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What is Sambucus?

By N. Phipps
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Sambucus, or elderberry, is a member of the honeysuckle family. There are two notable varieties — the European black elder (S. nigra), a shrub-like tree reaching 30 feet (9 meters) or more, and the American elderberry shrub (S. canadensis), which reaches about 12 feet (about 4 meters). Both provide white lacy flowers in summer followed by dark purple berries. They commonly grow in moist areas along roadsides, woods, and thickets. Elderberry has a long history, much of which is surrounded in folklore. Most notably, however, is its medicinal value.

Remedies of elderberry are considered to be both safe and effective. However, the leaves, branches, and root of elder plants should not be used internally, as they are poisonous. These contain cyanide properties. The flowers and berries, on the other hand, are perfectly safe to ingest — though the unripe, uncooked Sambucus berries may cause mild nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

For centuries, elderberry has been used as a remedy for promoting good overall health. The plant, especially the berries, is rich in antioxidants, which is known for boosting the immune system. Elderberry extract is ideal for treating both bacterial and viral infections including coughs, colds, and flu. In fact, studies have even shown that elderberry remedies can significantly reduce the severity of flu symptoms and other viral infections, especially when the remedy is given within the first 48 hours.

Additional benefits associated with the use of Sambucus include lowering cholesterol, improving heart health, and relieving conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis. The syrup extract made from the berries is probably its most commonly used form. Although the berries are not that sweet when fresh, they become much sweeter as they dry. The berries are oftentimes used to make elderberry wine, jam, and chutney as well. Some people have also eaten the cooked berries for help with weight loss.

Elderberry has mild laxative properties and may be helpful for constipation. The flowers are often used to make herbal tea for the treatment of various ailments. Gargling with the infusion is thought to help fight gum disease. Furthermore, Sambucus remedies made from the flowers aid with the respiratory tract. These can be used for treating anything from hay fever to bronchitis and asthma.

An external infusion of the flowers can also be used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis. The flower infusion also makes an excellent skin conditioner. Sambucus softens, tones, and rejuvenates the skin and have a long history of use in cosmetics. It can also help soothe minor burns like that of sunburn. There are uses for the leaves as well, however. Dried and crumbled, they can be made into an ointment or poultice for treating bruises, sprains, and minor skin irritations.

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