Sambucus nigra also called Black Elderberry and European Elder, is a deciduous shrub native to Europe that belongs to the Adoxaceae family along with Guelder Rose or Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) and Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium)1,2. The Sambucus genus is widespread, with varying species being found in Africa, throughout Europe and the Americas. A unique species of elder, Sambucus palmensis, is only found in the Canary Islands 10. Most North American species of Elder are used for the same purposes as European Elder, with the exception of Red Elder, S. racemosa. While this species is not commonly used medicinally, red elderberries were an important food source for native Americans and both the flower and fruit can be used as food or medicine 3,4.
The elder plant has deep roots in tradition. In the 9th century Charlemagne was said to proclaim that the elder plant, as a panacea, be widely planted 4. In all traditions of herbal medicine, a display or offering of gratitude for the plants medicine is part of the ritual of harvesting. Native Americans make an offering to a plant before it is harvested, but in European tradition an offering for all medicinal plants was made to the Elder mother, who was thought to reside in the Elder tree. As American Ginseng holds the coveted position as being the ‘Grandfather’ of the herbs in some native American traditions, Elder is the Grandmother in European ones. Elder is associated with the underworld, and a flute made from the hollow stems of Elder is said to have a haunting sound and be called a panpipe – a reference to Pan, the Greek god of the wilds. Lastly, Elder has mythological associations with fairies, both good and bad 4.
What is Black Elderberry Used For?
Elderflower has a distinct use from elderberry and is traditionally used to support healthy and effective innate immune responses, especially in the realm of regulating elevated body temperature. While the berries are one of the most popular modern herbal medicines, the widespread popularity of the berries is a relatively recent phenomena. Elderflower is a diaphoretic, meaning that it helps to open the pores, allow for sweating, and ‘releasing the exterior’, which can be helpful for those who have trouble mounting an efficient immune response. The diaphoretic nature of elder flower can also be helpful for skin health. Elderflower can be coated in batter and fried to make elderflower fritters, but elderberries use in food is much more common. Elderberries can be prepared into wine, jam, juice, syrup, gummies, or extracts for supplements. Traditionally, they were commonly used to enhance the flavor and color of other foods and beverages. Ancient ethnobotanists have recorded the uses of elderberries, and due to its actions and availability it was deemed a ‘peasant medicine’. Traditional uses of elderberries include normalizing the functions of the gastrointestinal tract, supporting a healthy body temperature and perspiration during an acute immune challenge, and as supporting the resilience of the body throughout the difficult winter months. The native Americans of the southwest used a different species of elder for similar purposes, in addition to using the berries and flowers as a diuretic. While not considered common, some cultures also utilize the leaves, bark, and roots of the elder plant. As with many plants including apples, the seeds of the elder plant can contain cyanide. Cyanide evaporates at 78.26° F 9, and elderberries are usually prepared using heat which mitigates the safety concern. Modern research is beginning to elucidate elder’s immune supporting mechanisms. Both elderflower and elderberry are rich in polyphenols, which have antioxidant activity. Oxidative stress is often produced during an immune response, and having sufficient antioxidant storage in the body may help to maintain the health and integrity of tissues. Elderberry and elderflower extracts have also been shown in-vitro to modulate cellular nitric oxide production and immune cells such as macrophages and their release of eicosanoids. In-vitro studies of elderberry extracts have demonstrated that elderberry agglutinins may bind to viral haemagglutinin protein, supporting healthy cells against viral invasion & propagation, while not being cytotoxic. In a clinical trial performed on 312 passengers on a long, overseas flight, elderberry supplementation was shown to support respiratory health though self-reported symptom scores compared to placebo.
Traditional Health Benefits of Black Elderberry
Additional Information on this Herb
Polyphenols, anthocyanins, procyanidins, flavonoids
1. “Sambucus.” ITIS Standard Report, Integrated Taxonomic Information System, 2011, https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=525081#null 2. Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, an Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America. 6th Edition. 2013. Page 176. HOPS Press, LLC. Pony, MT. 3. Pojar, Jim, and Mackinnon, Andy. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. 2004. B.C. Ministry of Forests and Lone Pine Publishing. Vancouver, B.C. 4. Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: The Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA. 2008. 5. Flint, Margi. The Practicing Herbalist: Meeting with Clients – Reading the Body. 3rd Edition. 2013. Page 43. EarthSong Press. Marblehead, MA. 6. Sidor, A., & Gramza-Michałowska, A. (2015). Advanced research on the antioxidant and health benefit of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in food – a review. Journal of Functional Foods, 18, 941-958. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2014.07.012 7. Ho, G., Wangensteen, H., & Barsett, H. (2017). Elderberry and Elderflower Extracts, Phenolic Compounds, and Metabolites and Their Effect on Complement, RAW 264.7 Macrophages and Dendritic Cells. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 18(3), 584. doi:10.3390/ijms18030584 8. Krawitz, C., Mraheil, M. A., Stein, M., Imirzalioglu, C., Domann, E., Pleschka, S., & Hain, T. (2011). BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 11(1). doi:10.1186/1472-6882-11-16 9. “Boiling+Point+of+Hydrogen+Cyanide - Wolfram: Alpha.” WolframAlpha Computational Knowledge AI, www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=boiling%2Bpoint%2Bof%2BHydrogen%2Bcyanide. 10. Sosa, P. A., González-Pérez, M. A., Moreno, C., & Clarke, J. B. (2010). Conservation genetics of the endangered endemic Sambucus palmensis Link (Sambucaceae) from the Canary Islands. Conservation Genetics, 11(6), 2357–2368. doi:10.1007/s10592-010-0122-8 11. Tilgner, Dr. Sharol Marie. Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. 2009. Wise Acres LLC: Pleasant Hill, OR. 12. Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe, NM. 1979. 13. Nadkarni, K.M. Dr. K.M. Nadkarni’s Indian Materia Medica. Vol. 1. 3rd Edition. Bombay Popular Prakashan. 1976. 14. American Botanical Council. The ABC Clinical Guide to Elder Berry: European Elder Berry Sambucus nigra L. https://www.herbalgram.org/media/13294/elderberry-scr.pdf. 2004. 15. Tiralongo, E., Wee, S., & Lea, R. (2016). Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients, 8(4), 182. doi:10.3390/nu8040182
If you have a medical condition or take pharmaceutical drugs, or if you are pregnant, please consult your doctor prior to use.
- This information in our Herbal Reference Guide is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This content does not provide dosage information, format recommendations, toxicity levels, or possible interactions with prescription drugs. Accordingly, this information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopathic physician.
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