The elderberry is a wild plant found everywhere, both in our country and in Europe. It’s a botanical species of ancient origin. Traces of elderberry berries have even been found in Neolithic settlements. Its use is equally ancient. In folk tradition, magical powers were attributed to this plant. The etymology of the name derives from the Greek word sambike, meaning a flute made from the bark of the plant. The Magical Flute of Nordic tradition was made from elder wood. It has always been used for therapeutic purposes, and in Germanic cultures, it was called the pharmacy of the Gods. Even today, its qualities are appreciated. Parts of the plant are used to create herbal preparations or for culinary purposes.
Let’s learn more about this plant and its properties. At the end of the article, we will also present you with the elderberry syrup recipe.
The species of interest is Sambucus nigra, also known as black elderberry or common elderberry. It’s a tree-like or shrub-like plant belonging to the botanical family Adoxaceae or Caprifoliaceae. Its preferred habitat ranges from plains to high altitudes exceeding 1,500 meters. It thrives in wild clearings, the edges of damp woods, slopes, walls, and vineyard edges. Nevertheless, this plant is most commonly found in Northern Italy, where it can also be encountered in urban areas.
The Elderberry Plant
In nature, elderberry can take the form of both a tree and a shrub. It can reach a maximum height of ten meters. It has an expanded and dense canopy in a globular shape. The root system is shallow, with vigorous sucker activity that contributes to the tree’s expansion. It has an erect and highly branched trunk. The branches start from the base and are opposite, with an arched and drooping growth pattern. The trunk has a twisted and irregular shape, with many nodes. The bark is gray-brown with a rough surface and deeply furrowed. The cross-section of the branches and trunk is quite distinctive: a central white-colored pith, soft and elastic in texture. This makes it easy to hollow out and use the wood to create small artisan tools or exquisite musical instruments.
Elderberry leaves are deciduous, meaning they fall off in autumn-winter. They are petiolate, arranged opposite on the branches, up to 20 cm long, and oval with a pointed tip. They are bright green, and when rubbed together, they emit a very unpleasant odor.
The flowers are the most showy and recognizable part of the elderberry. Very small, creamy-white, and star-shaped, they are clustered in umbrella-shaped inflorescences that can reach up to 20 cm in diameter. The inflorescences are pedunculated, and the flowers start erect but then become drooping. They have a short, bell-shaped calyx with a rounded corolla composed of 5 petals. Flowering occurs from late spring and lasts throughout the month of July. Elderberry flowers are very fragrant, and their scent can be noticed from a considerable distance.
As we will see, they are widely used in herbal and botanical preparations and for making a variation of elderberry syrup.
Elderberry fruits are tiny, round-shaped berries. They start off green, then turn dark purple and blackish. When fully ripe, they are shiny, juicy, and contain 2 to 5 oval and brown-colored seeds inside. The drupe clusters are hanging and have reddish stalks. The fruits reach full maturity from the end of August and remain on the tree until late October.
It’s essential to harvest them when fully ripe; when unripe, they contain higher concentrations of the toxic compound sambunigrin, which can be harmful to humans in significant amounts. Cooking and extraction processes eliminate these toxic substances. For this reason, elderberries are used after cooking and are rarely consumed raw. These berries are also a significant food source for many bird species.
Properties and Uses
Now let’s delve into the properties of elderberry and its main uses. In general, the plant has emollient, diaphoretic, laxative, and diuretic properties. It has been used for cold-related illnesses, to reduce fever, and to alleviate neuralgia. As mentioned in folk medicine, elderberry was considered a true panacea. The flowers and fruits are the most used parts in herbalism.
Raw mature fruits are highly laxative and depurative and contain high amounts of vitamins A and C. The strong laxative effect encourages the use of the berries, often after cooking, for example, to make elderberry juice or syrup. In these preparations, the laxative effect is reduced.
Extracts from the fruits (juice and syrup) have been traditionally used to treat stomach cramps. Elderberries are still used to make a well-known alcoholic beverage, sambuca. In the culinary world, ripe elderberries can be transformed into tasty jams. The juice of elderberries was historically used as a natural dye for coloring leather and natural fibers or for producing ink. The flowers are used for both internal and external purposes. They are used to prepare a syrup that helps reduce fever, bronchitis, and constipation. Externally, the flowers have astringent properties and a soothing action on the skin. Lotions prepared from elderflower extracts are used to normalize sebaceous secretion and address skin impurities. They are employed for boils, burns, and even the treatment of hemorrhoids.
Recipes Using Elderberry
In the following sections, we’ll explain some simple recipes for using elderberries and elderflowers. However, if you prefer ready-to-use products, you can find them here.
Let’s start with making homemade elderberry juice, the simplest recipe. Here are the ingredients to make approximately 3 liters:
- 1 kg of ripe elderberries
- 2 liters of water.
In a pot, combine the ripe elderberries and water and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the mixture with a lid, and let it steep for another 10 minutes. Next, strain the mixture using a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Fill jars and bottles as desired.
Now, let’s see how to make elderberry syrup starting from the juice. Ingredients:
- 1 liter of elderberry juice (available here);
- Juice of one organic lemon
- 600 g of cane sugar
Combine all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil for about half an hour. Stir slowly from time to time, removing any foam that forms on the surface with a spoon. Pour the mixture into previously sterilized bottles while still hot. Seal them tightly and flip them over to create a vacuum. This prepared syrup can be stored in a cool and dry place for a year. Once opened, store it in the refrigerator and consume it within a few days.
Finally, let’s explore the recipe for elderflower syrup. Ingredients:
- 10 elderflower heads
- 1.5 liters of water
- 1 kg of sugar
- 30 g of citric acid (available here) or in pharmacies and herbal shops
- ½ lemon, sliced
First, let the water and sugar cook over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. This procedure is similar to what we’ve seen in the preparation of herbal liqueurs like bay leaf, wild fennel, mint, and licorice. Allow the mixture to cool, then add citric acid, elderflower heads, and the ½ sliced lemon. Pour everything into a glass container with a tight seal and place it in a cool place for 1 week. The final steps involve straining the mixture through a strainer lined with cheesecloth and bottling. Stored in a cool place, elderflower syrup remains intact for 6 months.
- Journal of Functional Foods, 2015: “Advanced research on the antioxidant and health benefit of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in food–a review” – This comprehensive review discusses the high biological activity components found in elderberry, emphasizing its use in the treatment of various diseases and ailments.
- Journal of International Medical Research, 2004: “Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections” – The study highlights elderberry’s use in folk medicine for treating influenza and colds, and its reported antiviral activity against influenza and herpes simplex.
- Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 2002: “Bioavailability of elderberry anthocyanins” – This research focuses on the bioavailability of anthocyanins from elderberry extract and its potential health benefits.
- Issues in New Crops and New Uses, 2007: “Elderberry as a medicinal plant” – The article discusses the historical use of elderberry in folk medicine to prevent or cure various illnesses.
- Journal of Functional Foods, 2019: “Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (Sambucus nigra)” – The study investigates the direct effects of elderberry extract in blocking viral infections and its potential anti-inflammatory properties.
- BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, 2021: “Elderberry for prevention and treatment of viral respiratory illnesses: A systematic review” – A systematic review aiming to determine the benefits and harms of elderberry products in treating viral respiratory illnesses.
- Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2007: “Anthocyanins and other polyphenolics in American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and European elderberry (S. nigra) cultivars” – The research examines the anthocyanin content in various elderberry cultivars and their potential health benefits.
- Phytochemistry, 2009: “Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro” – The study explores the potential of elderberry flavonoids in binding and preventing H1N1 infections.