Do you know elderberries?

ClareBroommaker's picture

I have not been able ever to forage elderberries, as the birds are always faster than me. Thus, I bought dried elderberries from an online source. The purchased berries are European elderberries, Sambucus nigra. The elderberries I would have foraged are the ones native to North America, Sambucus canadensis.

Are the seeds and stems of the European berry not as toxic as those of the N. American berry? My grandmother made elderberry jelly and always picked out the bits of stem and green berries before starting. She strained the well cooked berries in a bag and captured only the juice. Everything I read online says to treat the seeds, stems, and unripe berries as toxic.

However, I read of people in the UK making elderberry chutney, which seems to use the whole berry, seeds and all. My grandmother was also a chutney maker, but she never used elderberries in chutney; she used them only for jelly. Is the European berry not so toxic, or does the N.American elderberry have an exaggerated reputation for toxicity?

I'd like to use some of the European elderberries I bought in a chutney recipe if they reconstitute well.

Any English friend is fighting flu with Elderberry (nigra) extract--which is apparently whole elderberries soaked in alcohol for six weeks, lose the elderberries, keep the alcohol.

There's a ton of Elder lore at

But I found the instructions --with pictures--for making elderberry extract at

ClareBroommaker's picture

Thanks, Sophie Gale. I'll read those.

Recently, when my US state was reported to have the highest rate of influenza illnesses, I rehydrated some berries for 12+ hours. Then I simmered them for 15 minutes, strained, and long simmered the extracted juice to concentrate it. I knew that if I should come down with the flu I would not want to be in the kitchen preparing this, so I got it ready "just in case." We already had a bottle of commercially prepared non-alcohol elerberry juice, but I did not think it would be enough for two people.

Well, in a few days, my husband came day with the flu. We both used the elderberry juice, along with the generic tamivir prescribed by our doctor. Now, I got a little sick, but my gosh, it was less problematic than a cold normally is! I don't know if I can attribute that to the eldberry, the tamivir, or the combination, but I was pleased. I plan to bottle up more elderberry juice so it will be ready when wanted.

And I'm goint to try to stake out more elderberry bushes so that maybe this summer I can get some before the birds. It's just hard to find many of them here in the city.

I use elderberries frequently (cooked after freezing, in scones; fresh but essentially tinctured in a mix of rum and honey to make an elixir for cold season; in tea, so I'm not sure if that counts as cooked). The variety I'm using (though taxonomists seem to change their minds frequently about whether they're really all separate or not) is Sambucus nigra var. cerulea - native to California.

The flower is nowhere near as fragrant as the European variety (personal knowledge, from having lived in Germany and being stunned by the flower scent after years of wondering, in CA, what the fuss was about).

An herbalist who has practical experience and writes quite a bit on a variety of herbs, incl elderberry, is Kiva Rose, based out of New Mexico. From what I've gleaned from her writing is that it's not that the plant parts (incl raw berries) are so toxic that they'll kill you or make you seriously ill, but that in enough quantity, they're not good for you. Some people do have a sensitivity that makes itself apparent after eating only a small quantity of the raw berries. Dried might be different.

I can't speak to the cautions extended to one plant versus another, but here are Kiva's thoughts on using the varieties found in N.A.

Have you looked at Henrietta's Herbal (online) for a typically more European perspective?

Magpie's picture

As far as I know, the seeds of all Sambucus species are only toxic if eaten raw. Heating destroys the cyanide-forming compounds. I have personally used both S. caerulea and S. nigra in tea and muffins and had no ill effects.