Respect your Elders: Does the promise of Elderberry health benefits inspire you to try the best recipes for syrup, tea, and more?
Elderberries are found throughout the world and provide powerful antioxidants…
Our Ancestors Understood Elderberry Roots, Leaves, Berries, and Flowers Solved Health Problems
Elderberries. This cluster of deep purple berries has been used for centuries in food and medicine. Like many superfoods, our ancestors understood the roots, leaves, berries, and flowers solved health and hunger problems, even when they didn’t have the full scientific research and knowledge we have today.
They also found out, the hard way, that sometimes eating them (the berries) raw could make you sick (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are some of the negative side effects). We also know that elderberry leaves, stems, flowers, and roots should always to be cooked before eating.
Those are the warnings about the potential negative side effects of elderberry.
But before you stop reading, keep going to learn more about the healthy benefits and then how to prepare them the right (and delicious) way!
What do we know today about the health benefits of the elderberry? And, maybe even more important, what recipes can we cook up to take advantage of both the flavor and the antioxidants?
Let’s find out!
First, the Science: Dissecting the Elderberry
Elderberry flower can be used in tea, syrup, and baked goods…
Sambucus nigra (S.nigra), the elderberry’s name in science-speak, is a plant readily found throughout the world. It has been used in foods and traditional medicine for centuries. Common names include elder, elderberry, black elder and European elder.
Surprisingly, this little soft cluster of berries, along with the white flowers, roots, and leaves provide a wide variety of nutritional and health benefits. It is a good source of proteins, fibers, vitamins, and minerals. It’s rich in flavonoids and phenolic acids which provide a good source of antioxidants.
Research has shown that S.nigra displays antiviral, antioxidant, antidepressant, anti-UV, and anti-Toxoplasma gondii activity and may have positive effects on obesity, diabetes and the immune system.
Let’s break it down.
*the complete nutritional chart is at the end of this article
What else does the elderberry fruit have? Flavonoids (kaempferol, astragalin, quercetin, rutin, isoquercitin, hyperoside), phenolic acids, and essential oil.
In addition to the nutrition found in the berries, elderberry seed oil contains unsaturated fatty acids (linolenic acid, linoleic, and oleic acid). According to the Mayo Clinic, eating foods rich in some unsaturated fats can improve blood cholesterol levels and may decrease your risk of heart disease.
So what does all that mean?
This little cluster of berries contains a lot of little things that work together to create big health benefits. Potentially.
The Ancient Tradition of Whole-Body Wellness…and Music!
Flowers, bark, branches and berries…every part of the elderberry tree has a purpose…
According to the tales of the Mewan Indians of California, Life did not begin with “the Word” as told in the well-known passage of John 1. Their tradition tells us that in the beginning, there was music!
According to legends, passed down from generation to generation, animals and birds were in charge of the world. People were formed from feathers after the world was supplied with plants and trees which would nourish the coming humans.
The elderberry tree was one of those trees.
Melodic sounds rose from the tree as it swayed in the breeze, making sweet music for the Star-maidens. The music kept them from falling asleep so they could work. One of the gods used the wood branches to form a flute. He played the flute and put the Valley People to sleep so he could steal their fire.
Interestingly, the name Sambucus (the official name of the elderberry) is the Greek name for an ancient musical instruments. Some cultures in Scotland and England once used elderberry wood to make musical instruments, while boys all over the world knew its value for making whistles, and pop-guns, or “pipes.”
Early American Indian tribes used elderberry wood to make flutes and clapper-sticks used in ceremonial observances. Putting all this together, there is more fact than myth to the “music-tree.”
As the story goes, the animal-gods planted the elderberry tree so it would furnish music, food, and medicine for the Indian people they were going to make. The berries would make food, the roots and blossoms medicine, and the hollow branches would provide a source of music.
Food, medicine, and music…sounds like a whole-body approach to total wellness!
Elderberry Health Benefits Travel to European Traditions
Elderflower water was used in perfumes …
Our ancestors believed that each part of the elderberry from roots to flowers to fruit could be used for food, medicine, and for flavoring and coloring in jelly, jams and wine. They believed the leaves gave out such a strong and narcotic odor that it was not safe to sleep near the tree, and certainly not safe to eat the leaves.
This narcotic effect may have been what kept those Star Maidens awake!
Elderflower water was used in perfumes and medicinal decoctions and a syrup or “rob” of berries was considered an excellent laxative, diuretic, and cough medicine for children.
In the list of Unofficial Remedies from the United States Dispensatory, elderberry was described as follows:
“…the juice of the berries has been used as an alternative in rheumatism, also as a laxative. The inner bark is in large doses emetic. It has been employed in dropsy, epilepsy, and various chronic diseases. The leaves are not without activity and the young leaf-buds are said to be a violent and even unsafe purgative. The juice, also, of the root has been used in dropsy.”
Today, various health claims have been attached to elderberry. Some of these claims are back by research; some research is inconclusive or in early stages, yet promising. As with many of our ancient superfoods, a lot is yet to be learned about elderberry health benefits.
Commercial production of elderberry and supplements focus on supporting the immune system, antioxidant activity, relief of flu symptoms, along with nasal, and sinus ailments. Promising modern research has been conducted for the use of elderberry with the following:
- Flu: Blocking the flu virus and reducing the length of symptoms associated with the flu (Sambucus nigra)
- FIV: Treatment for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV in cats). (S.nigra bark extract)
- Depression: An alternative to chemical anti-depressant drugs (S.nigra leaf and fruit extracts)
- Sunscreen: A UV blocker in cosmetic sunscreens (S.nigra flower)
- Metabolism: As a potential benefit for metabolic disturbances resultant from obesity (black elderberry extract)
- Weightloss: A combination of elderberry and asparagus showed some positive results for reducing obesity. (S.nigra elderberry powder, elderberry flower extract, and Asparagus officinalis) The study showed improvement of participant’s body mass index, blood pressure, well-being, and quality of life.
- Diabetes: Elder fruit extract reduced glucose levels, increased antioxidant enzyme activity, decreased free radicals, decreased lipid peroxides. May reduce hyperglycemia and oxidative stress.
- Antioxidant: S.nigra is rich in flavonoids and phenolic acids and elderflower extracts have been studied to boost the immune system with positive results.
The study from which the above information was collected concluded that “elderberry appears to be a good natural source for the maintenance of health and immune system, as well as a promising source for development of natural medicines for influenza infections, Toxoplasmosis, depression, obesity disturbances and diabetes.”
(IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be sure to read the medical disclaimer and sources cited at the end of this article)
Eating Your Way to Health with Elderberry
Elderberries have been used to improve the taste of ale, currant wine and jellies…
Supplements are great for supporting your nutritional goals. However, whenever you can support your well-being and enjoy a great tasting food…I’m all in!
In a by-gone era, people discovered that wine can be made from both the flowers and the berries. They have been used to improve the taste of ale, currant wine and jellies. The clustered, unopened buds of the flowers, and sometimes the unripe berries were picked to serve like capers.
They were made into vinegars and sauces for meats; the flowers used in ointment and elderflower water, and the tiniest blooms were stripped and separated to mix in with and lighten pancakes and muffins. In France, they used the berries as packing for certain delicate apples.
Here are some Old-Time Elderberry Recipes:
Here are some Old-Time Elderberry Recipes:
- 5 Quarts elderberry juice
- 3 Gallons water
- 12 pounds brown sugar
- 1 cake yeast
Mix and boil until scum ceases to rise. Dissolve yeast and add to liquid when lukewarm. Let it stand 3 days and put in a cask. Bottle in March.
Elder Blossom Wine
- 3 Pints petals
- 16 quarts water
- 12 pounds sugar
- Juice from 2 lemons
- 2 egg whites
- 1 yeast cake
- 4 pounds raisins
- Dry the blossoms on a sheet. Pack the pint measure with the petals only.
- Dissolve sugar in water and boil 5 minutes. Skim and add petals. Set aside.
- Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water and lemon juice. Add to liquor.
- Clarify by stirring in the beaten egg whites. Put in earthen jar and stir daily for 9 days, stirring the petals up from the bottom.
- Strain into keg, add the raisins (they are supposed to remove the ‘wild’ taste of the elderberry) and place in a cool spot. Allow fermentation through the bung.
- After 6 months, draw off carefully, and bottle.
Spiced Elderberry Wine
Boil 5 gallons elderberries with same amount of rainwater. Strain and add 23 pounds white sugar (!) with 4 ounces red (or crude) tartar. Add 1 teaspoon yeast for each gallon of liquid.
Add 1/2 ounce each of ginger, nutmeg, mace, and cloves with 1-1/2 ounce bitter almonds. Let ferment and when this is over, close cask tight, racking it off when convenient.
Great condiment for fish or meat sauces
- 1 gallon ripe berries
- 1 gallon vinegar
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
- 1 teaspoon cloves, dried
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ginger
- 2 blades mace (or ½ teaspoon nutmeg, it’s close “cousin”!
Here is the nutritional value of elderberry fruit in its raw state, per 100 grams according to Sara Cunha, Diana Meireles, and Jorge Machado from the University of Portugal:
Amounts per 100 grams
% Daily Value
- Place a gallon of ripe berries in a jar. Pour boiling vinegar over them. Let stand overnight on the back of the stove.
- In the morning, strain and place the vinegar in preserving kettle to heat. Add spices to the vinegar.
- Crush and rub berries through sieve. Add to vinegar and boil for 10 minutes. Bottle the ketchup (spice and all) while hot.
- Let stand 5-6 weeks, then strain; re-heat to boiling point and re-bottle.
- 1 cask ale
- 1 bushel elderberries
- 8 ounces cinnamon
- 8 ounces candied lemon or orange peel
- 8 ounces nutmeg
- 8 ounces mace
- 8 ounces cloves
- 8 ounces ginger
- Mix all together and let it set until ready to drink.
- Now, if you don’t have a cask of ale or bushel of berries lying around, why not experiment with smaller portions?
- Fill a small sachet with the spice mix. Add a cupful of elderberries to a bottle of wine or beer and then simmer everything over a low heat (try the crockpot). The new spiced drink (packed with powerful antioxidants) may become a new traditional favorite!
This tonic can be used for an immune booster. Take a teaspoon daily as a supplement during cold and flu season. Or add to sparkling mineral water and pour over shaved ice to imitate those old-fashioned soda fountain recipes (3 ounces syrup to 8 ounces sparkling mineral water).
- 1 cup elderberries
- 3 cups water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 cloves, whole
- 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, minced
- ½ teaspoon orange or lemon rind, grated
- ½ cup honey
- Put all ingredients, except honey, into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Put mix through a ricer, or mash with the back of a fork or potato masher and then strain through a finely meshed sieve. Let juice cool.
- You can discard the pulp or add it to your next batch of loaf bread (try banana or chocolate!)
- Once the juice is cool, mix with honey. Put into a mason jar and place in the refrigerator to use as desired.
**As with all medical information you find online, you should consult with a medical professional about your full health profile and lifestyle before making health decisions. We are not doctors, and more importantly, we are not your doctor. The information provided, while based on studies and research conducted by professional in their fields (and cited at the end of this article) is provided for your information only and should not be considered medical advice from any member of Vitabella, or the independent authors and contributors to this site.
Why is this important? While a “medicine” or “supplement” (traditional, natural, modern, or holistic) may be fine on its own, some substances don’t work well together. Some foods are not safe for children, pregnant women, or in combination with some prescription medicine. Please consult your doctor before making any health changes based on information you find online.
Resources for elderberry health benefits and recipes: