I have been a massive advocate of the humble elderberry for many years, never suffering from flu while taking it each winter. American elderberry grows easily in many parts of North America and Canada, while European elderberry is common across much of Europe. In this article, we will see how to find elderberry bushes and ensure you don’t mix them up with something more deadly.
What You'll Learn Today
Where do Elderberries Grow Naturally?
There are several different species of Elderberry, but here we will be looking at the American Elderberry, a native shrub often found in wet areas such as streams and marshes and in damp forests or places that have been disturbed.
Elderberry plants can tolerate various soils, from dry to wet, but they prefer rich, damp, slightly acidic ones. They can grow in partial shade, below the tree canopy, or in full sun in hedgerows or beside streams and ponds.
You can find Elderberry bushes across many states, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
How to Identify Elderberry Plants
Although American elderberry [Sambucus nigra sbsp. canadensis (L.) R. Bolli, Adoxaceae] grows to 12 feet, European elderberry or black elder [Sambucus nigra sbsp. nigra (L.) R. Bolli], can grow to 20 feet. Both are woody shrubs that may have multiple trunks and spreading forms. This is how to identify elderberry plants:
There are between 5 and 11 leaves per stem, one leaf at the tip with the rest growing opposite each other in pairs. The leaves are oval with a serrated edge leading up to the tip.
Each leaf is bright green on the top and paler underneath and measures between 2 and 6 inches in length.
The bark on young plants is green and smooth with white dots. As the bush matures, the bark turns a gray-brown with vertical furrows.
If you snap a branch, you will see the soft spongy pith that is easy to scrape out.
The first flowers appear in spring and early summer; they have a clustered form, consisting of many individual tiny flowers. They start with each individual flower tightly closed and forming tiny white-green balls.
These open up to become first white and then creamy white flowers which are star-shaped and have five petals and yellow protruding stamens. It is common when looking at clusters for some of the flowers to be open while others are not.
In late summer, you will begin to notice the young green berries forming on the shrub. Like the flowers, they are also in clusters, as they have been born of the pollinated flowers.
Each berry is approximately a ¼ inch in diameter with a tiny brown patch on the end where the flower was. It is usual for the clusters of berries to droop downwards.
In this video, you will see some different types of elderberry that are native to the United States and are being grown commercially. It lets you see clearly what the trees look like, their height, foliage, flowers, unripe and ripe berries.
What can be Mistaken for Elderberry?
A few other plants can sometimes be mistaken for Elder bushes, some of them are lethal if ingested, so it’s vital not to get them confused.
Aralia Spinosa or Devil’s Walking Stick can often be confused with American elderberry. The dense clusters of dark purple berries that hang from the stems look very similar.
Pokeweed is another plant that has purple berries, and it is highly toxic. Pokeweed berries don’t grow in clusters but in a long cylinder shape and taste very nasty.
Water Hemlock, this deadly poisonous plant, likes to inhabit similar environments to American Elderberry, but it is a herbaceous plant and not a shrub. There is no bark, and the main stem is usually green and hollow and can be streaked with purple or sometimes entirely purple.
The flowers of water hemlock are white and a little similar to elderflowers, but they grow in a different pattern, more like a starburst.
Water hemlock can have a few different odors when crushed, it may smell like mouse urine, or it could smell pleasantly like anise or licorice.
If ingested, it can kill within minutes, depending on what part of the plant was eaten and how much. The seeds are the least poisonous, and the roots are the most. Death, although rapid, is extremely painful.
Two other related plants sometimes mistaken for American elderberry are the Silky Dogwood and the Redosier Dogwood.
Can You Eat Raw Elderberry?
I would only ever recommend eating elderberries that have been cooked or very ripe ones dried in sunlight. This is because unripe elderberries, the stems, stalks, leaves, bark, branches, and roots all contain a bitter alkaloid and cyanide-inducing glycosides.
The glycosides can cause a cyanide buildup in the body and make you quite ill. Many people cannot stomach raw elderberries, even when dried in a dehydrator because insufficient heat has been applied to destroy the glycosides.
Even eating ripe elderberries that are raw can make you feel quite sick, cause you to suffer stomach pains, vomit, and give you diarrhea. Better to be avoided, I think!
Can Elderberry Stop the Flu?
Cooking ripe elderberries destroys the chemicals that make them toxic. You know elderberry is ripe when it is plump and a deep purple-black color; there should be no sign of green.
A study done at the University of Sydney in Australia showed that the long-held belief elderberries do have antiviral properties was, in fact, true.
Findings from a study showed that Elderberry could:
- Have multiple therapeutic actions against influenza
- Have a slight inhibitory effect in the early stages of an influenza infection
- Have a substantial impact on the post-infection stages of influenza infection, preventing the virus from propagating and so stopping its further development
It also showed that elderberry has immunomodulatory properties caused by the stimulation of cytokines, the chemical messengers of the immune system that allow different cell types to coordinate a response against invading pathogens such as viruses.
This multi-pronged attack provided by elderberry means that it can stop influenza viruses from entering and then replicating within human cells and inhibit infection.
The remarkable antiviral properties of elderberry are due to the presence of plant pigments, known as anthocyanidins. These also have a significant antioxidant effect and help protect cells from damage.
Elderberry has been used for medicinal purposes around the world since before records began. Native Americans were also aware of its healing properties, which only now are beginning to be thoroughly studied and understood.
The elderberry bush likes to grow in damp soils and thrives in a habitat protected by shrubs and small trees of a similar size. It can also be found along the banks of streams in gaps of the forest canopy.
Although theoretically very ripe, black elderberries can be eaten raw, it is advisable not to do this as many people still have an unpleasant reaction to them. The best way to get the benefits from elderberries is to turn them into syrups, wines, jellies, or lozenges.
I personally take organic elderberry capsules, which contain only pure elderberry and elderflower, during the winter months. I have never had the flu, and it even seems to keep colds at bay.
Another personal favorite of mine is making the flowers into elderflower cordial and elderflower sorbet, which is by far the nicest sorbet I have ever eaten.