Elder flowers make a delicate pleasant tasting infusion, whether drunk as a tea, used to flavour sorbets, or boiled lightly with caster sugar to make a diluting cordial. Diluted with fizzy water yields a very refreshing ‘children’s champagne’. In herbal medicine they are used in a variety of ways, mainly centering around catarrh. So they are found in hay fever remedies where catarrh and blocked sinuses are common, with asthma treatments, but also in winter chills remedies where catarrh congestion is often a viral symptom. Here the diaphoretic qualities of elder flowers are thought to help reduce a feverish temperature. Elder flower water is also used to make soothing eye creams and gels.
Elder leaves are rarely used nowadays but were once infused in oil and made into an ointment, used mainly for bruises, sprains, piles and chilblains. The leaves are also insecticidal and boiled into a tea might be useful dabbed onto your skin, if you go camping without your proprietary midge repellent.
The berries should not be consumed raw in great quantity as they can make you feel a little unwell from the cyanosides that give them the dark colour. However, fully ripe, cooked and sweetened they come into their own. Elderberry jam is an excellent country staple while elderberry syrup not only tastes good but its good for you too. The berries contain vitamins, especially vitamin C.
Clinical trials during a flu out-break in Panama showed that people who took elderberry syrup were 2/3rds less likely to catch flu and if they did they had 2/3rds less severity of symptoms and length of illness. It acts in a similar way to echinacea in that it stimulates the body’s immune system to produce cytokines. These are molecules that produce B cells to make antibodies help to fight infection. I make several litres of elderberry syrup every year and take it on its own, a good dose three to four times a day, at the first sign of flu going around. Touch wood, I can’t remember the last time I had flu!
As well as inhibiting the spread of influenza viruses, a 2011 study confirmed elderberry extract also has antimicrobial activity against bacteria including Streptococcus pyogenes, group C & G Streptococci and Moxarella catarrhalis (known to cause inner ear infections, bronchitis, sinusitis, and laryngitis).
Elderberry juice is also considered a mild purgative having a slightly laxative effect.
Zakay-Rones Z, Varsano N, Zlotnik M, et al. (1995) Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L) during an outbreak of influenza B. J Altern Complement Med. 1(4):361–369. Panama. [PubMed]
Krawitz C, Mraheil MA, Stein M, Imirzalioglu C, Domann E, Pleschka S & Hain T. (2011) Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Med. 11:16. [Pubmed]