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Common elderberry or American elder is a shrub that's commonly found throughout most of North America. Its characteristic cream-colored flowers, or elder flowers, are often seen on the roadside in late spring and early summer. The flowers grow in umbrella-shaped clusters. The umbels are normally six inches or so in diameter. Once the elder flowers, also called elder blow, are finished, they yield to clusters of small dark purple berries that ripen mid-summer to early fall.
Elderberry trees have opposite, elongated, toothed leaflets that are three to four inches long.
Leaves, stems, bark and roots are toxic, so it's important to be vigilant about not including any of these when processing elderberries or elder flowers.
Watch out for Hercules' club which has similar leaves and berries -- the berries are poisonous. Hercules' club's berry clusters are flat instead of round, and the stems are covered in thorns, while elderberry stems are smooth.
Cooked ripe elderberries are perfectly edible. Unripe elderberries are poisonous. Raw berries can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, among other symptoms, so be sure to cook them before eating. The only edible parts of the elderberry tree are the berries and flowers.
Elderberries have long been used as a go-to remedy for treating and preventing all kinds of ailments. Travelers using elderberry from 10 days before travel until 4–5 days after arriving overseas on average experienced a 2-day shorter duration of the cold and noticed a reduction in cold symptoms. "
Elder beverages could be an important dietary source of natural antioxidants for the prevention of diseases caused by oxidative stress.
"Flavonoids from the elderberry extract bind to H1N1 virions and, when bound, block the ability of viruses to infect host cells." "Several in vitro studies together with two exploratory studies in humans and one open study in chimpanzees indicate that the aqueous elderberry extract Sambucol may be useful for the treatment of viral influenza infections."
A present study reports that elder flowers contain water-soluble natural products which directly stimulate glucose metabolism by muscle and promote insulin secretion." "Natural extracted polyphenols modulate specific and non-specific immune defenses in insulin-deficiency diabetes and reduce the inflammatory status and self-sustained pancreatic insulitis."
"The main findings from studies are that elder flower extracts, their constituents and the corresponding flavonoid metabolites showed a major effect on the enhancement of glucose uptake and oleic acid uptake in human liver cells and human skeletal muscle cells." The anti-diabetic properties from elder flower increase the nutritional value of this plant as a functional food against diabetes."
A recent report indicated the elderberry extracts were safe and showed remarkable antidepressant activity in mice. These results introduced these plants as an easily accessible source of natural antidepressant."
Results clearly demonstrate beneficial features of elder flower extracts in the setting of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer MCF7 cells by inhibition of estrogen secretion, down-regulation and up-regulation where needed. Decreased local and circulating estrogen concentrations are certainly considered an advantage in treating breast cancer.
In that view, elder flower extracts could be related to reduced tumor cell proliferation, possibly suggesting a protective effect on breast cancer. Nevertheless, the results and the conclusions made must be interpreted with caution as this is an in vitro cell culture study. In this setting, the use of plant extracts instead of chemically pure agents may be more advantageous..."
Harvest the flowers when they appear or leave them on the tree and come back for the berries later. Less-traveled country roads are good places to forage for elder flowers and elderberries but stay away from busy roads. To harvest elder flowers, cut off flower heads with scissors, keeping in mind that flowers develop into berries and harvesting them will detract from berry production.
What's tricky is getting to the berries before the birds get them, because they really start to disappear once they're ripe. The best way to make sure you get to them before they're gone is to drape mesh or netting over the flowers. Be sure to leave space between the netting and the flowers to prevent berry damage from penetrating birds' beaks. I always try to leave plenty for the wildlife that depends on elderberries for food, taking only what I will reasonably use.
The process of harvesting the berries is basically the same as harvesting the flowers. Simply cut off the stems with scissors and put in a paper bag. Then put your paper bag full of elderberries in the freezer for an hour or so until the berries are completely frozen.
Then, making sure the bag is closed, shake it up a bit to help loosen the berries. For the berries that still aren't loose, just rub them away from the stems with your hands. You can then put the berries into a bucket of water to help separate any debris that may be mixed in. Then pour off the water. You can use the berries right away, freeze them, or dry them to use later.
Elder flowers can be used fresh or dried for later use. To dry, either lay the fresh flower heads on a piece of cardboard or hang them in a well-ventilated shady, dry area. They're ready for storage when they can be easily brushed off the stems. Store in air-tight glass jars or something similar.
Elder flower is naturally sweet and makes an excellent floral tea that really doesn't need any added sweetener. To make tea from fresh elder flowers, boil a pot of water and add two to four freshly cut elder flower heads. Then steep for 10 minutes. If you're using dried elder flower, steep two teaspoons in a cup of boiled water for ten minutes.
The Common elderberry is a versatile tree that thrives in a variety of conditions, but it loves areas with lots of moisture and nitrogen. Look for it along stream-banks, in damp woods, open fields, old homestead sites, and power line cuts. While the elder flowers are blooming in late spring/early summer, it's easy to spot them growing in thickets along the road.
Here is a simple Elderberry Syrup recipe:
Ingredients: 6 cups water - 1 cup dried elderberries or 2 cups fresh elderberries - 1 cup honey
Instructions: In a medium-sized saucepan, add water and elderberries, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat, strain out the seeds, and stir in honey (mixture should still be warm but not boiling). Set aside to cool, pour into jars or bottles, and refrigerate for up to 3 months. Syrup can also be frozen in ice cube trays or plastic containers and stored for up to a year.
Elder flower Cordial is a drink that dates back as far as the Roman Empire -- an ancient soft drink. Traditionally, it's mixed with carbonated water before drinking, but this recipe makes a naturally bubbly sparkler. This recipe makes a big batch so that you can preserve and enjoy from summer and into the colder months.
Ingredients: 3 1/2 cups caster sugar - 2 cups hot water - 4 large fresh elder flower heads - 2 TBL white wine vinegar - juice or rind of 1 lemon - 7 pints water - Fresh strawberry juice (optional)
Instructions: Mix sugar and hot water. Pour mixture into a large glass container. Add remaining ingredients and stir well. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 5 days.
Strain liquid into sterilized screw- or flip-top bottles and let sit another week.
Notes: Serve cold and garnish with lemon, strawberry, and/or mint. Add fresh strawberry juice for flavor and color.