Elderberry - Uses and Benefits
January 16, 2020
I’ve heard of elderberry all my life, but I’ve never paid any attention to it until recently when I began to learn of some of its medicinal properties. All I’d heard before was how good elderberry wine is. I’ve never tasted it and, as far as I know, I’ve never even seen it. Since I don’t drink, I never had a reason to even raise an eyebrow. Then I met Dan Young, a naturopath in Cheyenne who introduced me to elderberry, along with many other medical herbs and plants. That tweaked my interest. So I’m adding elderberry to my list of articles on the health benefits of plants.
As with many natural, plant based remedies, elderberry has earned the same statement that its health benefits have not been confirmed due to lack of study. Surprisingly, though, there are many studies on elderberry that show its benefit.
Elderberry is a fast-growing shrub/tree. Uh oh. Now I get to answer the first question. Is it a shrub or a tree. In the southeastern part of the country (and in many other countries) it is a tree, growing 30 feet tall or more. Here in Wyoming, it’s a shrub, growing perhaps 15 feet at the high side. It’s very dense so it’s good for windbreaks and it sends up numerous suckers that can take over if not controlled. There are many varieties but the most common varieties have a small, glossy black berry. The flowers range from pink to white and are very prolific. Every flower will yield a berry up to about 15 pounds per plant. They are great for pollinators. I was recently given some elderberry honey that was mouth-watering and absolutely delicious.
Elderberry has been shown to have numerous health effects, regardless of the common disclaimer from the medical and pharmaceutical communities, and is one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world. Both the flowers and berries have been used throughout the centuries for a variety of ailments such as: a treatment for influenza, infections, sciatica, headaches, dental pain, heart pain and nerve pain, as well as a laxative and diuretic (the berries). The flowers have been used for: pain relief, swelling, inflammation, to stimulate the production of urine and to induce sweating. An interesting study at Griffith University in Australia looked into the benefits of elderberry on respiratory issues associated with air travel. There were only 312 participants in the study so the medical and pharmaceutical communities discount it as an invalid study. The short version of the study results is that less than half the participants taking the elderberry had cold symptoms after travel and those that did have symptoms only had them for half the time of the participants that took a placebo. Some may think that’s insignificant, but I consider it at least worthy of a lot more research.
The bark was used as a diuretic, a laxative and to induce vomiting. This is a good time to put a great big caution flag up. So pay attention to the next couple of lines. Elderberry contains cyanide. That’s why the bark causes vomiting. Eating the leaves and green berries can do the same. The good thing is that the cyanide is removed when the plant parts are cooked so the cooked plants will not give you any trouble. However, there have been no published studies on the effects of elderberry on pregnancy, lactating mothers or small children so it’s probably best to stay away from the plant (medicinally) if you fit into one of these categories.
The ripe berries can be cooked and used for juice, jams, chutneys, pies and elderberry wine as well as being infused into other products. The flowers are often dried so they can be stored, but can also be used fresh and are frequently boiled with sugar to make a sweet, syrup or can be infused into teas. Fresh flowers are also used in salads.
On the nutrition side, elderberries have no equal in the berry world for nutritional value. They are higher in overall energy, iron, phosphorus, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C and antioxidants than cranberries, blueberries, grapes, mulberries, raspberries, and strawberries. For the antioxidants, elderberries are higher than any other fruit on earth according to Purdue University.
Elderberries aren’t the greatest berry to pick off the plant and eat for a snack when you’re in the garden, though. They aren’t terrible, but they aren’t great either. Kind of like a blackberry that’s been on the vine too long. Cooking changes the chemistry and turns them sweet. Then they are good for culinary use. I think I’d prefer my currants for snacking. They start out sweet.
I’m taking my first foray into elderberry plants this year. A friend (Master Gardener), gave me some cuttings from one of his elderberry bushes. I’d told him that I wanted enough for about 100 plants. I didn’t think I had that many, but I ended up with enough for over 200 plants. He told me not to expect to see any signs of life for about 4-6 months. It’s been two months and I have about a dozen that are starting to bud already. I took the live cuttings and cut them about a foot long. Then I dipped then in root starter and planted them in one gallon pots about six inches deep. I keep the soil moist, but not wet. They are set beside the hydroponic system so they are getting plenty of light. To make sure you have a live cutting, look for a thin band of green just under the bark. I think they’ll do well here.
Harvesting and processing elderberry can be time consuming. If you harvest flowers for drying, cut the entire cluster and dry them by hanging them upside down and undisturbed until they are dry. This normally will take about two weeks. Then you can package them for storage. Just remember that every flower you pick is one less berry. The ripe berries can be harvested with a berry picker (a scoop with tines that take the berries of the cluster) or by beating the cluster against the inside of a bucket until the berries release. This is a bit messier than handpicking, but time is the tradeoff.
Even if you are looking only for a windbreak, elderberry seems to be a shrub to consider. But, it has many more positive attributes that make it worthy of planting. So kick back with a glass of elderberry tea and relax. Think of everything you can do with the fruit of your new plants when they are ripe. And if you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It’s what we do.