Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): list of medicinal properties

Sambucus nigra is the scientific name of the well-known common elderberry or black elderberry. It is a shrub quite widespread in many areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. However, we want to let you know the potential it has as a medicinal plant, apart from some agronomic tips in case you are curious to grow it.

Many parts of the tree are used from the common elderberry, and not only from the medicinal point of view, as you will see below.

Characteristics of the elderberry tree

Practically the common elderberry is adapted to different climatic zones of Europe, Asia and Africa. It is often used as an ornamental plant for the design of hedges or windbreaks in many areas of the British Isles.

The elderberry tree needs high humidity conditions (typical of regions of high rainfall), although when it does not find them, as in the Mediterranean slope, grows in areas near rivers or lakes.

There are discrepancies between considering it a shrub or a tree, although it can grow above 4 meters. It produces very striking black (or slightly purple) berries that are edible, although later we will discuss possible contraindications of other parts of the plant.

Sambucus nigra is undemanding on floors, but it prefers those where its roots can venture with depth. Smooth or loamy texture and neutral or slightly alkaline pH (between 7 and 8.5).

It is important to respect the minimum humidity conditions, as we have said before.

Within this genus, belonging to the family of Adoxaceae there are many other species, such as Sambucus peruviana, typical of the area of Peru and other South American countries.

Common names for your denomination

Although we have already mentioned for the plant Sambucus nigra several common names (common elderberry or black elderberry), here we make other mentions, depending on the country where it is cultivated.

  • Cane
  • Rooster crest
  • Sabucal
  • Royal Sabuchus
  • Hound
  • Yezgo

Multiplication of black elderberry

Multiplication can be done in several ways:

Using seeds

Feasible but somewhat complicated system, since due to the physical characteristics of the seed cover as well as its storage conditions, it can have a low germination capacity.

The seeds of Sambucus nigra Require different stratification processes. First, a conservation of several months at a warm temperature, between 20 and 30 ºC.

Subsequently, several months (up to 6 months), with a cold stratification at 5ºC.

By cuttings

By cutting it is a simpler process of multiplication of the common elderberry, since they have a high power of production of new roots.  It is the most used method, selecting optimal rods from spring or autumn.

Medicinal properties of Sambucus nigra

Nutritional composition

On a nutritional level, elderberries do not provide a high amount of calories but a high concentration of vitamins and antioxidants.

For every 100 grams of berries ingested, they provide us with the following:

  • Energy: 73 kcal
  • Carbohydrates: 18.4 g
  • Proteins: <1 g
  • Dietary fiber: 7 g
  • Fats: <1 g

However, at the level of vitamins (and, therefore, antioxidants), its content is quite high:

Vitamin C: for every 100 grams of elderberry fruit can exist up to 35 mg of vitamin C. This is almost 60% of the recommended daily intake (RDA).

Phenolic compounds: high presence of polyphenols, flavonols and cyanogenic glycosides that benefit health due to their antioxidant potential.

Bioactive components

  • Cyanogenic glycosides (sambunigrin and prunasin)
  • Polyphenols (antioxidant activity)
  • Flavonols (rutin, isoquercitrin and astragalus)
  • Quercetin
  • Tannins
  • Anthocyanins.

High antioxidant activity of elderberries

Elderberry has long been used in po medicinepular as a diuretic, antipyretic and diapopheric agent.

In recent years it has also been found to have antibacterial properties, antiviral antidepressants and antitumor and hypoglycemic properties, and to reduce body fat and lipid concentration.

The berries are nutritious, rich in flavonoids and high in vitamin C, vitamin A, bioflavonoids, beta-carotene, iron and potassium.

Antioxidants are very interesting substances when there are pictures of oxidative stress, presence of free radicals and cell damage, which can remit in the future in serious illnesses such as type 2 diabetes or cancer.

These antioxidant compounds present in elderberry can be vitamins, phenolic substances or flavonoids, which complexify and eliminate the negative potential of the mentioned substances. Different clinical trials have confirmed that a diet high in antioxidant substances prevents the formation of chronic diseases.

Anthocyanins present in Sambucus nigra are up to 3.5 times more effective than the antioxidant capacity of the vitamin E. That is why this plant has become one of the species of berries with the highest concentration in anoxidizing compounds, even above blueberries.

Colds, flu and respiratory infections

Several scientific trials have confirmed the potential of the berries of Sambucus nigra against the usual symptoms of flu and colds, through its antiviral and antimicrobial properties.

The response in several trial groups to the virus was very positive and symptoms decreased half as fast as the placebo group, through the consumption of 15 ml of elderberry syrup 4 times a day.

There are more than 3 parallel trials with the same routine and the same positive results. [See study]

However, since the flu is a virus that changes every year, conclusive evidence is needed to be able to move forward and be able to use it with total safety and guarantees.

Both the elderflower and the berries of the older plant have diaphoric and antiviral actions, which make them useful for reducing colds, flu and respiratory infections.

The elderflower also has anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce congestion associated with sinus allergies and sinusitis as an anticoraric and expectorant.

It can help reduce swelling of mucous membranes, such as those of the respiratory tract, to increase drainage and reduce nasal congestion.

Improved circulation

The potential of the Sambucus nigra as stimulants of blood circulation, reducing problems derived from thrombi, hypertensive processes, etc.

Some clinical trials have concluded positive effects at the level of improved circulation and reduction of negative cardiac markers. A priori, it seems that the berries of Sambucus nigra have direct action on the level of fat at the blood level and presence of cholesterol.

Foods rich in flavonoids (antioxidant substances), are linked to good cardiovascular health and the prevention of coronary heart disease.

On the other hand, at the level of cholesterol, there is inconclusive evidence in humans, since there are studies that do not relate the lowering of bad cholesterol (LDL) after taking 400 mg of elderberry extract 3 times a day. In mice, it seems that there is evidence of fat reduction at the liver level, but without conclusive results.

Other benefits studied

  • Inhibits development of Helicobacter pylori: American studies have found properties of the berry of Sambucus nigra against the development of pathogenic intestinal bacteria. [See study].
  • Cancer prevention: continuous tests are being carried out to evaluate its anticancer properties, at the test tube level, so it is still too early to confirm positive data.
  • Reduction of fluid accumulation: the infusion of elderflowers increases the elimination of liquids and salts from the organism, tested in the laboratory with animals.
  • Protects the immune system: the high concentration of polyphenols and antioxidant substances increases the body’s defenses and, in particular, the production of white blood cells.

Harvest, preparations and dosifIonitions

Elderflower infusion

The common elderflower can be harvested in early summer.  The berries ripen in late summer and should be fully ripe before harvest because green or green berries may contain toxins.

Once harvested, both the flowers of Sambucus nigra as the berries can be dried or extracted in a tincture to use when needed.

One hot infusion o tincture is the most common way to treat respiratory infections , such as a cold or flu.

Elderberries are commonly prepared in a tincture or syrup that is commonly taken at the first sign of a cold or flu to reduce the duration and severity of the infection.

External use of elderflower

For external use, the leaves can be used in mash and used as a poultice for physical wounds or injuries.

Alternatively, they can be turned into an oil infusion and applied to the affected area.

We can also use the properties of thyme to achieve these benefits, or combine both plants.

Finally, the bark of the larger tree can be used as a purgative to induce a laxative or emetic effect to promote vomiting and expel toxins or diuretic to increase the urine flow of the body.

However, the bark of the mature common elderberry can be toxic if not properly prepared, so it is essential that an experienced herbalist be involved in its use.

Where to buy elderberry

You can enjoy different options depending on the part of the plant sought.

For example, there is the option of acquiring dehydrated berries, flowers or oil extract that is used as a sweetener for sweets and dessert recipes.

Contraindications of elderberry

All parts of the elderberry contain cyanogenic glycosides, the most abundant being sambunigrin and prunasin.

These elements are potentially toxic as they can be hydrolyzed and result in the release of cyanide.

However, there is no need to worry if we choose a good supplier of these berries or treat them conveniently.

This toxicity occurs mainly in green berries and degrades during heat treatment.