The most common type of elderberry is Sambucus nigra, also called the European elderberry or black elder, a tree that’s native to Europe but grows in many other parts of the world. As well as the tart, deep blue-purple berries, the tree produces sweet, honey-scented white- or cream-colored elderflowers.
For centuries, both the berries and flowers have been staples in folk medicine and culinary recipes. The ancient Egyptians refined their complexions and soothed burns with elderberries, and although the first recorded mention of elderberries is disputed, Hippocrates’ reference to elderberry as “nature’s medicine chest” is widely documented. Traditionally, Native Americans used the berries to combat infections and promote general health and vitality.
Today, elderberry is typically taken as a supplement in a variety of formats, from capsules and lozenges to gummies and liquid extracts. The flowers can be used to make tea, syrup, cordials and liqueur, while cooked berries are turned into juice, wine, jams and jellies. “Raw berries, leaves, bark and roots of the elderberry plant can cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea when consumed,” cautions Raj Barker, health coach at THE WELL, whose Immune Complex and Immune Tincture feature elderberry in addition to other potent immune-strengthening ingredients. “That’s why we always advise taking elderberry in a carefully prepared supplement form.”
Furthermore, in some instances cyanogenic glycosides found in the elderberry plant can release cyanide, although neither commercial preparations nor cooked berries contain the toxin.
Lesley McCave is a writer and former Dayspa executive editor based in Los Angeles.