The Forager's Path - School of Botanical Studies

Using Elder Berries and Flowers in Herbal Medicine

These are the notes from a recent day-long workshop on understanding the Sambucus species on a deeper level than just taking Elderberry syrup.
Herbal uses for the elder bush are also covered extensively in the Foundations program at our school.

In formal academic writing, the Elder bush is known as
Sambucus nigra (Adoxaceae).
These labels are the Genus, Species and Family, respectively.

Until recently, the plant family was Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle.
It has recently been changed to the Adoxaceae family.
Some sources have not yet made the change and a few authors dispute to which family it belongs.“Arizona Herbal medicine” “Durango Herbal medicine” “Albuquerque Herbal medicine” “Sedona herbal medicine” “Denver Herbal medicine” “Boulder, Colorado Herbal medicine” “Phoenix herbal medicine” “Colorado herbal medicine” “Las Vegas herbal medicine” “Prescott herbal medicine” “Flagstaff herbal medicine” “Oak Creek Canyon” “New Mexico herbal medicine” “" “Flagstaff essential oil” “Flagstaff essential oils” “Flagstaff aromatherapy” “Prescott essential oil” “Prescott essential oils” “Prescott aromatherapy” “Sedona essential oil” “Sedona essential oils” “Sedona aromatherapy” “Phoenix essential oil” “Phoenix essential oils” “Phoenix aromatherapy” “Las Vegas essential oil” “Las Vegas essential oils” “Las Vegas aromatherapy” distillation “essential oil distillation” forage foraging forager wildcraft edibles wild food greens survival bushcraft Arizona Colorado “New Mexico” Utah Flagstaff Phoenix Prescott Sedona “Oak Creek Canyon”

The genus is Sambucus.
There is no dispute with this.

In regards to species and subspecies (written sp. and ssp. respectively) there is much confusion and disagreement.

Depending on the source, publishing date and author, the following plants are either the same species, a subspecies of S. nigra or a separate species:
Sambucus nigra and Sambucus mexicana are most common in the western US.
There are many synonyms such as:
S cerulea
S. glauca
S. mexicana
S. canadensis.
Instead of synonyms, these are sometimes listed as subspecies (ssp.) of Sambucus nigra.
From the USDA website:
Alternate names:
Blueberry elder, elder, blue elder, Arizona elderberry, American elder, sweet elder, wild elder, flor sauco (sauco is an old Spanish word for elder), tree of music, Danewort, Walewort, New Mexican elderberry, velvet-leaf elder, hairy blue elderberry, and dwarf elder.

Sambucus caerulea Raf. (the epithet sometimes spelled “cerulea” or “coerulea”).

Taxonomically, there have been recent changes in this elderberry species.
It was previously divided into Sambucus coriacea, Sambucus orbiculata, Sambucus velutina, and Sambucus caerulea (Munz 1968).
This species is known in some floras as Sambucus mexicana. 
The important point to remember is to use dark blue-purple berries, regardless of the species.
Avoid the deep red berries.“Arizona Herbal medicine” “Durango Herbal medicine” “Albuquerque Herbal medicine” “Sedona herbal medicine” “Denver Herbal medicine” “Boulder, Colorado Herbal medicine” “Phoenix herbal medicine” “Colorado herbal medicine” “Las Vegas herbal medicine” “Prescott herbal medicine” “Flagstaff herbal medicine” “Oak Creek Canyon” “New Mexico herbal medicine” “" “Flagstaff essential oil” “Flagstaff essential oils” “Flagstaff aromatherapy” “Prescott essential oil” “Prescott essential oils” “Prescott aromatherapy” “Sedona essential oil” “Sedona essential oils” “Sedona aromatherapy” “Phoenix essential oil” “Phoenix essential oils” “Phoenix aromatherapy” “Las Vegas essential oil” “Las Vegas essential oils” “Las Vegas aromatherapy” distillation “essential oil distillation” forage foraging forager wildcraft edibles wild food greens survival bushcraft Arizona Colorado “New Mexico” Utah Flagstaff Phoenix Prescott Sedona “Oak Creek Canyon”

In the arid Southwest, the range of Sambucus is widespread but never abundant in one area. It’s size is also smaller. In wetter climates such as the Pacific NW, Sambucus is both more abundant and grows much taller. These differences make it important to know the geographical location of an author or instructor.

In the wild, it is occasionally found in the ponderosa forest and Oak Creek Canyon. I have personally seen it growing ~3,000’ near a spring NE of Phoenix. It was an old ranching area and it wasn’t clear if this was planted or grew naturally.

In the ponderosa zone, it prefers a little extra moisture than what is available by seasonal rainfall so it is often found along roadsides and in drainages, even shallow ones.

On the Peaks near Flagstaff and from 8,000 – 12,000’ in the Colorado Rockies, the main Elderberry is Sambucus racemosa. Its fruit is a deep cranberry red color and should not be used internally.

Sambucus spp. is used in landscaping locally in Flagstaff and is available from native plant nurseries regionally.

There are widely varying accounts of the toxicity potential of Sambucus spp. depending on the species, method of processing and preparation, the plant part and dosage.

After much research and discussion with others in the herb community, I have decided the following:
-In my practice, I use the dried dark blue elderberries to make tea, tincture, elixir and syrup.
-I use the fresh and dried flowers from these same plants for similar herbal pharmacy.
-I avoid using the fresh berries until they have been dried or cooked.

Using berries from the red elder (Sambucus racemosa) is controversial. Many experienced herbalists claim it is more toxic than the dark blue species and should be avoided while other herbalists have eaten the fresh berries with no problem.
As I prefer to err on the side of caution, I avoid using these berries.

The main symptom of Sambucus toxicity is vomiting. If this happens to you – stop using the herb or reduce either the frequency or amount you are using.

Chemistry of Sambucus Berries

“Arizona Herbal medicine” “Sedona herbal medicine” “Phoenix herbal medicine” “Colorado herbal medicine” “Las Vegas herbal medicine” “Prescott herbal medicine” “Flagstaff herbal medicine” “Oak Creek Canyon” “New Mexico herbal medicine”
Elder – Sambucus nigra

1. Antioxidants (higher in Sambucus than cranberry or blueberry) support the body in resisting oxidation which is the breaking down, catabolic, aging effect
2. Polyphenols – rainbow colors found in fresh produce
3. Flavonoids such as Anthocyanin + Anthocyanidin – dark blue pigment found in many berries. In Sambucus, these affect the ability of the virus to reproduce.
4. Sambunigrin – a cynogenic glycoside that is reduced/eliminated by drying or cooking the fresh berries. This is the constituent that has been labeled toxic by many.

Primary Therapeutics

The berries are used for their anti-viral properties – to either prevent the flu, shorten its duration or to lessen its intensity.

The flowers are used as a relaxing diaphoretic during the fever stage of influenza. This means they relax the body in a way that allows excess heat in the core to move to the surface and be released. This action is similar to opening the windows of a house to let heat escape.

Harvest Season

This is largely dependent on the elevation and climate. In northern Arizona, the flowers bloom in late May and the large white flowers make the bushes easy to find then.
The berries ripen from mid-July through the end of August.

Scientific Research
Traditionally used for influenza, a recent search on the public medicine research database ( produced:
70 entries for the keywords sambucus influenza
1057 entries for the keyword sambucus

From Pubmed
“Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro”
Roschek B Jr1, Fink RC, McMichael MD, Li D, Alberte RS.

A ionization technique in mass spectrometry called Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry (DART TOF-MS) coupled with a Direct Binding Assay was used to identify and characterize anti-viral components of an elderberry fruit (Sambucus nigra L.) extract without either derivatization or separation by standard chromatographic techniques.

The elderberry extract inhibited Human Influenza A (H1N1) infection in vitro with an IC(50) value of 252+/-34 microg/mL. The Direct Binding Assay established that flavonoids from the elderberry extract bind to H1N1 virions and, when bound, block the ability of the viruses to infect host cells.
Two compounds were identified, 5,7,3′,4′-tetra-O-methylquercetin (1) and 5,7-dihydroxy-4-oxo-2-(3,4,5-trihydroxyphenyl)chroman-3-yl-3,4,5-trihydroxycyclohexanecarboxylate (2), as H1N1-bound chemical species. Compound 1 and dihydromyricetin (3), the corresponding 3-hydroxyflavonone of 2, were synthesized and shown to inhibit H1N1 infection in vitro by binding to H1N1 virions, blocking host cell entry and/or recognition. Compound 1 gave an IC(50) of 0.13 microg/mL (0.36 microM) for H1N1 infection inhibition, while dihydromyricetin (3) achieved an IC(50) of 2.8 microg/mL (8.7 microM). The H1N1 inhibition activities of the elderberry flavonoids compare favorably to the known anti-influenza activities of Oseltamivir (Tamiflu; 0.32 microM) and Amantadine (27 microM).

PMID: 19682714
DOI: 10.1016/j.phytochem.2009.06.003

___________________________________“Arizona Herbal medicine” “Durango Herbal medicine” “Albuquerque Herbal medicine” “Sedona herbal medicine” “Denver Herbal medicine” “Boulder, Colorado Herbal medicine” “Phoenix herbal medicine” “Colorado herbal medicine” “Las Vegas herbal medicine” “Prescott herbal medicine” “Flagstaff herbal medicine” “Oak Creek Canyon” “New Mexico herbal medicine”

From Medical Herbalism, Vol 8, #4
by Paul Bergner
…From these traditional indications, it is clear that elder, among other things, builds up the resistance of the immune system.

Recent research from Israel and Panama has demonstrated that elderberry juice not only stimulates the immune system, but also directly inhibits the influenza virus (Zakay-Rones et al 1995;Mumcuo- glu 1995). The trials used the juice of the berries, made into a syrup. It has less tendency to induce sweating, but is considered effective in most of the same conditions as the tea of the flowers (Grieve 1931). The syrup of the berries will cause nausea if taken in large doses.

Israeli researcher Madeleine Mtimcuoglu, Ph.D. of the Hadassah-Hebrew university Medical Center in Ein Karem, Israel, performed the initial research, and found that elder seems to be designed as a specific weapon against the flu virus. The influenza virus forms tiny spikes, called hemagglutinins, which are laced with an enzyme called neuraminidase. The enzyme helps the virus to penetrate the cell walls of a healthy organism. The virus then sets up shop in the cell, reproducing more viruses. The active ingredients that Mumcuoglu discovered disarm the neuraminidase enzyme within 24-48 hours, halting the spread of the virus.
In clinical trials, patients who took the elderberry juice syrup reported fast termination of symptoms. Twenty percent reported significant improvement within 24 hours, 70% by 48 hours, and 90% claimed a complete cure after three days. Patients receiving the placebo required six days for recovery. As proof that elder has more to it than the enzyme-neutralizing constituents, researchers found that the patients who took it also had higher levels of antibodies against the flu virus.

Elderberry has been proven effective against eight different influenza viruses. This may solve the perennial problem of the “mutating flu.” Viruses have the ability to alter their genetics and create new strains. This makes a problem for creating vaccines against viral diseases, such as flu or AIDS, because the vaccine can only be developed against known strains. The host remains unprotected against newly evolved forms of the virus. With the flu virus, the new evolving forms can sometimes be deadly as especially virulent strains develop periodically.

We haven’t had an outbreak of deadly flu in recent decades, so many people do not realize how serious the illness can be. One strain killed more than 100,000,000 people worldwide in the second decade of the 20th century. That’s more than have died in all the 20th century wars put together. Some epidemiologists have pointed out in recent years that we are overdue for another deadly flu epidemic, which reoccur, like earthquakes, at regular but not necessarily predictable intervals. Vaccines will be of no use against a new strain, at least when it initially appears Elder may thus be able to literally save lives, because most strains of the virus use the same enzyme mechanism to penetrate cells.


Recipes and Formulas
There are many elderberry recipes. There are different methods for working with dry or fresh berries and dry or fresh flowers.

The following recipe is my favorite for dried berries due to its ease of preparation and effectiveness.

Elderberry Elixir Recipe
The primary difference between an elixir and a tincture is the elixir has been sweetened with honey, maple syrup or sugar.

1. Honey – local is best
2. Vodka – in Arizona, this is 80 proof (40% alcohol and 60% water)
3. Dried Elder Berries – there are many sources.
Shop locally or use
4. Clove powder – widely available
5. Canning jar – the size depends on how much you make.
Start with an 8 or 16 oz size.

In a jar, combine 25% honey and 75% vodka. Given a few hours, this will blend completely. This is the elixir.
Fill a separate jar halfway with dried berries.
Add a pinch of clove powder. Clove has a strong flavor; a little goes a long way.
Fill this elderberry-clove jar to the rim with the elixir.
Shake well and label.
Let this sit in a dark cupboard for 4-6 weeks.
When finished, pour the entire contents thru a strainer into a new jar.
Discard the elderberries.
Save the liquid. This is the finished elixir.
The final product is 30% alcohol, 25% honey and 45% water>
The ratio of herbs to menstruum is 1:4.

A more involved formula, based on the above recipe:
1 C dried elderberries
1/2 C dried elderflowers
1/4 C rose hips
3 T fresh grated ginger
2 pinches of clove powder
1 t dried Osha root powdered
1 t licorice root
The liquid (known as a menstruum) is the elixir made with 25% honey and 75% liquor. This can be vodka, brandy, rum or whiskey.
My preference is vodka.
1 quart canning jar

Mix the herbs together and place in the quart jar.
Fill to the top with the elixir blend.
Let sit for one month. Strain out the herbs and use the elixir as needed.

Elderberry Syrup Recipe

2 C fresh or fresh frozen elderberries
3 C water
Ginger, cloves, cinnamon to taste

Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.
Mash berries, strain, add 1 C honey while everything is warm enough to blend together.
Cool and store in jars in refrigerator.
Freeze in small batches if storing for more than 2 weeks.

This syrup can be used for pure enjoyment, for ice cream, shortcake, smoothies, yogurt.

This syrup can be preserved as a tincture by adding 20% Everclear to the finished product.

Raspberry and Elderberry Syrup
Delicious served warm over pancakes or cold over yogurt or ice cream
1 C Red Raspberries
1 C Maple syrup
1⁄2 C Elderberry dried
1/2 C water
1 stick Vanilla bean chopped

Combine all ingredients and simmer covered for 30 minutes.
Mash berries, and strain out liquid.
Freeze in small batches if storing for more than 1 week.

Elderberry Oxymel
1 C Dried Elderberries
1 C Honey
2 C Apple cider vinegar
Ginger, cloves, cinnamon to taste

Add above ingredients into a one quart canning jar.
Place wax paper or a plastic liner between the metal lid and the acidic oxymel menstruum.
Let macerate for 6 weeks. Shake daily.
Strain and use within one year

Using Elder Flower as a Diaphoretic
One of the main categories of herbs to use during a fever is diaphoretics. These are best taken as a hot tea. Use either an infusion or a tincture added to hot water.

The term diaphoretic can be confusing. It is an old medical term that is usually defined as a substance that makes one perspire – diaphoresis. However, perspiration is not the end goal. The goal is to achieve a healthy body temperature to make the fever as therapeutic as possible. This herb category is better defined as group of plants that
 regulate the perspiration and body temperature by balancing blood circulation.

These herbs support the fever response which in turn is an immune response to a pathogen. They do not create or cause a fever.
It is also important to note that traditional forms of health care consider extreme perspiration unhealthy and use diaphoretics to just break a sweat or modulate the body temp as needed. They are not used to initiate profuse sweating.

The two primary ways herbs are grouped into the diaphoretic category is as a stimulating diaphoretic and a relaxing diaphoretic.

Stimulating Diaphoretics 

These herbs stimulate circulation throughout the body. Use herbs from this category when the vital force is too weak to move things.

Signs for these herbs are when a person is:
lax on bed
weak looking
a ‘dead weight’ 
This type of person may look deficient (even if just temporarily) and like someone who would benefit from a stimulation of the life force.

These herbs are more commonly used in the early stages if a person is weak and needs help warming up.
~Most warming aromatics. These include ginger, clove, black pepper, thyme, rosemary and cinnamon
~Cayenne is a vaso-dilator and a classic herb for moving blood to the surface of the skin and allowing heat to leave the body. This is one reason why chiles are used in hot climates around the world.
~Monarda – very stimulating, strong and broadly anti: bacterial-viral-fungal, doesn’t upset the stomach, can use tincture and tea together
~Fire Cider

Relaxing Diaphoretics
Herbs in this category relax tension in the body that inhibits the flow of blood, especially to the surface of the skin.
Relaxing the tightness allows circulation to spread out from the core, moving to the surface.
Look for:
red skin
lots of heat
Does the person look like they would benefit from more physical relaxation?

It is important to note that relaxing and stimulating in this context do not oppose or interfere with each other. It is possible a person can benefit from a stimulation of the life force to increase circulation and a relaxation of tension that could prevent that same circulation.

One metaphor that is used for this is the movement of water through a garden hose. One can stimulate the flow by turning up the faucet or one can relax tension by taking the kink out of the hose. Both actions work together to increase the flow of water.

Let’s again emphasize the importance of hydration.
Fevers and flu can include perspiration, diarrhea and vomiting. All these are strongly drying to the body. The sick person *must* emphasize hydration.

Diaphoretics can be contra-indicated if excess dryness already exists. It is difficult to catch up with hydration once one gets behind. This is a major danger of having a fever and can be deadly if not addressed. Receiving an IV at the ER can be life saving.

Relaxing Diaphoretic Herbs
~Elder flower tea
~Boneset for body aches, or alternate chills and hot fever, stimulates white blood cells (WBC)
~Verbena is for relaxing the folks who are ‘too busy’ to be sick, helps reduce emotional agitation, an excess amount can cause nausea
~Catnip is for nausea and relaxing (ginger is for nausea and stimulating) 
~Asclepia tuberosa root – also helps a dry, tight cough
~Lobelia is a strong relaxant and anti-spasmodic. Use fresh tincture only and give the dose 10 drops at a time. Too much causes nausea.

**A tea blend of yarrow-elderflower-peppermint is a classic fever formula in Western herbalism. It is in the can’t miss category for working with fevers and flu.

A ginger – catnip blend can be used if nausea is an issue.

Diaphoretics should always be taken as a hot or warm tea. Frequent sips are best. Remember, these teas are taken during a fever when the risk of dehydration goes up. Use these teas as part of the hydration process. Soup broth, electrolyte drinks and plain water can also be added.


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