An Introduction to Elderberries

Elderberries are antioxidant-rich plants used since ancient times for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Archaeological evidence indicates that human societies have used elderberry since at least the stone age.

A brief history of elderberry

The ancient Egyptians used elderberries to heal burns and improve their complexions, while Native American societies used it to treat infections. Elderberries were also popular among the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Dioscorides, the Greek Botanist, recommended using wine made from elderberry roots to treat snake bites. European folk medicine specialists still use elderberries to manage dental pain, nerve pain, and headaches in the modern era.

Varieties of Elderberry

While most people would assume that elderberry is a single plant, it's actually an entire genus of plants, with several unique species. The genus' scientific name is Sambucus.  


The most common elderberry species is the Sambucus nigra more commonly known as the European elderberry.

 

Sambucus nigra

The Sambucus nigra is a versatile plant that can grow in various conditions, although it typically thrives in sunny areas. Sambucus nigra's berries are black or blue-black and occur in small bunches. The berries have a sharp taste, and most people cook them before eating.

Another common elderberry variety is the Sambucus javanica, more commonly known as the Chinese elder.

Sambucus javanica is native to tropical and subtropical Asia. Unlike Sambucus nigra, which can grow up to 30ft tall, Sambucus javanica only grows up to around 7 ft tall. The berries occur in large clusters that are easy to harvest.

Sambucus australasica is a species of elderberry native to Australia. It mainly grows in Queensland, New South Wales, Tamworth, and Rylstone.

 

Sambucus australasica

It is commonly known as yellow elderberry. Sambucus australasica grows to around 13 feet and has sweet-scented flowers arranged in groups. Sambucus australasica's fruits are yellow and oval or spherical.

Other species of elderberry include:

  • Sambucus adnata grows in eastern Asia and the Himalayas.
  • Sambucus australis grows in South America.
  • Sambucus peruviana grows in Panama, Costa Rica, and the northwestern section of South America.

What are the benefits of elderberry?

Elderberries are popular because anecdotal evidence has shown that they have a lot of benefits. Some of them include:

1. Elderberries contain lots of essential nutrients.

Our bodies need lots of different nutrients, and elderberries are full of some of these nutrients. According to nutrition data, 100 grams of fresh elderberries contains 73 calories, 18.4 grams of carbs, and less than 1 gram of protein and fat.

Elderberries are also high in:

  • Vitamin C-100 grams of elderberries can contain anywhere from 6–35 mg of vitamin C. This is roughly 60% of the recommended daily Vitamin C intake.
  • Dietary fiber- There are 7 grams of fiber, more than 25% of the recommended daily intake, in 100 grams of elderberries.
  • Phenolic acids- Phenolic acids are antioxidants that can help limit oxidative stress on the body. By reducing the oxidative stress on the body, elderberries help fight aging.
  • Flavonoids- Elderberries are rich in flavonoids, phytochemicals with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and immune system benefits. The flavonoids in elderberry include anthocyanins, quercetin, and rutin.

2. Elderberries reduce cholesterol and are good for the heart.

Several studies have indicated that elderberries may reduce levels of fat in the blood and reduce cholesterol. In one study, researchers fed mice with high cholesterol black elderberry extract. At the end of the study, the mice fed with black elderberry extract had lower levels of cholesterol in the liver and aorta.

In another study, scientists fed rats a diet containing polyphenols extracted from elderberry. These rats had lower blood pressure and had less risk of organ damage from high blood pressure.

Additionally, diets that contain flavonoids such as anthocyanins have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Anthocyanins make up nearly 1% of the dry weight of elderberries.

Elderberries may also reduce uric acid levels in the blood. According to a paper written by Chii-Min Hwu et al., high uric acid is linked to increased blood pressure and adverse effects on the heart.

3. Elderberries are good for the skin.

Elderberries are also popular because they're great for the skin. Researchers have found that elderberries have astringent properties. These properties cause the skin to tighten, which reduces the size and appearance of pores. When the size of the pores reduces, it helps the skin to feel smoother and fresher.

Elderberries also have antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, which are great for promoting skin health.

4. Elderberries have antimicrobial properties.

According to a study by Christian Krawitz et al., elderberries have significant antimicrobial properties. In their study, the scientists analyzed a standardized elderberry extract for its antimicrobial properties.

The scientists added the extract, in various concentrations, to mediums with bacteria. They compared the results against a medium with bacteria but without the extract. They used 5%, 10%, 15% and 20% elderberry extract.

The scientists found that an elderberry concentration of 20% reduced bacterial development to less than 1% of the originally measured values. They concluded that elderberries have significant antimicrobial properties that may provide an alternative to existing treatments.

The dark side of elderberries

Although elderberries are great and have tons of benefits, they also have a dark side.

 

 

The bark, seeds, and unripe berries contain chemicals known as cyanogenic glycosides. These may release cyanide in specific circumstances.

Fresh elderberry fruits and leaves also contain cyanide. In every 100 grams of fresh elderberries, there is 3 mg of cyanide. And in every 100 grams of fresh elderberry leaves, there's 3-17 mg of cyanide.

However, cooked and commercially prepared berries do not contain any cyanide. You can eat these safely.

Elderberries are not recommended for children, pregnant or lactating women. At the moment, we do not have enough research to determine if elderberries are safe for these groups.  

Final thoughts

Although there is a lot of anecdotal and preliminary evidence on elderberries' benefits, more research needs to be done before we can draw firm conclusions. However, we are excited about the future of elderberries.