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One of the best loved shrubs in the English hedgerow is elder, with its heads of creamy white flowers in the summer and of purple-black berries in the winter. The name Elder comes from an Old English word ‘ellaern’, though some claim it to be from ‘aeld’ (fire), from the practice of blowing through the hollow stems to start a fire. Its scientific name is Sambucus nigra. It may be that the generic name ‘Sambucus’ comes from the Greek word ‘sambuca’, which is an old wind instrument. A peasant pipe called the sampogna is still played in Italy to this day.

For centuries elderberries and elderflowers have been used to relieve colds and flu. In 1992 Israeli scientists found that it is even better than its reputation. In a double-blind test, 50 patients with flu were tested with either elderberry extract or a placebo. Within 24 hours, 20% of the elderberry showed dramatic improvements in fever, muscle pain, and respiratory symptoms. After the second day, 75% showed a marked change for the better and by the third day, 90% felt much better. Of the placebo group, only 8% improved in the first 24 hours, 16% in 48 hours, and the rest required 6 days to feel better. This strongly suggests that elderberry can reduce the severity of your symptoms and shorten the length of time of the infection. The way elderberry is thought to work is by strengthening the human cell membrane and disabling the enzyme the virus makes to eat through the cell and spread through out the body.

In 2011, further laboratory research from Germany’s institute of medical microbiology showed that elderberry extracts not only inhibit the growth and spread of influenza viruses but are also active against streptococcal bacteria that commonly cause infections in the human respiratory system. It is perhaps no surprise then that it is widely used in complementary and alternative medicine.


Krawitz C, M. M. (2011 Feb 25). Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevan t human respiratory bacterialpathogens and influenza A and B viruses t. BMC Complementar Altern Med., :11:16.

This information is for educational purposes only. For any advice on medicinal use of herbs consult a registered Medical Herbalist.

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