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elderberry tea

Amazing Elderberry

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Elderberry tea and dried elderberry in mortar and pestle.
Photo/Julie Brannon)

It happens every fall when the kids head back to class; viruses start spreading faster than an algae bloom on still water.  And don’t think you’ll be spared if your kids are the 4-legged furry kind.  Viruses are aggressively equal opportunity and you can bet that at some point you will be exposed. It’s inevitable.

My favorite go-to is elderberry, an extremely potent anti-viral weapon in the arsenal to battle fall and winter ailments. Sambucus nigra is a diminutive and unimpressive looking tree –abundant here in west central Florida– that has been revered throughout history for its remarkable ability to heal human ailments. Recipes for elder-based remedies are found in the Ebers Papyrus, written by ancient Egyptian physicians almost 7,000 years ago. The Greek physician Hippocrates, considered the Father of Medicine, described elder as his “medicine chest” for the wide variety of ailments it treated.  That was in 400 BC, and science has since confirmed what Hippocrates and other ancients knew about this itty bitty purple berry.

Try this on for size:  An Israeli study revealed that elderberry cured 90% of flu infection within 72 hours, and was effective against eight strains of influenza, both type A and B, including the bird flu. That’s nothing to sneeze at!  Elderberry’s mode of action is to “deactivate” viruses, preventing them from replicating and invading healthy cells. Even more recent research shows elderberry powerfully activates the immune system to strengthen our natural defenses, reduces inflammation, and is effective against not just 8 but 10 strains of influenza.

But here’s the catch: you absolutely positively must start elderberry at the very first sign of a virus. I can’t emphasize this enough. You cannot wait until the virus has spread throughout your system before deciding to do something about it. Hit it early –and hard, starting at the first symptom. Whether it’s a sniffle, a scratchy throat, headache, muscle aches, or simply a feeling of being “off”… jump aboard the elderberry train. You’ll be glad you did. And even if it’s not a virus making you feel puny, elderberry certainly can’t hurt, and will likely make you feel better.

I should also mention that elderberry benefits go way beyond colds and flu. It’s a powerful antioxidant, and a good choice to treat congestion, sore throat, bronchitis, constipation, and even asthma. Elderberry also cleanses the system and builds the blood.  What’s not to love?

I routinely wild harvest elderberries around Safety Harbor, and no, I won’t tell you where. I was born at night, but not last night!  I will say that elder trees love water, and are found along the banks of rivers and canals, even along the shores of Tampa Bay.  They’re easiest to spot in the spring when covered with upright bunches of little white flowers, or mid to late summer when those clusters droop with dark berries. But a word of caution:  always wear gloves when harvesting or handling fresh elder. The leaves, branches, stems, and unripe berries contain cyanide. The berries must be nearly black, dried, and boiled to be safe.

You can find elderberry bottled and sold under the name Sambucol, which is an excellent product used in many studies, but it’s an expensive one. Being an old fashioned gal I make my own elderberry extract.… and if you can boil water, you can too. It’s not a sweet berry, so you might add honey, agave, or stevia.  For picky kids think –Popsicles!  It’s a super sneaky but effective way to administer elderberry, and having a batch in the freezer means you can get treatment going fast when you need to.

Elderberries are just this side of miraculous as far as I’m concerned.  But let’s not forget all the other important ways to keep viruses at bay through cold and flu season: hand washing, reducing sugar intake, a fresh whole foods diet, and a daily probiotic will go a long way in keeping you healthy and on your feet this winter. 

If you have serious or chronic health conditions, or are pregnant or nursing, it would be wise to check with your doctor before taking elderberry or any natural remedy.  And as ever, this information is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease, nor it intended as medical advice or a substitute for the expert care of a qualified physician. 


Int Med Res. 2004 Mar-Apr;32(2):132-40.: Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.

Eur Cytokine Netw. 2001 Apr-Jun;12(2):290-6.: The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines.

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