Mature Elderberry

16 Interesting Facts About Elderberry (Sambucus)

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The elderberry bush (Sambucus spp.) produces clusters of small, blue-black berries that have been used medicinally for centuries. Often overlooked for more popular berries like blueberries or raspberries, elderberries have a surprising number of health benefits and intriguing facts about them.

Overview

Elderberry bushes thrive in temperate regions across much of Europe, Asia, North America, and South America. There are a few different species, with the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) being among the most common.

These fast-growing shrubs produce flowers and fruit on a yearly cycle. The berries typically ripen in mid-summer and can be harvested for several weeks afterward.

While raw elderberries aren’t usually eaten fresh due to their bitter taste, berries and flowers get processed into jams, juices, wines, and medicinal syrups. The rest of the elderberry plant, however, contains toxic compounds and should not be consumed.

Benefits

Elderberries offer a variety of potential health perks. They are packed full of vitamin C and antioxidants, which can help support the immune system. Some research indicates elderberry extracts may also help treat cold and flu symptoms.

The berries could have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anti-cancer properties as well. And preliminary studies show elderberry supplementation may benefit heart health, lower blood sugar levels, improve brain function, and more.

Elderberries in Close-up Shot

Fun Facts

Now, here are 16 interesting tidbits about these remarkable berries:

  1. Elderberry’s name comes from “Old Lady” lore. In medieval Welsh folklore, the elder tree was associated with an “Elder Mother” figure as the tree’s hollow stems were thought to house spiritual beings.
  2. Varieties can have red berries too. While blue-black is the most common elderberry color, there are cultivars with bright red berries instead. Examples include the Adams elderberry and the red-fruited York elderberry.
  3. The berries need to be cooked first. Raw elderberries contain a compound called cyanogenic glycosides that can cause nausea if consumed. Cooking breaks this compound down.
  4. The flowers can be eaten without cooking. Elderflower heads can be eaten raw or made into teas, drinks and desserts. Just remove them from the toxic stems.
  5. Birds love eating the berries. Birds will flock to elderberry bushes when the berries are ripe, spreading their seeds far and wide.
  6. Some species grow like weeds. Once an elderberry bush is established, it can spread rapidly. Certain wild varieties like American elderberry grow invasively.
  7. They thrive next to nitrogen-rich soil. You’ll often see elderberry bushes growing next to farms, compost piles, etc. These nitrogen-rich spots help ramp up growth.
  8. The wood has a surprising history. Hollowed elder wood stems have been used to make primitive flutes and hunting whistles for millennia.
  9. The berries are a traditional dye ingredient. Using elderberries and other dye plants to color fabric and wool was common before commercial dyes existed.
  10. Be careful not to over-harvest them. Only pick a few clusters from each bush so you don’t damage future yields or prevents the shrubs from spreading their seeds.
  11. Climate change may increase yields. Warmer average temperatures combined with increased CO2 may boost flowering and berry production for certain varieties.
  12. The berries make great wildlife habitat. Elderberry bushes not only provide food but also shelter, nesting spots and protection for birds and other small animals.
  13. Some parts have been used to treat dandruff. Historically, a tea made from elderflower leaves was thought to help cure scalp issues when rinsed onto the head.
  14. You can buy elderberry seeds online. Can’t find fresh berries or live plants? Many garden websites sell Sambucus seeds for growing your own shrubs at home.
  15. The berries contain tiny amounts of cyanide. All parts of the elderberry bush have varying levels of cyanide. But cooking destroys most of the compounds, leaving only trace amounts.
  16. Climate change may increase yields. Warmer average temperatures combined with increased CO2 may boost flowering and berry production for certain varieties.

Key Takeaways

To recap the main points:

  • Elderberry bushes produce clusters of nutrient-rich blue-black berries that get used in various medicines, foods, and health products once fully ripe and cooked.
  • The berries offer high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants. Some research shows they may potentially help treat flu symptoms, inflammation, viral infections, cancer, heart disease, and cognitive decline.
  • Raw elderberries shouldn’t be consumed. The stems, leaves, and other parts contain toxic compounds. But the cooked berries and elderflower heads are safe.
  • Elderberry bushes thrive next to nutrient-rich “disturbed soil” and get spread by birds. Bushes can also spread rapidly and become weedy if left uncontrolled.
  • Historically, hollowed elder wood and plant parts were utilized for making musical instruments, fabric dyes, hair products, primitive hunting whistles, and more before commercialization.

So in essence, though they resemble common wild berries, elderberries offer some unique health advantages and have a fascinating backstory if you know what to dig for!

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you use dried elderberries?

Dried elderberries often get used for teas, syrups, lozenges, gummies, and capsules. Simmer dried berries to make a concentrated liquid or add hot water to make an immune-boosting tea. Be sure to strain out inedible seeds first.

Where does elderberry grow naturally?

Elderberry grows natively across most of Europe, Western Asia, Canada, the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, and certain areas of South America. The plant favors open woodlands and forest edges.

Is it safe to eat elderberries raw?

No, raw elderberries contain a toxin that can cause stomach issues if consumed before cooking. Always cook berries first by simmering or baking to destroy the harmful compounds.

Can you eat the seeds in elderberries?

While fully cooked elderberry pulp is fine to ingest, it’s best to strain out the tiny seeds first. Some people may experience nausea or digestive upset from eating the little seeds.


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