If you have not heard of using Elderberry for colds or the flu, now's the time! If you have heard about it, you are probably using and enjoying it. These berries are from the black elderberry shrub, Sambucus nigra, native to most of the northern hemisphere, while in parts of the United States we have Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis, often just called Sambucus canadensis, or North American elderberry. If you see an elderberry that is red, that's Sambucus racemosa, and is not considered beneficial.
In the late spring and early summer, the white elder flowers are delicately scented, and can be used a diaphoretic tea, to induce perspiration that may lower fevers. They may also have actions to decrease nasal discharges, like the runny nose in a cold.
The flowers can also be eaten, and elderflower fritters are a lovely and delightful breakfast or dessert. I often make elderberry cordial, this year as a tincture with flowers, lemons and honey. In the past I have cooked the flowers, with honey, which has a better flavor, but that cordial has a shorten shelf life and must be kept in the refrigerator.
When the berries develop, the most common preparations are elderberry syrup or tincture. Tinctures refer to alcohol extractions, but alcohol based preparation are not suitable for everyone, especially children. Syrups often have honey or another sweetener added after being cooked into a thicker consistency. Both preparations can be helpful in viral infections, based on the phytochemistry. Compounds in the berries called lectins have been shown to neutralize the activity of the spikes found on the surface of several viruses. These spikes are used to enter human cells and replicate, so when these spikes are deactivated, the viruses can no longer enter our cells or replicate. There some reports that the flavonoids, which give the black and purple color to the berries, may also have some action against the influenza virures.
There are several recipes for elderberry syrup online. One of my favorite places to look for recipes is the writings of Rosemary Gladstar, and here's her recipe. Elderberries are super yummy cooked with ginger, and I usually add cinnamon, and sometimes Echinacea. My favorite source for herbal supplies is Mountain Rose Herbs, and they have dried elderberries here. There are proprietary products of elderberry syrup available, but make sure the sugar content is low. If you aren't sure if you want to make your own, or if elderberry could help you, consider a herbal consultation.
All images photographed by Dr. Lorinda Sorensen
Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40. PubMed PMID: 15080016.
Monograph. Sambucus nigra (elderberry). Altern Med Rev. 2005 Mar;10(1):51-4. PubMed PMID: 15771563. Online: http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/10/1/51.pdf
Kinoshita E, Hayashi K, Katayama H, Hayashi T, Obata A. Anti-influenza virus effects of elderberry juice and its fractions. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2012;76(9):1633-8. Epub 2012 Sep 7. PubMed PMID: 22972323.