With their gorgeous black-violet hue and small size, elderberries look like delicate jewels promising a sweet surprise. Their naturally tart taste makes elderberries an ideal blender for desserts featuring sweeter fruits, as well as creating a flavorful berry base for teas, wines, syrups, and jams. Elderberries also have a long and storied reputation in traditional medicine, especially in the realm of immune support. Is it any wonder they’re growing in popularity?
To say elderberry is trending as an ingredient is an understatement. When Covid-19 cast immune health into the spotlight, consumer interest in natural, plant-based ways to strengthen immunity significantly increased. Suddenly, the humble elderberry became a hot topic – and not just in holistic medicine.
For centuries, the tiny berry has been well known by traditional healers and practitioners of folk medicine. Able to thrive in the wild, the elderberry was as plentiful to our ancestors as it was versatile. Believed to reduce inflammation, people took elderberry tinctures when they had a painful toothache or swollen joint. Elderberry has also been long associated with supporting a healthy immune response, so common colds and flu were treated with it, too. While scientific research into elderberry’s immune support advantages is limited, anecdotal evidence runs deep – and consumers have responded by snapping up elderberry products with the hope that they, too, will benefit from the wisdom of our elders.
What we do know is that elderberries are packed full of rich antioxidants which have antiinflammatory properties, and vitamin C which helps strengthen the immune response. These potential benefits have not been lost on consumers. We use Tastewise, a food and beverage industry focused AI tool that scans social media conversations in real-time, to uncover insights into this rapidly evolving consumer landscape. What we see are consumers that are very versed in elderberry’s medicinal history. During the period of October 2019 to October 2020, Immune System and Healthy were major functional motivations for consumers (36% and 34%, respectively, of conversations that mention elderberry) while Organic was a major nutrition motivation (26% of conversations). Moreover, the year-on-year growth for these motivators was well over 2%, with Organic showing a 5% increase! This means that consumers are talking more and more about the health benefits of elderberries – and are increasingly looking for organic elderberry health solutions, too.
Here’s the really cool thing to keep in mind when it comes to trends: when the wind blows one direction for a functional ingredient, its characteristic flavor wafts in not far behind. In sensory parlance we call this the “halo” effect (if the trend is positive) or “horns” effect (if it’s negative). Elderberry’s strong and popular association with natural health remedies produces a significant halo effect for elderberry flavor. Formulators looking to create an immune support gummy, beverage, tea, immunity shot, or other related product can lean on the efficacy of functional ingredients other than elderberry…but enjoy the positive health associations of the fruit by incorporating it in the formula as a natural flavor. Blue Pacific offers both natural and certified organic elderberry flavors – perfect for applications in the health and wellness space.
You probably won’t see fresh elderberries in your grocer’s produce aisle, but you will find juices, extracts, syrups, and teas elsewhere in the store – already processed and ready to eat! Dried berries are a convenient, shelf stable option and are popular for making homemade elderberry treats. It’s important to note that these beguiling, inky black fruits with the healthy reputation can actually make you sick if not properly prepared. This is because the seeds, roots, leaves, and stems of the Black Elderberry contain a cyanide inducing glycoside callled sambunigrin. Heat destroys the compound, rendering the plant safe to eat. Although the flesh of the fruit is not highly toxic, each berry is roughly 50% seed, so cooking the berries before eating them is definitely recommended.
Flavor-wise, elderberries are quite interesting. From an assortment of floral compounds (𝛽-damascenone, dihydroedulan, cis-rose oxide, linalool, 𝛼-terpineol, and 2-phenyl ethanol) and green notes (hexanal) an impressively dark fruit profile emerges. This mish-mash of rose, lavender, lilac, and meadow blossom aromatics somehow becomes the winey, black plum-meets-blackberry flavor of a mature elderberry. These floral notes play a very big role in the fruit’s personality, giving it a sense of elegance and sophistication. Compared to the fun furanones of a strawberry, or the summerripe sparkle of raspberry ketone, the elderberry comes off as more refined…more sublime. It’s like the backyard berry of your youth, but all grown up.
Read on for innovative flavor pairings that showcase elderberry’s elegance and versatility!
As a flavor, elderberry is a force to be reckoned with! On one hand, its woodsy floral and dark fruit notes backed by high acid and bracing tannins lends it intensity – just what you need when you’re balancing bitter herbs and spices in an energy shot, or standing up to the peppercorn crust of a juicy ribeye steak. But on the other hand, there are those delicate floral notes too, which impart a certain grace and elegance to the little berry with the big flavor. It is this duality of light and dark that enables elderberry to bridge unrelated flavors – think the bright zesty top note of grapefruit and the brown spicy richness of Chinese Five Spice Powder, or the perfumey power of rose and the piney resin of juniper berries. Elderberry fits perfectly in the middle of these medleys, elevating each to a more complex and sophisticated blend.
While appreciated in Europe for many years, the United States has only recently become acquainted with elderberry as a food – and consumer palates may take some time to warm up to its wild flavor. Blending with other berries (blackberry, blueberry) and florals (lavender, rose) can help create a novel fruit profile that still appeals to mainstream tastes.
Of course, elderberry flavor can stand on its own, too. With its wine-like character, elderberry juice is a suitable stand-in for rich fruity reds like Merlot or Syrah. How about a non-alcoholic elderberry tonic? Or perhaps lamb medallions in an elderberry port “wine” sauce? When drizzled with hot elderberry syrup, hearty buckwheat pancakes have finally met their match. And for dessert? Let’s not forget a sweet and creamy elderberry ice cream or refreshingly tart elderberry sorbet.
Elderberry’s Origins and Cultivation
Elderberry, or Elder, is a large flowering deciduous shrub of the genus Sambucus. Although it’s native in Northern America, Europe, and parts of Asia, the plant itself is very hardy and can grow fairly effortlessly in areas with both dry and wet fertile soils, given that it receives an ample amount of sunlight. There are four main varieties of elderberry used for culinary and medicinal purposes, the most common of which is the Black Elderberry or Common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp Canadensis).
Elderberry begins to flower around April and May, producing a large amount of small white delicate flowers. A popular flavorant in its own right, elderflower adds an ethereal meadow blossom note to teas and liqueurs. By autumn, the flowers transform into small, dark round berries that hang off the tree in loose grape-like clusters.
Elderberries were traditionally harvested in the wild and have only more recently come to be cultivated on a large scale. Since the berry clusters tend to ripen unevenly, most elderberry growers harvest their crops by hand. The berries spoil within 2 to 4 hours after harvest, so they’re often harvested in cooler weather and refrigerated, or dried for long-term storage. This is one reason why it’s rare to see fresh elderberries in the store; however, you may be able to find them at local farmer’s markets during the fall.
Nearly every part of the elderberry plant is used today, making everything from pies and teas to tools, musical instruments, dyes, and insect repellents!
A Long, Storied History
Elderberry has a long history, often appearing in legends and lore among the early cultures who embraced the plant for its medicinal, culinary, and practical applications. It’s thought that the shrub was first discovered shortly after the ice from the Ice Age retracted, approximately 12,000 to 9,000 B.C.E. Seeds found in Neolithic pole-dwellings in Switzerland suggest that the shrub could have been cultivated as early as 2000 B.C.E. Based on the lore and historical writings available, it’s clear that many cultures regarded the elderberry to be not only magical but sacred.
During the Greco-Roman era, both Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about the many ways they used the plant medicinally, and it was seen as an essential component of ancient medical kits. Pliny the Elder also wrote about its other uses, including a hair dye made from the berries and bark, and using its twigs to make small, shrill flutes; interestingly, a continent away, some Native American tribes also made flutes that were very similar to the ones he described and sometimes referred to the shrub as the “tree of music.”
In English and Scandinavian folklore, the Hyldemoer or “Elder Mother” (a goddess of life, death, and vegetation) was thought to inhabit the Elderberry. It was said that one should ask the Hyldemoer for permission before taking any parts of the shrub, lest they be cursed. Other traditions warned against burning the wood or cutting the shrub down, which could also bring on a dreaded curse, toothaches, or bouts of bad luck. Parents were warned not to use elder wood to build cradles, otherwise, their child might be stolen by the fae and replaced with a changeling baby. The branches of the shrub were also often hung in buildings for protection or placed on graves to help loved ones make a peaceful transition from life to death.
In the 1800s, the focus shifted from the magical to the medicinal, with many texts focusing on using the berries and flowers as health tonics and to ease a range of symptoms. At the turn of the 20th century, the shrub lost favor among physicians and was somewhat forgotten until more recently. Today, elderberry has made a comeback and is growing increasingly popular as a delicious ingredient and researched for its potential medicinal properties.
Elderberry’s Culinary Uses
Elderberries and elderflowers have a wide range of culinary uses. The flowers (also called “blow”) are often used in champagne, cordials, pickles, wine, jam, teas, and vinegar. They’re also commonly found in shrubs, Colonial-era beverages featuring herb-infused vinegar-based syrups.
When sweetened and made into a preserve, the berries have a pleasant floral, fruity flavor that’s very similar to blackberries. Elderberry syrup is incredibly versatile, giving a delightful tart kick to ice creams, sorbets, baked goods, beverages, and even sauces for meats or wild game. Some common companion ingredients for elderberries include brown sugar, dates, dried figs, maple syrup, blackberries, raspberries, stone fruits, roasted nuts, scallops, vanilla, white wines, tawny ports, and coffee. Although it’s often difficult to find fresh elderberries, syrups, extracts, and juice can work in a pinch to give your cooking or baked goods that delicious tart flavor.
What else can you create with elderberries? Here are a few recipes to help you get inspired!
Elderberry Jelly courtesy of SimplyRecipes.com
Elderberry Pie courtesy of NamelyMarly.com
Elderberry Vodka Spritzer courtesy of GrowForageCookFerment.com
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