It’s All About the Food: Elderberries

  | Food For Thought, Nutrition

It’s January: HAPPY NEW YEAR! Winter may be here—depending on what Mother Nature has in store for us, with climate change and other factors affecting the weather patterns these days—and we can expect it to be cold, for sure, but the good news is that the days will start getting a little longer! However, the fact remains that many of us will still be inside many hours each day, and there will be germs all around us. There is no better time to boost your immune system, and elderberries are one special berry that will help to do just that.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of going up north with my mom to visit Adele Dawson, a well-known herbalist. My mother, an avid gardener, was eager to learn more about herbs after meeting Adele at a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conference. Adele had written a few books on herbs, which remain in print. I recall going to visit her at her house near Marshfield, VT, and what amazing gardens she had! There were herbs for everything in her garden, and she had all kinds of dried herbs and herbal concoctions in her house. She let us sample teas, poultices, jellies, and salves—she had a wealth of knowledge, an amazing zest for life, and was quite an inspiration! I recall her showing us the elderberry bushes around her house and then, when returning to my childhood home, I found them there as well. She told us that elderberries were one of the best things to boost our immune system, and that they grow relatively easily in Vermont.

Elderberries are not an item you would see for use on the shelf along with other foods. They can be found in the Wellness Department at the Co-op, among the bulk herbs. They are a wonderful food to add to your diet due to their ability to support your immune system. I wanted to share some information about this wonderful berry and its use in medicinal herbal remedies, tinctures, juices, teas, and syrups.

The elderberry is a member of the genus Sambucus; specifically, the variety canadensis is native to this area. It has existed here for thousands of years, and it has been used in many countries as a medicinal herb and food. Elderberries contain significant amounts of vitamins A and C, potassium, phosphorus, and iron. They have been shown to have antiviral properties that are beneficial for both prevention of and reducing the severity of colds and respiratory illnesses. Elderberries have also been shown to increase production of the disease-combating cytokines that play a crucial role in fighting off infection. Anthocyanins, the main plant compound found in elderberries, have been found to be responsible for an increased production of the cytokines that help the body ward off disease. Elderberries provide a very powerful amount of this antioxidant, and this is what makes them so instrumental in boosting the immune system as well as protecting cells from damage. They contain other plant compounds too, and these, in conjunction with the anthocyanins, have been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of a multitude of conditions. Most recently elderberry juice was used in Panama to help with treatment during a flu epidemic.

As always, you should consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medicinal herbs to ensure you are aware of any contraindications with other medicines you may be taking and or any potential side effects.

Please note elderberries should be cooked too, since all the parts of the plant—the flowers, berries, leaves, stems, and roots—contain small amounts of hydrocyanic acid, which is converted into cyanide when consumed by some. These compounds are neutralized after cooking, which also helps improve elderberries’ taste and digestibility. The flowers and berries are the most commonly used parts of the elderberry plant, and these are both sold in bulk in the Wellness Department at the Co-op.

Click here for a recipe taken from the Mountain Rose Herbs website ( for preparing your own elderberry syrup during the cold months when you may need additional immune support. Dried elderberries can be purchased at the Co-op, or you can purchase elderberry syrup from a variety of sources.

By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist