What is an Elderberry Bush?

T. Forsythe

An elderberry bush is a flowering plant that produces berries in clusters. Berries are typically a blue, black, or bright red; red berries are poisonous. Most often found in Europe and North America, the bush grows in Australia as well. Two of the most common uses for the elderberry bush are as an herbal remedy and in certain sweet foodstuffs.

Elderberry tea is brewed by infusing the dried leaves in boiling hot water for several minutes.
Elderberry tea is brewed by infusing the dried leaves in boiling hot water for several minutes.

Considered a hardy plant, elderberry bushes grow in many climates in well-drained soil. Planted in early spring, the bush will produce berries for a short window between late August and early September. Cross pollination is essential, so plants need to be sown in rows 6 to 10 feet (1.82 to 3.04 meters) apart. They can be propagated from cuttings.

Elderberry bushes can be found throughout Europe.
Elderberry bushes can be found throughout Europe.

Although there are at least 40 varieties of the elderberry bush, the most commonly used in medicinal extracts is the European elder or Sambucus Canadensis. It is found throughout Europe and North America. This type has dark blue to black berries that are sweet and used in recipes as well as medicines. Clinical trials have been held in Norway that indicate that elderberry extract may be helpful in treating cold and flu symptoms.

The plant contains many antioxidants that give the berries their red and purple color. Antioxidants help boost the immune system. Additionally, elderberry extract contains anthocyanins that have anti-inflammatory properties, which may aid in the treatment of arthritis and other chronic disorders. Historically, Native American people used the plant in a tea to treat fevers, coughs, and pain.

Elderberry recipes are most common in Europe. The berries and flowers are bitter until cooked, when they turn sweeter. Elderberry wine and champagne are made from the lighter flavor of the flowers. Elderberry fritters are made by battering and frying the berries while they are still in clusters. When sprinkled with a little sugar they make a sweet, cake-like desert.

Elderberry was known for its life and death properties. This may be due to its alternately having healing agents and also being toxic. The plant itself is poisonous, producing vomiting, diarrhea, and swelling if eaten unripe or uncooked. Red berries are always dangerous to humans.

The elderberry bush has a long history. Since ancient times, the Norse and then British had legends surrounding the bush. These stories told of the tree being inhabited by nature goddesses Hulda and Freya. The name "elderberry" derives from the bush being a part of mother nature or the elder mother. Legends about the bush endured until the Middle Ages, when the elderberry bush was renamed "the witches' tree."

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