Elderberries are the beautiful fruit from bushes that tend to grow along streams and in low-lying fields across almost half of the eastern United States. They are also called the American Elder and are especially loved by songbirds during harvest. Since many of the European settlers had been using elderberries before they came to America, they continued here during the colonial times and up until the 1900s. During this time, just about every home picked the berries as a source for juice for jams, jellies and wine in stark contrast to today where the common elderberry is unknown and almost feared. The concern is over whether or not the little berries are toxic or a health tonic.
Looking at the chemical analysis of the raw berries, they contain enough cyanide to cause stomach pain and other symptoms. However, when these same berries are boiled for a few minutes, the cyanide is released in the steam and the remaining juice is ready for consumption without worries. This statement is only true for the dark blue to black berries. The red elderberries are toxic to humans.
There are many reports of elderberries being used in recipes or tonics starting back in the year 43 AD when the Romans invaded Britain and brought with them their recipes, including one for Patina of elderberries. Early American literature is full of references to the elderberry, both as a silent poison to be used as a weapon and as a wonderful port wine with lots of health benefits. Sailors claimed it cured their arthritis. Reports were made of extra longevity from a shot of elderberry tonic taken every day. Colds were cured and fevers were broken from a spoonful of sweetened elderberry tonic.
The United States is catching up with European nations when it come to using elderberries. Austria is the world's leader in growing elderberries for use in juices and jams, yogurts and wines. Apparently the anthocyanins, or the purple pigment, help the immune system even more effectively than vitamins C and E and are of interest in patients with cardiovascular disease. Further studies are being done in the field of elderberries being used as an antiviral agent.
There are a few different types of elderberries. The European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a tall shrub reaching almost 20 feet in height, and the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a smaller bush, usually only 8 to 10 feet tall. Both of these have the dark black berries and several sub-species. Another variety of elderberry bush grows in the United States but has red berries, sambucus racemosa, which are quite toxic and should not be used in any preparation. Another variety found west of the Rockies is the sambucus mexicana tapiro type which bears the blue-black edible berries.
If you are interested in picking your own elderberries, you need to know what they look like. In the spring, the bush can be identified by wide umbrels of creamy white little blossoms spreading over the surface of the bush. As the berries ripen during the summer, the branch bends down and the blue-black berries will often hang upside down showing their reddish stems. Pay close attention to the leaves as they are oppositely arranged and not alternately like the water hemlock which is quite poisonous.