Elderberry: Part Medicine, Part Poison, and Part Food!

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PHOTO: Elderberry, courtesy of Edal Anton Lefterov
PHOTO: Elderberry, courtesy of Edal Anton Lefterov

Found growing wild in low-lying areas, near streams and lakes, along fence rows and in ditches, the American elderberry plant is one of the most perplexing plants that can possibly be found in the wild — some claim it is medicine, others poison.  Still, countless individuals harvest it each year for everything ranging from jelly and syrup to ice cream flavoring.

Even scientists struggled to grasp the plant, originally placing it in the honeysuckle family, before changing the minds and reclassifying the plant as Adoxaceae.

When attempting to answer the question, “Are elderberry plants poisonous?” Norm’s Farms answers, “The truth is that some parts of the elderberry bush are poisonous and should not be consumed, but other parts, when harvested and prepared correctly, are completely safe to eat. To make the topic a little more complicated there are several species of elderberry and some are quite different than others. Knowledge is power…”

Although the ripe, cooked berries (pulp and skin) of most elderberry species are edible, uncooked berries and other parts of plants from this genus are poisonous.  Even the leaves, twigs, branches, seeds, and roots of elderberry plants can contain a cyanidin glycoside — ingesting a sufficient quantity of may produce illnesses.

In 1984, a group of twenty-five people were made sick, apparently by elderberry juice pressed from fresh, uncooked berries, leaves, and stems. However, all twenty-five recovered quickly, including one individual who was hospitalized after drinking five glasses.

Despite its potential for being poisonous, our ancestors have been using elderberry fruit or flowers as dietary supplements for conditions such as flu, colds, and constipation, mostly in teas.

In addition to using the plant as a medicine, elderberries are also used in jellies, syrups and as flavors for other foods.

In some myths, the elder tree is thought to ward off evil and give protection from witches, while other beliefs say that witches often congregate under the plant, especially when it is full of fruit.  If an elder tree was cut down, a spirit known as the “Elder Mother” would be released and take her revenge. The tree could only safely be cut while chanting a rhyme to the Elder Mother.

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1 COMMENT

  1. When I was a young girl back in the fifties, my Grandpa’s mule was hit by a train. Barney had a very large and deep gash on his hip. Grandpa and his brother Uncle Jason led him to the barn and doctored Barney with poultices and such that they made to put on the wound. Then they gathered elderberry and sumac branches and hung them on the walls, on the window, and around the door to keep the flies and other insects away. Barney was slow to heal up, but he finally did.

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