How to Use Elderberry for Food and Medicine

As I was canning 18 jars of elderberry blackberry jelly last weekend, I thought about all the different ways to use elderberries.  The ideas kept flowing as I stirred in the honey and pectin and filled each jar.  Elderberry is an easy plant to grow and produces an amazing amount of fruit that can be used medicinally and as food.

Blue elderberry, Sambucus caerulea, is a native shrub that grows to 8-12'.  It likes full sun to part shade and regular water.  It can be recognized by it's often leggy growth habit, bumpy or warty bark, opposite compound leaves, flat heads of white flowers in spring followed by clusters of blue-black fruit.  In it's native habitat, you will often find it near streams and waterways.  Black elderberry, Sambucus nigra, is similar to Sambucus caerulea and can be used interchangeably medicinally and in cooking. 

Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, is another native species.  It has a very similar growth habit as the blue elderberry but the flower clusters are conical rather than flat and the berries are red.  It is not recommended to eat the berries from the red elderberry.

Blue elderberries are an excellent garden plant.  Their large shrubby form makes a great backdrop to any garden, the white flowers and dark berries are both beautiful to look at, and the birds enjoy the fruit.  Elderberries are fast growers and will produce fruit in 2-3 years after planting.  Each self-fertile plant may produce around 40-50 pounds of fruit!

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You may be wondering what in the world you would do with 40-50 pounds of elderberries?  Well, the list is long and you will soon realize that just one elderberry shrub may not be enough! 

A common winter remedy, elderberry is used for coughs, bronchitis, upper respiratory cold infections, fever, influenza, congestion, expectorant for dry coughs, and viral infections.  I consider it a medicinal food; something that you can turn into jelly, syrup, or pie, for example, and eat on a regular basis to help prevent illness and simply because it's delicious. 

This summer I harvested elderberries every couple weeks as they were ripening, cooked them down into juice, and froze the juice to use later.  There are some benefits to this: it delays the need to make something out of the berries immediately, it lets you build up your supply of juice so you can process it all at once, and it allowed me to plan what I wanted to make with the juice.  This year, I'm using the berries for jelly, cough syrup, to drizzle on my young daughter's morning oatmeal when she is sick, and to make lozenges.

When making jelly, I prefer to mix the elderberries with another fruit.  Last weekend I made elderberry and blackberry jelly that was sweetened with honey.  I have also made elderberry and blueberry jam, which was delicious!  Pomona's Universal Pectin is my favorite because it's easy to make either small or large batches, create your own recipes, and use either sugar or honey as a sweetener.

If you shop around for some natural cough and cold syrups, you're bound to find one with elderberries.  Elderberries are a tried and true winter remedy that have historically been used by people in several different countries.  In addition to making me feel better, the syrup is sweet and delicious, but it can be expensive in stores.  Luckily, it's easy to make at home with ingredients you may already have on hand: elderberry, water, and honey. Rosemary Gladstar has a great elderberry syrup recipe in her book Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health.  Sometimes I use Rosemary's recipe as a base to add other herbs too.  Get creative and develop your own recipe based on your symptoms.

My 11 month old daughter has had a cough and runny nose for a few days.  Since she's too young to eat honey, I couldn't give her my elderberry syrup yet so instead I drizzled some warm elderberry juice on her morning oats.  She loved it!

One other way to use elderberries is to make lozenges.  I haven't done this yet, but I saved some frozen juice to give it a try.  Although I absolutely love my elderberry syrup, I am excited to make a lozenge that is easy to use on-the-go.  I will keep you posted on that!

The fruit has many more uses, which I have yet to explore: pies, elderberry lemonade, wine, cordial, chutney, and more.  Get creative and see what exciting uses you can come up with! Note: It is important to mention that elderberries must be cooked before eating.

Are you also excited about elderberries now too?  The list of uses goes on when you start looking at the rest of the plant.  The flowers are edible and contain medicinal properties as well.  Try using the flowers in fritters or medicinally as tea and infused in vinegar.  Looking for a natural dye or insect repellent?  Elderberry can help you with that as well.


What are your favorite ways to use elderberries?  What recipes do you like best?  How have you used elderberries in your landscape?

***This blog post is not meant to give any healthcare advice. As with all new foods and home remedies, try a small amount to start with, do your research, and check with your doctor before using.***