The old saying holds true that ‘Everything old is new again,’ as health-conscious people in the Sacramento area head out to forage for ripe elderberries before the fall and winter ailments strike. Though it is later in the harvest season for elderberries, flowers and berries can still be found in our area along the rivers.
The plant of many names and uses, the elderberry has a long and varied history among the Native Americans and Europeans, dating back centuries. It is also found in Asia and parts of Africa.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Guide, traditional uses of the plant ranged from basket making, instruments, weaponry, dye, medicines and teas, with the entire shrub being used. Today, uses are mainly limited to using the flowers and berries medicinally, and for making wines, cordials, jams and pies.
Research bears out the efficacy and safety of using properly prepared elderberry extract as an immune “booster” during certain illnesses, such as influenza. Care has to be taken to only eat the blue or black berries, and not red or unripe berries, which can be toxic.
A 2004 study deemed elderberry extract an ‘efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.’
In 1993, researchers in Panama conducted an experiment on people living in an agricultural community during an influenza B outbreak. They determined that the people given the elderberry extract product Sambucol (SAM) had a reduction in symptoms and complete recovery days earlier than the control group, citing “A complete cure was achieved within [two] to [three] days in nearly 90[percent] of the SAM-treated group and within at least [six] days in the placebo group.”
Additionally, the Sambucol product, specifically, has been shown be effective against ten strains of influenza in a double-blind placebo-controlled study. Sambucol, and another commercially-available product by Nature’s Way, Sambucus, are widely available over-the-counter at most supermarket, health food and drugstores.
Elderberry has immunostimulating effects, causing more pro-inflammatory cytokines to be released in order to aid in overcoming viral infections. The berries also contain high amounts of antioxidants such as anthocyanins. One study describes the modification of the expression of certain genes in a controlled study using elderberry extract, among other herbs, which may be partly responsible for the immunostimulating properties. Elderberry extract for long-term use may be contraindicated due to its immune-stimulating effects, by those with autoimmune diseases, by pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding, and by people taking immune-suppressing medications. For people limiting phenols, elderberry, like many high antioxidant fruits, are high in phenolic compounds. Elderberries also contain lectins.
For those interested in learning more about foraging for elderberries this fall in Sacramento, the Learning Exchange is offering a class Oct. 12. Additionally, Soil Born and Elderberry Farms located in Rancho Cordova are great educational resources.