Elderberries are small, dark berries that grow in clusters on elder trees (also called elderberry bushes). The European Elder is found in temperate climates across Europe and North America. It is a hardy plant often growing in the moist soil along roadsides and streams.
Elderberry bushes are fast-growing and have compound leaves and tightly clustered bunches of tiny white flowers in late spring, followed by clusters of berries in late summer. The European elderberries are black to dark blue, and are most frequently used in recipes, extracts, and syrups. The American Elder, also popular, is said to be slightly sweeter. It is found most anywhere east of the Rockies. Some species have life spans between 80 and 100 years.
For centuries, elderberries have been used in folk medicine for a variety of ills, including arthritis, asthma, constipation, and as a cure for the common cold. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates referred to the elderberry as his “medicine chest.”
Elderberries contain potassium and large amounts of vitamin C, and have been proven in quite a few recent studies to strengthen the immune system.
Elderberries are also a great source of anthocyanins, containing three times as much as carotenoids. These are powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage caused by environmental toxins, poor diet, and stress. They also reduce the damaging effects of bad cholesterol and discourage platelets from sticking to blood vessel walls, thus reducing the risk of atherosclerosis.
Elderberries actually enhance night vision because they make rhodopsin or visual purple in the eyes. This helps in seeing in reduced lighting. It also helps in dealing with stress according to recent studies.
The white flowers of the elderberry bush may be pressed into tonics, lightly battered and fried into fritters, or stirred into muffin or sponge cake mix for a light, sweet flavor. Elderberry may be purchased either as a juice or juice ingredient, and as a dietary supplement. Suggested dosage is 400 mg of a 6 percent anthocyanin extract daily.
The ripe berries, cleaned and cooked, can be made into many things: extracts, syrups, pies, jams, or used as garnish, dye, or flavoring. Some eat them uncooked but they do contain toxins and it is better to be safe by washing and cooking them before eating. Also, elderberries are bitter and need sweetener to be palatable. Many like to cook them with other fruit like apples or pears to sweeten them. The tiny seeds in the berry leave a gritty taste, even after cooking, but the seeds are safe.
The red-berried elder contains toxins and is best avoided. Stick with blue, black, or dark purple elderberries, and leave the reds alone. And remember, the leaves, twigs, stems, roots, and unripe berries of all elderberry plants are not edible, and contain toxins that can make a person quite sick.