Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Elder (Sambucus) is an old, ancient medicinal that has a lot of wisdom to share. It is easy to grow, identify in the wild and grows prolifically once established. Elderflowers are a medicinal bloom from the elder. Elderberries are a super delicious antioxidant rich medicinal fruit from the elder, with immune-enhancing and antiviral properties.
Learn how to make syrup, identify and grow with our YouTube video.
Growing and Identifying
Elders are adaptable plants that can thrive in many types of soil conditions, yet prefer moist, well-drained soil. Elder is relatively drought tolerant and might require some irrigation during a dry summer. You might find them near rivers, creeks, wetlands or along the roadside of the highway. If foraging, you want to be sure to collect flowers and berries away from potential contaminants such as plants that may be sprayed with chemicals near storm water ditches or roadsides.
Elders can be found or grown in full sun to part shade. They reproduce by suckers, which sprout from the plant's lateral roots. Because of this, many plants are often found growing together. Deciduous leaves grow in opposite pairs and have 5 to 7 leaflets. Elderberry shrubs have opposite, elongated leaves opposite each other along the stem. You can feel tiny bumps all along the bark. It’s extremely important to identify as there are some look-alikes, such as water hemlock, that can be deadly.
The leaves, stems and unripe berries of elderberry are toxic, so it's important to be vigilant about not including any of these when processing elderberries or elderflowers. Raw berries can cause nausea and should be cooked to safely remove the toxins if not well processed. Ingesting these parts of the plant in large quantities can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body. There are different varieties of elder depending on where you live. Make sure to carefully identity your plant if you plan on foraging. You can typically find Elder at a local plant nursery, which will help give you confidence on harvesting and help you build a better relationship with the plant to further identify in the wild.
This extremely important wild edible and medicinal plant are a summer fruit, but the exact timing depends on your climate. Elderberries ripen in a couple months after the flowers bloom. The flowers grow in umbels, large umbrella-shaped clusters. Elderflowers contain their own medicinal benefits and flower infusions are an anti-viral and can be used as a gargle for sore throats, mouth ulcers and inflamed gums, as a relaxant and to help reduce fevers. Elderflowers and berries are expectorant, diaphoretic, they help to release the body of toxins.
The creamy white flowers are bursting with scent and pollen. The flowers contain natural, copious yeasts in the pollen, making them excellent for fermentation drinks such as elderflower champagne, mead or kombucha. Do not wash the flowers for this reason - just shake off any insects and remove the thick stems.
Once the pollinators visit, the cute white blooms transform into juicy, ripe berries full of medicinal qualities. The clusters of flowers give rise to green berries that ripen into plump deep purple, nourishing berries. Always remember, whenever you pick the flowers there will be less berries.
It is important to wait until the berries are fully ripe. Choose clusters with berries that are plump and dark purple, avoiding those that are still green. Simply use pruners to cut the berry clusters off where the cluster stems reach the main stem. Remember that the leaves and stems of elder are toxic, so there is no need to trim more of the branch than you need.
Insects like to hang out in the clusters, so give each branch a little shake before snipping off the berry clusters. After harvesting clusters, you can rinse those off by filling a bowl with water by holding at the stem and briefly swirling the cluster, or harvesting right after a rain storm.
The dark colored berries are a powerful natural remedy in preventing and shortening the duration of viral infections like colds, flus, and upper respiratory infections. They are rich in folic acid and vitamins A and C. Elder’s immunomodulating and accompanying anti-viral qualities – give a boost to the immune system. Elderberries are an excellent anti-viral. Viral diseases mutate often and can evolve. Elder attacks influenza strains making it an efficient ally during cold and flu season.
Elderberry and Elderflower hold their vitality in the dehydration process and can be dried to store in your own apothecary. I typically hang my herbs upside down, away from direct sunlight to naturally dry over the course of a few days. Once berries are completely dry, remove the stems and any remnants of twigs before storing away.
Most of the medicinal qualities are extracted out of the elderberries through water and alcohol extraction. I love making syrup with dried berries and enjoying adding it to sparkling water for a homemade soda, added as a sweetener to a blend with other herbs in an herbal infusion or taken by itself by the spoonful.
We crafted adorable DIY Elderberry Syrup Gift Boxes with Mountain Rose Organic Elderberries, a reusable green glass 4 oz jar, bamboo strainer and directions on how to make syrup at home. This kit makes approximately up to eight ounces of syrup.
To make syrup you simply make a decoction by measuring a half cup of dried elderberries to three cups of filtered water in a saucepan. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Strain. Add local honey. You can add cinnamon sticks, hawthorn berries and other herbs, or just make a simple syrup. It's delicious!
Classic Elderberry Syrup Recipe
3 Cups filtered water
1/2 Cup organic dried Elderberries
1/2 Cup of raw local Honey
Organic cinnamon stick, fresh grated organic ginger root, star anise, hawthorn berries, rose hips
1. Combine the berries and herbs with filtered water in a pot and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat and allow herbs to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
3. Strain the berries and squeeze out the juice.
4. Add a ½ cup of honey and mix well while still warm. Gently heat the honey by stirring for a few minutes. I love to use a bamboo chopstick to stir with.
5. Bottle in sterilized glass.
6. Label with date.
Elton John sang a song "Elderberry Wine" that debuted on his album in 1973.
A powerful and rare magic wand in the Harry Potter series is made of Sambucus – the “Elder Wand.”
Since ancient traditions, along the edge of the herb garden was the wise guardian of the garden, Elder.
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Author: Phoenix Fermin
Phoenix Fermin is a Certified Herbalist, Yoga Instructor, Educator, Author, and Illustrator. Phoenix teaches topics in herbalism and holistic health. Find her recipe in the award winning book, Fire Cider 101 Zesty Recipes by Rosemary Gladstar.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.