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Elderberry (Sambucus nigra [Latin]), also called elder flower, is a tree that bears cream-colored flowers followed by dark purple berries in autumn. Elderberry trees are native to Europe, but have been naturalized to the Americas, and have a long history of medicinal use, particularly in England, where it is commonly used to make elderberry wine and pies, and was once referred to as “nature’s medicine chest.”

Elderberry has been traditionally used for to relieve pain, inflammation, water retention, and congestion. All parts of the elderberry tree, including the bark, flowers, and leaves, have been used in herbal medicine. Elderberry leaves are added to topical creams and sitz baths to treat inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis, boils, and eczema. Aged elderberry bark has been used to treat water retention and constipation, and to induce vomiting.

However, it is the flowers and berries of this tree that are most often used medicinally. Elderberries contain flavonoids, which are natural chemical substances that give food their taste and color; they also boost the immune system, and supply the body with antioxidant protection. Elderberry may be effective in treating some diseases related to a depressed immune system, and preliminary studies have shown it may be effective against some viruses, including herpes and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Elderberry is one of the most effective herbs for preventing and treating upper respiratory infections. Laboratory studies have shown that elderberry reduces excessive sinus mucus secretion, and some studies also suggest that elderberry can help lessen swelling of mucous membranes, improve sinus drainage, and decreased nasal congestion in those with bacterial sinusitis. The combination herbal product Sinupret, which contains elder flowers, has been used successfully to treat bronchitis. There are also commercial syrups and lozenges with elderberry extract available for treatment of cold or flu symptoms.

Elderberry has been shown to be very effective against at least eight strains of flu virus. It contains Sambucus nigra agglutinins (SNAs), which help prevent some types of flu from infecting healthy cells. A clinical trial of elderberry found that it cured 90 percent of flu infections in three days, which was half the time needed for recovery in participants taking a placebo. In Israel, where the study was conducted, elderberry is sold in the form of Sambucol, a patented herbal medicine recommended for treatment of flu symptoms.

Elderberry is also sold in the form of tablets, capsules, tinctures, extracts, and in combination products such as Sinupret. You can also buy dried elder flowers or berries and use them to make medicinal teas—2 teaspoons of dried European elder flowers steeped for 15 minutes in 1 cup of hot water. Fresh elderflowers can also be used to make a topical cream for relief of arthritis—simmer several handfuls of fresh elder flowers in melted petroleum jelly for 40 minutes, and allow this mixture to cool and solidify before applying it to the hands at bedtime.

If you are going to consume elderberry, your best bet is probably to go with a commercially prepared product. Large doses of elderberry juice contain a chemical called sambunigrin, which can induce can cause uncontrollable diarrhea, and uncooked berries can cause nausea and vomiting, even if they are ripe. Elderberry bark, leaves, seeds, and raw or unripe fruit contains cyanide, and is potentially toxic.

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