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Elder toxicity.

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They say that the various species of Sambucus are toxic. They aren't, very.

You'll find the mildly toxic cyanoglycoside sambunigrin in the leaves and unripe fruits of Sambucus species.
The red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is the most toxic of the three species, but its toxicity is confined to a tummy ache.
The annual dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus) is considered completely nontoxic.
The seeds of all Sambucus species contain a resin which is nauseant and diuretic; this resin is destroyed by cooking.
(That's from Buff + v.d.Dunck: Giftpflanzen in Natur und Garten, 1988.)

"It's deadly, it contains cyanide!" say those who don't have a clue. Yeah, right ...
... cyanide is the stuff of detective stories. Cyanoglycosides are found in most if not all rose family plants, and they're the taste behind bitter almonds and amaretto. There's not all that much in elder: the irritation of elder is more due to the resin than the sambunigrin.

The berries of black elder (Sambucus nigra) are made into all sorts of things, as are of course its flowers. It's not wild here, else I'm sure I'd be wild about it. (Blue elder (Sambucus caerulea) and American elder (Sambucus canadensis) are no more; they're subspecies of black elder now.)

I made jam of red elderberries years ago. "Tasty", said those who tried it, and, "Do you have more?". My throat was raw from breathing the fumes while stirring the jam, and the taste (to me) was more of that same raw feeling, so I said, no, I don't have more, nor will I make more, at least for the next few years.

The fruit balls of red elderberry are so tight that they're all moldy inside if you're late in your picking. I've been contemplating making a new batch for the last couple of years, but alas, the berry balls have been over the hill by the time I've remembered to look at the red elderberry bushes.

Making red elderberry jam: Boil the berries with a little water and a bit of sugar, crank through the thingy (1), and bring the now uniform mess to a boil. Seeds will float to the top; pick them off as they do so as they contain most of the whatnots which make raw red elderberry bad for you. Any foam should also be picked off.

(1) I've one of those three-legged hand-cranked apple jam thingies which come with various-size sieves. (I'd love to get the real name for it. Thingy sounds so unprofessional.)

I've seen red elderberry in Oregon as well; their fruit balls were far airier, and I wouldn't expect mold there.

Flowers, leaf and bark of black elder are medicinal; check King's and the rest of them.

Related entry: Elderflower syrup


ooh, fascinating!

I love when I get more of the story than just toxic... we've got red elderberry here, but I've been teaching to avoid it on account of "unspecified toxicity" (how many plants unjustly end up in that catagory, I wonder?) Now I'm intrigued about red elderflower... I suppose if you knew about that, you'd not have left it out of the post?

Your three legged "Thingy" sounds like a Foley Food Mill - an indespensable piece equipment when you need to process berries and other types of fruit...:)


Jim: I haven't seen any data on the flowers of red elderberry, sorry.

Lee: Food mill, that's the word. Mine is white plastic. Thanks!

The masher 'thingie' goes by many names, in New Zealand it's called a food mill or mouli ; it's also dubbed a passatutto, purée sieve, moulinette, mouli légumes, or passe-vite depending on where you are in the world.

From what I have read about Red Elder, it's only the seeds or uncooked berries that can cause nausea. I haven't seen any mention of the flowers.

Ah, but Jim is asking if the flowers of red elder can be used like the flowers of black elder. I haven't seen any data on that, and therefore haven't used them.

The birds pick off the red sambuca berries as soon as they have a nice red to them. I would have to stand watch 24/7 to beat them to it. Also have a sambuca niger, somehow the birds wait until the last minute of ripeness to get them. So I made a compromise. I leave the red elderberries to the birds and harvest the black.
Both thrive on the same property in northern Michigan.

We don't have black elderberries, but the birds usually leave lots of the red ones on the bushes.

I made juice from black elderberries by steaming them, and then put the steamed elderberries through a fruit strainer/food mill to extract the rest of the juice. Here's my question: I left a little bit of the umbrels (the umbrella shaped stems) attached to the berries instead of pulling the berries all off. Thought the leaves, bark and roots were the toxic part you needed to avoid, but now wonder if the juice is okay, given that I steamed the stems as well. What do you think? Thanks!

I haven't ever used black elderberry berries, seeing that they don't make berries up here. Ask locally.

I love elderberries for their anciently recognized anti-viral and immune boosting properties, but I am puzzled by Henriette's statement above, since I have seen several references indicating that it is the dwarf elder (ebulus) that is the most toxic and of all the elders the one that should be avoided. (Supposedly the dwarf elder has a much higher cyanide content than other elders). Are all these other references totally off base?

To quote from the blog post, which you evidently just skimmed, not read:
"cyanide is the stuff of detective stories. Cyanoglycosides are found in most if not all rose family plants, and they're the taste behind bitter almonds and amaretto. There's not all that much in elder: the irritation of elder is more due to the resin than the sambunigrin."

and yep, your references are completely off. The work I quote, "Buff + van der Dunck", was a pair of researchers who went through ALL the hospital files on poisonings, and checked what caused the hospital stay. They found no problem with the S. ebulus at all. As S. ebulus is wild in Germany, that means that it's not toxic.

The University of Maryland Complementary herb medicine index (usually quite good), says that dwarf elder contains the most cyanide-like compounds of all elders and should be avoided. And there are instances of children being hospitalized as a result of chewing on elder stems in the US. On the other hand, the word origin of Sambucus indicates its stems may have been used to make a flute-like musical instrument, which weighs in against one's being poisoned by sucking on it.
I understand all (mild and potential?) toxicity of berries is gone once they are cooked (in the case of red elder) or fully ripened (in the case of tall black elder)-- the latter of which I have eaten raw for years.
The studies I have seen that indicate dwarf elder has toxicity that bears caution analyzed the cyanide-like chemical constituents (or precursors of these) in leaves, stems, flowers and berries. True all rose-family have these compounds, but one wouldn't want to chew on apple seeds--nor on particular apricot seeds. Interestingly, some apricots are grown for their edible seeds while others are toxic.
I would never wish to malign the "mother elder" which has been a sacred plant in some Europeans traditions for centuries--and certainly side effects of modern pharms are way off the chart by comparison, but herbs are strong medicine as well and should be honored for that--as your wonderful site certainly expresses in your careful info here.
All I have seen in terms of relative toxicity of dwarf elder was in the US and I wonder if the wild elder in Germany might have a different concentration of the cyanide-like compounds. I know this is true for cherry laurel and the cyanide-like compounds in its berries. There are edible and toxic variations within the same species that hardly seem to be differentiated otherwise-- except that birds love one group of plants whose berries have a sweet taste on being fully ripe and they won't go near the berries of the others which are quite bitter with their cyanide-like compunds.
So the lesson is-- know your plants?
Madronna Holden

Yep, sounds like your annual elders are different from the German ones.

children being hospitalized - this is another thing that could just sound bad - I know that if my child was sucking on an unknown plant stem (and to most people, oddly, even elder is an unknown) and then complained of any symptom, the natural thing for most parents to do would be to take the kid to the hospital/call poison control - and if their info is that it's poisonous(in which case the parents would have to know the plant) or that it's an unknown plant, off to the ER you go. Or maybe the child gnaws on it a bunch and has a stomach ache (or vomits) - most parents, if they don't know the plant, are going to rush to the hospital. And the doctors would likely admit the child, especially since no one knows quite what they're dealing with. Or worse, because the stems are hollow, maybe the plant is, to the doctors, potentially something much much worse.
Hospitalizing children for chewing on a plant begins to mean little.

when my son was in the hospital we shared a room with a baby boy who might have had some rare horrible infected bone disease - they did a bone biopsy, and he didn't have it. The doctors said maybe it was just a sore toe...

The deliberate ignorance of the "experts" drives me nuts. Elder may have gotten a bad rap from serial killers spiking the wine with wood alcohol or rat poison and then blaming the plant. The same thing happened with absinthe.

Chinese often add synthetic drugs to their herbals and supplements. One apparently deliberately poisoned batch of triptophan (a harmless protein), and the stuff wasn't just recalled, it was banned. It's real danger? Putting the sleeping pill makers out of business as it's the protein that makes you sleepy to digest it.

As far as your hay fever symptoms go -- I respectfully suggest they were caused by something else, probably pollen when you stepped outside to pick the berries. Small quantities of cyanide gas would have caused dizziness and vomiting, and the reddest red face and skin you can imagine.

i am wanting to make elderflower tea, where the flowers are infused but not cooked. in my area of oregon, i am mostly finding red elderflower and am wondering if it is okay to use for tea. are all of the sambucus flowers safe, or only the blue?

I'll be trying red elder flowers myself, this year. The green parts are slightly toxic (not a lot, like I say up there ^), but the flowers should have the same effect as the various black (= blue) elders. Somebody said. To a herbalist I know. So I'll give it a shot this year ... because we don't have the black (or blue) elders at all, up here.

hi, I may be responding too late to be of any help here, but I just came upon this conversation and wanted to say that I've been experimenting for a few years with the red elder's flowers for infusions and tinctures.
The medicines have come out well and been effective. I wouldn't hesitate to use them. Here in New Jersey the red elders tend to be about at least one month ahead of the Sambucus nigra or black elderberry. There is a slightly different smell and taste to the flowers, but it's pretty subtle. I'm not even sure how to describe it. Elder flowers aren't particularly sweet, but there is a bit more sweetness to the black elder flowers than the reds. happy harvesting! green blessings, Robin Rose

Thanks for that, Robin! I've given red elder flowers a sniff, this year, and they _stink_. Nonetheless, I'll pick and dry some and see how they work ... this week, cos the show will soon be all over for red elder for this year.

they stink? that's too bad...I wonder if it has been very wet there and they could have gone a bit sour?... I do PREFER the black elder's smell and taste, and energy, but I also know it better. still, I have seen the red elder's flower infusions, steams, and tinctures be effective for sinus-y stuff2...hope you had a good black elder flowers are just tiny buds right now, very exciting to wait for them!

I appreciate the clarification on the compounds in the elder seeds. Many thanks.

As for the flowers of red elder (S. racemosa) I've used this species exclusively in Alaska for over two decades as teas, tinctures, elder cordials, elder tempura, etc. (as well as having students use them extensively in classes) and no one has ever reported problems. Like you I find the red berries rather stinky to cook with, but red elder jelly is sold (very successfully) by Homer Wild Berry. And a friend made a delicious red elder concentrate for drinks for the family.