Featured Creature: Elderberry

Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

This week we ask: What plant is used around the world for its immunity-boosting properties, loves shady and moist habitat, and is loved in turn by all sorts of pollinators? 

The Common Elderberry! 

Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

I first learned about the healing properties of the elderberry plant when I was talking with a family member, Ilma, in Finland. She had mentioned that she foraged the berries from the plant and made an immunity-boosting syrup with them. Finland has a national policy called the “Everyman’s Right” in which all citizens are allowed to forage for berries, fruits, nuts, and the like on public lands. As a result, Ilma is much more acquainted with the concept of foraging and creating her own remedies than I am. Intrigued by the idea that there could be a direct connection between nature and a health product without the in-between steps of processing plants into pharmaceuticals sold through a chain store, I decided to dive deeper into learning about the elderberry and how it can be used to heal. 

First, the basics….

The Common Elderberry is also known by its scientific name, Sambucus nigra. It is a deciduous plant, meaning that its leaves fall once the weather turns colder in autumn and winter. This plant can be found in the wild across North America and Eurasia; however, it has also been domesticated by humans and can easily be found in plant nurseries as well. 

The plant itself is a shrub belonging to the Adoxaceae family. It has lovely soft green leaves that are typically split into 5-11 leaflets, which look a lot like pointed fingers! Elderberry stems also sport robust white flowers with clusters of deep purple (almost black) berries. The shrub itself can reach 8-12 feet in height! 

Lover of the Dark

Elderberry shrubs thrive in a moist soil environment with plenty of shade and a slightly acidic soil (about 5.5 – 6.6 pH). However, they are also extremely adaptable and resilient and can survive in environments that don’t fit all of their ideal habitat requirements. 

Because it loves moist soil, the Common Elderberry can often be found near small water bodies as well as some forests and fields. Pollinators, like bees, wasps, and butterflies adore the Common Elderberry and can frequently be found perusing the big white Elderberry flowers for pollen. 

Where The Wild Things Grow

Elderberry has been known as one plant used by humans to rewild and restore habitats. The New York Times published an article in December 2021 about an ecologist who works to turn lawns into gardens, and who happens to have elderberry plants on his own property amongst other pollinator- and bird-friendly plants. You can learn more about his story here: Meet an Ecologist Who Works for God (and Against Lawns)

A Traditional Medicine

Elderberry has been used for many years across cultures in North America and Eurasia for its healing properties. The berries, saturated in deep purple color, are packed with vitamins C and B6 as well as plenty of antioxidants. This makes the berries extremely beneficial for boosting the immune system!

These properties are best brought out when the berries are turned into syrups, tinctures, and salves rather than applied or consumed in their raw state. 

Elderberries can also be consumed for enjoyment by humans in jellies, jams, pies, and even elderberry wine! 

Do you have any experiences with elderberry plants? Perhaps you’ve tried elderberry kombucha, or have foraged elderberries for a tincture. I’d love to hear your experience – please feel free to click the “reply” button and send us a message! 

With gratitude for this healing elder,