using this with young children, you'll want to cut back on the amount you give them.
TO PREVENT ILLNESS AND BOOST THE IMMUNE SYSTEM, TAKE 1 TSP. A DAY; WHEN FIGHTING ILLNESS, TAKE UP TO 3 TSP. A DAY.
ELDERBERRY SYRUP RECIPE
Makes about 6-8 small bottles of elderberry syrup
1 quart fresh or dried elderberries (**see the variation below for using dried elderberries)
About 4-6 nickel sized slices of fresh ginger--or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried ginger chips or ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Raw honey, local is best.
In a large soup pot, add the elderberries and enough water to cover the berries about an inch to an inch and a half. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the berries are nice and soft, even on the mushy side. The liquid will reduce some. It's ok to add more water if you need to.
Strain out the elderberries and mash, leaving the liquid behind. Measure the liquid---this will be approximately the amount of honey you'll add.
Place the liquid back in the pot with the ginger and ground spices. I poured a bit more water in because my elderberry reduction was quite thick. (I tend to over-reduce it.) This is a good thing in general, because it's more concentrated, but I still needed to simmer the spices in the liquid for about 15 minutes---therefore, I needed more water. Don't worry. It will boil off.
Once it's simmered for around 15 minutes, allowing the medicinal properties and flavors of the spices to infuse into the juice, remove and strain off the spices. You may end up with some ground cinnamon and clove in your syrup, but this just adds to the flavor. If you don't want this, use a very fine strainer.
Your liquid will still be warm at this point, but not boiling. If it's really hot, let it cool down to around body temperature (not higher than 115 degrees) because you want to keep the active beneficial enzymes and antibacterial properties of the honey alive.
Now go ahead and add your honey. You can add up to equal amounts honey and liquid, but I prefer a much lower amount of sugar. I had one cup liquid above in step 2. So I planned on adding 1/2 cup honey. You can add more to taste, though.
NOTE ON SHELF STABILITY: If you want a shelf stable syrup, please do add the entire 1:1 ratio of honey to liquid, and perhaps a bit more honey than that. Honey acts as a preservative in herbal syrups. The less you add, the less shelf-stable your syrup is. Since I do add less sugar/honey, I keep mine in the fridge, and it tends to last a couple of months.
Stir well until the honey is fully dissolved.
Bottle up your syrup! Enjoy!