It may go against conventional wisdom, but when it comes to elderberries, always remember—never eat the red ones. They are poisonous.
In fact, the blue and purple ones will make you sick, too, if you don’t cook them first.
For this reason, and because elderberries also look like other poisonous plants, some people avoid this variety of berry altogether. Many states, such as Florida, recommend against consuming the elderberry on state websites just in case someone picks a poison berry.
But elderberries do have health benefits. In fact, they are one of the best berries for inflammation and have been celebrated for their medicinal powers since ancient times.
Red Elderberries vs. Blue Elderberries or Purple Elderberries
Red elderberries are poisonous. In fact, they contain the same compound as cyanide. Even the leaves and roots are poisonous. It’s a good idea to familiarize children with the elderberry and its sweet-smelling, white flowers in places where it grows wild.
Blue or purple elderberries, however, are edible and fortified with immune-boosting antioxidants and anti-viral compounds. Still, they are edible only when cooked. When uncooked, they will make you sick.
You can buy elderberry powder or extract, however, online or in health food stores. Extension offices in many Midwestern states offer all sorts of recipes for elderberries.
Another strain of elderberry is called dwarf elder, or Sambucus ebulus. Sambucus ebulus does not bear the poisonous red variety of berry.
In 2016, the U.S. Small Business Administration awarded Maine company Eldertide LLC three Small Business Innovation Research grants totaling $700,000. The money is being used to study whether the elderberry’s properties can be extracted and used for medical treatments.
“Benefits of elderberries include antioxidant activity to lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, improve heart health, and strong anti-viral properties with the ability to protect against certain strains of the flu,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in a news release about the Eldertide grants.
Elderberries for Reducing Inflammation
Elderberries are one of the best berries for reducing inflammation. Historically, this ancient plant has long been celebrated as a healer. But when it comes to science, not much research has been conducted.
A 2017 review in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine explained that elderberries contain compounds called flavonoids and lectins. This is where elderberries are believed to obtain their therapeutic powers.
But lectins also are known for stomach upset and weight gain, so proceed with caution.
Scientists believe one reason elderberries may reduce inflammation is because of their antioxidant properties. Scientists know that nitric oxide is an indicator of inflammation, for example. Elderberries help gobble nitric oxide up because of antioxidants and flavonoids such as anthocyanins, which give the berries their blueish color.
Elderberry Health Benefits
Mostly related to their anti-inflammatory properties, the health benefits of elderberries are many. They include:
Relief for osteoarthritis of the knee. In a 2016 clinical trial of 79 patients, a gel made of dwarf elder (10% aqueous extract) worked better than diclofenac, a topical NSAID pain reliever, at relieving arthritis pain. The study appeared in the journal Ethnopharmacology.
Lowering indicators related to metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. In a very small clinical trial of 21 patients, those who consumed dwarf elderberry extract daily for one month decreased cholesterol, triglycerides, and “bad” LDL cholesterol among healthy participants. The paper appeared in the journal Diabetes Care.
Treating wounds and skin conditions. A small clinical trial of 62 patients showed lotion made from elderberries had a profound impact on wounds resulting from contact with a poisonous beetle. The beetle lives in Africa, India, South America, and the Middle East. The paper appeared in the journal Iranian Pharmacy.
Dwarf elderberry also has been proven effective at fighting methicillin-resistant staph infections in a test tube, according to research published in the African Journal of Microbiology Research. Other preclinical trials involving elderberry, according to the 2017 review in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, show the plant is effective at healing wounds in animal models.
Elderberry extract fights common colds contracted on long flights. In a study of more than 300 passengers embarking from Australia on an overseas flight, most of those who contracted colds were in the non-elderberry group. And of those who did contract colds, those in the elderberry group fought off the colds quicker. The study appeared in the journal Nutrients.
A possible cancer fighter? Although there hasn’t been any clinical research on humans proving these claims true, extract from elderberry plant has been shown effective in a test tube against liver and colon cancer cells. That study appeared in the African Journal of Biotechnology.
Scientists say the elderberry holds great promise as a natural healer, but that many more studies are needed.
“As an ancient herb, (elderberry) has a long history of nutritional and medicinal applications and is still used in different countries in our modern time,” concluded the review published in Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Of course, there is an obvious need for further rigorous preclinical and clinical investigations to evaluate its safety and efficacy….”
To take advantage of elderberry health benefits, consider supplementing with elderberry extract.