Elderberry: The Queen of Herbs

By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator

Elderberry is one of those herbs that has become wildly popular in recent years. Each winter I find that more and more people are turning to this wonderful plant for its immune strengthening virtues.

In fact, it is not uncommon to find elderberry frequently out of stock in cold and flu season. Those in-the-know get their hands on the dried berry by the time fall rolls around!

There are a several species of elder that you will see used interchangeably, but the two most commonly found in these parts are Sambucus nigra and S. canadensis. Elder grows as a shurb or a small tree, producing beautiful, cream-colored flowers in the summer.

Around Boston you will notice an abundance of flowering elders in June, especially along highway roadsides. They are simply beautiful. These delicate flowers develop into juicy, dark purple berries towards the end of summer. Please note that although some people do consume raw, fresh elderberries, if eaten in large quantities they can make you feel nauseous. I always recommend using dried or cooked elderberries.

Elder is one of the most treasured herbs of the herbalist’s materia medica, and for hundreds of years has been deemed “nature’s medicine chest” for its myriad beneficial applications. In Europe, elder was believed to hold such great power that it was thought that if a sick person were to simply touch an elder tree they would be healed. It is certainly one of the oldest and most popular plants of European herbalism, commonly planted in gardens, and a beloved staple of most homes.

Today elder is most highly regarded for its ability to address colds and flu. Modern research shows that elderberry can kill many strains of influenza, and shorten the duration of illness by stimulating the immune system. Elder can also help reduce upper respiratory congestion and swelling of the mucous membranes.

Elderberries make a dark colored tea, due to its rich flavanoid content. Flavanoids – present in many berries and fruits – possess wonderful antioxidant properties that can help prevent damage to the body’s cells. Elderberries are also high in Vitamins A and C, and traditional herbal medicine considers them to be very blood-building, often used in anemic conditions.

Elderflowers are used in a slightly different way: as a diaphoretic herb they help to reduce fever. Used as a tea elderflowers can strengthen the circulation, bring blood to the surface of the skin, and open the pores so that heat is released.

The flowers are also used in beauty preparations and are said to soften and rejuvenate the skin. I often do an old-fashioned facial steam with a blend of elderflowers and rose petals to help my skin stay healthy and toned.

Commonly called the Elder Mother in Europe, there is much folklore that surrounds this tree. The spirit of the elder was thought to be the queen of the underworld and has always been associated with fairies and the hidden realm. Elder branches were once commonly hung over doorways to protect a house from evil. The Celts made flutes from hollowed-out elder stems to communicate with the dead, and it was used by many cultures as magic wands, whistles and pipes. (Interestingly, the genus name Sambucus refers to an ancient type of musical instrument.)

How to Use:
To make a strong elderberry tea, the dried berries need to be gently simmered rather than steeped like most tea. To do so, add 1 Tblsp. of dried berries to 2 cups of water. Gently simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, in a small covered pot; then strain and drink. Elderberry tea can be simmered like this on its own, but also mixes well with other herbs such as rosehips, cinnamon and/or ginger for a delicious beverage.

Or, to make a classic herbal remedy, try your hand at the following elderberry syrup recipe:

Simple Elderberry Syrup
1 cup dried elderberries
1 teaspoon dried ginger root
1 tablespoon dried cinnamon chips
4 cups water
1 cup local honey
1/2 cup brandy

  1. Create a strong tea (decoction) by slowly simmering the elderberries and spices in the water. Let the water content reduce by half, which may take an hour or more.  Keep an eye on the pot and make sure the water does not evaporate too much - if needed, add another cup of water. 
  2.  Strain and discard the herbs from the liquid. 
  3. Measure your remaining liquid. If you started with 4 cups of water, you should have 1.5 to 2 cups of liquid left. Add 1 cup of honey. You can adjust the amount to your taste, and preference for consistency. (If you want a thicker, sweeter syrup, add more honey.)
  4. After adding the honey, cook on very low heat until just combined, usually just a minute or two. When using honey (especially raw honey) you want to be careful with the amount of heat you use.
  5. Remove from the heat and let cool. At this point your syrup can be considered finished, but if you would like extra preservative properties for a longer shelf life, add 1/2 cup brandy. Mix thoroughly.
  6. Pour into clean glass bottles, label it with the ingredients and date, and refrigerate. The syrup will keep for several months when preserved with brandy and stored in the fridge.

Options: You could also add other spices such as cloves, cardamom or orange peel to this recipe. I also like to add in a small amount of dried rosehips for added Vitamin C content. Use this basic recipe as a starting point and let your creative juices flow!

Take 1-2 tablespoons a day for preventative measures and to keep your immune system going strong. This syrup is also delicious added to teas (or hot toddies!), or as a special garnish on desserts. Enjoy!

Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world.  She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, a community herbal conference.  Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.


Wood, Matthew: The Earthwise Herbal
Chevallier A. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants . New York, NY: DK Publishing, 1996.