Materia medica: Sambucus spp.


Ripening Elderberry (Photo: Thornhill Farm)

Family: Adoxaceae

Nomenclature:

  • North American Elderberry -Sambucus canadensis

  • European Elderberry - Sambucus nigra


Parts Used:

  • Flowers

  • Berry - fresh, frozen, or dried

  • Some indigenous communities and experienced herbalists/alchemists make use of the dried leaves and bark in decoctions (Note: These parts of the plant are known to be toxic due to small amounts of hydrocyandic acid if not prepared correctly. Do not attempt unless you are an experienced herbalist or directly working with one.)


Botanical ID (Wilson, et al. 2016):

  • A woody perennial deciduous shrub native to both Turtle Island (So-called North America) and Europe

  • Hardy to Zone 3, but has also been found up to Zone 2

  • Root systems grow in mats and are shallow growing.

  • Leaves are compound with 5-9 leaflets.

  • Flowers are numerous, white to cream-colored, and mature on umbels from the apex of the plant. Generally wind pollinated.

  • Fruits are black-purple, ripening upon umbels in causing them to droop (a sign they are soon ready for harvest!)

  • Flowers and berries of S. nigra have a more pronounced flavor and aroma, and are sweeter and bigger than those of S. canadensis

  • Cultivars commonly grown commercially in the Northeast include: Adams #1, Adams #2, Coomer, Berry Hill, Goodbarn, Johns, Kent, Bob Gordon, Nova, Scotia, and York.


Growing & Harvesting (Carpenter, 2015):

  • Elder can grow in fairly moist conditions, and prefers a very rich soil with partial shade.

  • Elderberry can be grown from seed or cuttings from mature plants. Seeds should be stratified to mimic outdoor conditions and fluctuating temperatures.

  • Seeds sown in fall should germinate in the next spring.

  • Cuttings can be challenging to achieve success with.They should be at least 10-12" in length and have two or more nodes. Plant cuttings in good soil in pots and keep moist. Wait until a good root system has developed to transplant.

  • Transplants should be spaced at least 6' apart. Adding compost to each hole will be supportive against transplant shock. Mulch heavily to deter weed growth while transplants mature. Consider adding a fence or plant guards to keep deer away, as they love to nibble back new growth each year.

  • Establishing productive groves may take 4-5 seasons after transplanting.

  • Harvest umbels for flowers in mid-late July, leaving a good portion for fruit development. Fruit may be harvested in mid-late August when they are deep purple.

  • Take care to remove loose stems and leaves from harvested roots and flowers.


Elderberry in flower (Photo: The Farm Between)

Commercial Availability:

  • Dried berries are widely available in commerce, and are most commonly derived from S. nigra species.

  • Fresh frozen berries are generally available through local/regional purveyors


Taste & Energetics (Henningsen, 2018):

  • Taste: Sweet, acrid (flower); sweet, acrid, sour (berry)

  • Energetics: Cool + dry (flower); neutral (berry)


Herbal Actions (Henningsen, 2018) :

  • Diaphoretic (especially flower)

  • Antiviral

  • Aromatic

  • Anti-inflammatory (especially berry)

  • Immunostimulant (berry)

  • Anticatarral

  • Expectorant

  • Diuretic (flower)

  • Mild Laxative

  • Nutritive

  • Alterative

  • Nervine


Specific Indications (Henningsen, 2018):

  • Flu like symptoms with fever (NOTE: Not indicated for COVID-19, see safety notes below). May be used as a preventative for flus and colds

  • Respiratory congestion

  • Tissue that is lax, boggy or damp


Traditional + Clinical Uses (Henningsen, 2018):

Respiratory

  • Upper respiratory tract inflammation

  • Hay fever

  • Sinusitis

  • Sore throat

  • Asthma

  • Laryngitis

Immune

  • Fever

  • Flu (See relevant safety notes below)

  • Common cold

  • Measles

  • Chicken Pox

  • Pink Eye

  • Ear infection

  • Tonsil inflammation

  • Joint inflammation

  • Arthritis

Urinary/Kidneys

  • Edema

  • Night sweats

Generative

  • Cramping

  • Blood deficiency (amenorrhea)

  • BV tonic

Cardiovascular

  • General antioxidant

  • Atherosclerosis

  • LDL cholesterol

  • Bruises

  • Circulatory support

Gastrointestinal

  • Constipation

  • Diabetes

  • Cramping

  • Digestive deficiency

Musculoskeletal

  • Bruises

  • Sprains

  • Wounds

  • Arthritis

  • Skin eruptions, rosacea, eczema, dermatitis

Key Constituents & Pharmacology (Henningsen, 2018):

Flower:

  • Triterpenes: Ursolic acid, oleanolic acid, alpha and beta amyrin, sterols

  • Fixed oils (free fatty acids): Linoleic, linolenic and palmitic acids

Fruit:

  • Anthocyanidins→ believed to be main constituent contributing to immunostimulant actions

  • Flavo-glycosides

  • Vitamin C

  • Polysaccharides/pectins

  • Flavonoids


Relevant Research:


Safety:

  • Class 1, Interaction class A (Gardner & McGuffin, 2013):

A note related to COVID-19:

  • Elderberry has been thought of as a traditional kitchen remedy for colds and flu prevention for many generations. In fact, we're noticing a reemergence of elderberry being used in this way, and it's certainly true that there is an increasing amount of elder derived products in the health and wellness marketplace. That said, a recent debate has come to light regarding the potential for elderberry to incite cytokine storms, or injurious hyperinflammation by the immune system, in the context of COVID-19 and immunocompromised individuals. While this has not clinically been seen in practice, there are a lot of nuances to this discussion, many of which we feel are well summed up by this blog post by Clinical Herbalist Larken Bunce: https://docs.google.com/document/d/11CukK_Mnenwi_hzj6p-o0QO3uEDf7ADIvhFHFwm7csU/edit.

  • As with all herbal approaches, there is no "one size fits all", which means we need to be discerning about what plants we apply to whom and when. And as for COVID-19, if you are symptomatic call your doctor and do not attempt to self-treat!


Fresh elderberries for syrup (Photo: Sarah Shaw)

Preparations + Dose (Henningsen, 2018):

  • Standard Infusion of Dried Flowers: 4-8 oz served hot, drink up to 3x daily for fevers

  • Decoction of Dried Berries

  • Tincture: Dried flowers (1:5, 60% alcohol) 1-3ml, 2-4x daily

  • Syrup (Fresh, Frozen or Dried Berries): 1-2 tsp daily for immune maintenance. Up to 1-2 tsp every 3-4 hours for acute symptoms (again, please see above for applicability of use).

  • Topical Use: Freshly wilted or dried flowers and leaves can be infused in oil for salves to soften the skin (Buhner, 2006).


Combinations + Formulas:

Tieraona Low Dog, MD: Classic Elderberry Syrup Recipe


Sarah Shaw: Immune Tonic Decoction

  • 2 parts dried elderberries

  • 2 parts astragalus

  • 1 part reishi

  • 1 part dried rose hips

  • 1/2 part elecampane (optional - helpful if phlegm is present)

  • 1/2 part licorice root

  • 1/4 part cinnamon

  • 1/4 part ginger

  • A few cardamom pods

  • Decoct in 1 quart water for ~30 minutes. Strain and drink warm.


Immune decoction for sipping! (Photo: Sarah Shaw)

*Note: The information shared here is meant for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Please consult your physician or a trained herbalist before working with herbs, especially if you currently take medications. If you would like to share this information in your own publications, please credit our work accordingly.

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Cited Works:


Buhner, S. 2006. Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism. Rochester: Bear & Company.


Carpenter, F. & Carpenter, M. 2015. The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer: The Ultimate Guide to Producing High-Quality Herbs on a Market Scale. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.


Gardner, Z. & McGuffin, M. ed. 2013. American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton: CRC Press.


Henningsen, Kristin. 2018. "Sambucus spp." Presented at Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Montpelier, VT.


Wilson, et al. 2016. Growing Elderberries: A production manual and enterprise viability guide for Vermont and the Northeast. Burlington: University of Vermont Extension.


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