Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous?

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F.A.Q. – Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous?

Have you ever Wondered: Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous? Many people have heard that elderberry bushes are poisonous and yet have also heard that elderberry is good for you too.  The truth is that some parts of the elderberry bush are poisonous and should not be consumed, but other parts, when harvested and prepared correctly, are completely safe to eat.  To make the topic a little more complicated there are several species of elderberry and some are quite different than others.  Knowledge is power, so if you are entertaining growing or harvesting elderberry for your own use, read on!  Elderberry is an incredibly useful plant and deserves a spot in your home garden.  There are many different species of elderberry and the following information will help you choose the one that is right for you.  This article will also help you respond when your friends ask: Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous.

Varieties of Elderberry

Black Elderberry

(Sambucus nigra spp canadensis) is the species best known for its culinary and medicinal uses.  The Black Elderberry in its various forms grows throughout the world and is known by those who cherish it by many different names.  Common names for the Black Elderberry include Elder, Common Elder, American Elder,  European Elder, Sureau,  Holunderbeeren, Sambucus, Sambuci, Sauco, Holunder, Ellhorn and Boor Tree, to name a few.

Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous? Such as the European Black Elderberry
European Black Elderberry

The European Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) is a deciduous shrub that grows between twenty and thirty feet tall and can be pruned and trained into a tree form.   It prefers a cool climate and is common in hedgerows in Ireland and England, and is cultivated for commercial use throughout Europe.   The American Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis), also a deciduous shrub, rarely exceeds 13 feet in height and is more shrub-like.

American Elderberry
American Elderberry

The American elderberry is hardy throughout the US and Canada in zones 3 to 8.  Commonly found growing wild in low-lying areas, along streams and lakes, in fence rows, in ditches and along road sides, too, the American elderberry produces new suckers each year and will form dense hedges.

Both varieties produce the deep purple/black berries (hence the name), used in wines, extracts, syrups and in pies, jams and other foods. A common misperception is that the European Elder is the edible variety of Black Elderberry and that the American Elder is not edible, or does not contain the same constituents for which the European Black Elderberry is known.  In fact, they are now considered to be different varieties of the same genus-species, and current research on the American Black Elderberry indicates that it may actually contain more of the anthocyanin’s and polyphenols thought to give elderberry its health benefits. The seeds, stems, leaves and roots of the Black Elder are all poisonous to humans.  They contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside.  Eating a sufficient quantity of these cyanide-inducing glycosides can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body and make you quite ill.  Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even coma.  Most people recover quickly, although hospitalization may be required. The fruit of the elderberry is a tiny berry, about 1/8 to ¼ inch in diameter, and about 50% of the berry is seed.  Cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds, making the berries with their seeds safe to eat.  As such, the fruit of the Black Elderberry should always be cooked before consumption.  Interestingly, research indicates that exposing elderberry to heat actually concentrates the polyphenols and anthocyanin’s.

Red Elderberry
Red Elderberry

Red Elderberry

(Sambucus racemona var. racemona) earns its name from the bright red berries it produces. This variety of elderberry is restricted to cool, moist sites along the coastal mountain range extending from California north to Washington, and from Newfoundland to Alaska.  It can also be found in the Appalachian highlands of Georgia and Tennessee.  Red Elderberry does not do well in warm climates.  Growing 9 to 12 feet tall, some references say that the fruit from red elderberries are edible; other references say that they are not.  According to the Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 30, Issue 6, June 2003 issue, excavations of a late Holocene village uncovered tens of thousands of red elderberry seeds, leading researchers to believe that red elderberry was a diet staple of the native peoples living there.  Most people believe that the seeds of the red elderberry must be removed before the berry is safe to eat, and that the berries should be cooked as well.  The rest of the plant is considered toxic and should not be eaten.

Blue Elderberry
Blue Elderberry

Blue Elderberry

(Sambucus mexicana or Sambucus nigra var. caerulea), is commonly called Mexican elderberry.  Blue Elderberry will grow in USDA Zones 6-10 and is native to California.  It prefers canyon habitat in sunny, well-drained locations at elevations of up to 9000 feet.  Historically, Blue Elderberry was highly prized by both the Spaniards and Cahuillas as an important food staple and resource.  Native peoples would head to the hills in July and August when the fruit of the blue elderberry was ripening.  The berries were harvested, carefully dried and preserved in considerable amounts.  A favorite use of the dried blue elderberries was to cook them down into a rich sauce called “Sauco”.  Only fully ripe berries should be consumed, and again, cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds which can cause nausea and other gastro-intestinal upset.   While the other parts of this plant have been used for everything from making baskets to flutes, all are toxic and should not be eaten.

Black Beauty Elderberry
Black Beauty Elderberry

Ornamental Elderberry

There are many cultivars of elderberry grown for the beauty they lend to the landscape.   The lacy cut-leaved form named “Laciniata” and “Dart’s Greenlace” look similar to the finely cut Lace Leafed Japanese Maple.  The purple leafed varieties named “Purpurea”, “Guincho Purple” and “Black Beauty” bare beautiful pink flowers and are quite striking.  All in all there are over 40 elderberry cultivars grown specifically for their ornamental qualities.  These beauties produce berries that are edible when cooked, and again, the rest of the plant is toxic and should not be eaten.

Summary in Answer to the Question: Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous

Elderberry has a very long history of culinary and medicinal uses and once you know which parts of the plant to use, and how to prepare the berries for consumption, the rest is pretty easy.  Elderberry is a useful plant in any home garden and doing your research to determine which variety will grow best in your neck of the woods is worth the effort.  Elderberry is a great choice for low-lying areas, in the back of a garden, or for use as a hedge.  Prepare the soil well before planting as elderberry enjoys well composted material and good drainage.  Plan on watering your new elderberry plant once a week or so for the first summer of its life.  Pinch off flower heads during its first year of life, too, to encourage root growth.  After that, stand back!  And remember that if your elderberry bush becomes too big for your space, you can easily control its size through pruning and then keeping the area around it mowed.

This article “Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous” is courtesy of Norm’s Farms for Elderberry Lovers everywhere.

52 thoughts on “Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous?

  1. Elderberries have to be cooked before consumption because the seeds contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside that can only be neutralized or deactivated through high temperature. So please don’t eat them raw or dried. Thanks for your great question!

  2. Where did you get the studies indicating heat decreases the poison in elderberries and increases the polyphenols? I have read in other places that heat destroys the polyphenols. I hope your information is correct as we use a steamer juicer for our juice. It would be good to know that we aren’t damaging the quality of the juice. Thanks for the information.

    1. Elderberry bushes can tolerate some shade. A good rule of thumb is to place them where they will receive at least 6 hours of direct sun a day. They will certainly grow in shadier spots but their fruit production will diminished. Think of it this way: the more sun you can give them the greater harvest you can hope for.
      Thanks for the great question!

  3. So, can I just check please. We have a black leafed elder in our garden in the uk. I have no idea which species. It has a black lacy leaf. Is it safe to use the flowers and berries for cordials, wine and gin, as long as it has been prepared correctly. I love the flavour of elderflower and don’t want to just assume it will be a safe variety. Your feedback would be appreciated.

  4. I dehydrated some berries at 135 degrees for ten hours…does this neutrilize cyanide or are higher tempos required…is there a specific temputure that must re attained?

    1. Dehydrated berries still need to be cooked in order to neutralize the compounds that will cause gastrointestinal distress. I have read several articles where people report vomiting and diarrhea after consuming a handful of dried elderberries without cooking them.

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Yes, if you are straining off the berries and not consuming them, this is a safe thing to do. It is the elderberry seeds that contain the glycosides that can make you ill, so if you are not eating the seeds and just soaking the berries in your tea to add flavor, this is fine.

      Thanks for the great question!

      1. OMG, you guys are missing the GLARING CONTRADICTION. The gastrointestinal chemical that causes the problem, is apparently in the seeds. Therefore, if you dry the fruits out, crush them up so that everything but the seeds pass through the screen, you “should” have, safe, edible, dry elderberry powder for use in .. just about anything. I will try and verify this through direct experimentation or try and find more data before proving this theory.

        1. Apparently raw elderberry juice is very astringent. Here is the definition of astringent: “causing contraction of soft organic tissues”, or said differently, cause your mouth to “pucker”. That said we’d love to know how your experiment works out!

        2. Careful of how you do this. If you dry the berries first, “crushing” them will probably also crush the seeds. This might make matters worse, not better. The article you reference cites how to plant the seeds. It does include a method of getting the seeds out of the dried berries — but by rehydrating them first. My advice would be to not dry the berries first just to rehydrate them. If you want to pick out the seeds, that would be up to you, but they’re small and this would be time consuming. Heating the berries is far easier and solves the problem without the extra effort.

  5. Is it safe to heat elderberries with some small stems and then run through a foodmill to remove both seeds and stem bits, or is heating the stem itself poisonous?

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Thanks for your question. As you know the elderberry stems are very small and fibrous, and it can be difficult to remove all of them. A few stems won’t hurt you, just do your best to get rid of most of them. There are two good reasons for going to the trouble:
      1) Elderberry stems are very bitter and will make your elderberry juice bitter and foul tasting
      2) Elderberry stems are not edible in any kind of quantity…again, if a few go into the pot with a bunch of berries it won’t matter for taste or health.

      As far as heating goes, you need to bring the mixture to a boil/simmer and cook for 10 to 15 minutes in order to safely neutralize the glucosides that can make you ill. Once that is done, yes, you can process your final product using a food mill.

      Thanks again!

  6. I always eat a few ripe berries (maybe 4 or 5) while foraging. My elderberry wine was fantastic, and I will make more again this year. I’m fairly sure that I heated it, but not sure that I boiled it, and not for a certain amount of time.

    Does the production of alcohol also remove any toxins from the berry too? As I was considering using natural yeast from the ripen fruit, but heating, will mean that I have to add artificial yeast.

  7. How is the (cyanide inducing glycoside) neutralized in the process of those who make home made elderberry wine? Berries are usually crushed, fermented & sugared. The seeds are very tiny & does crushing them cause the glycoside to escape?

    1. Elderberry Seeds are similar in size and a whole lot harder than sesame seeds. Full disclosure here: I am not a wine maker, so every bit of advice I have comes from the wine making recipes I’ve read. Recipes using whole elderberry fruit include instructions to crush the fruit with your hands, feet, a potato masher, or other similar tool, just enough to break the skin of the berry and allow the juice to emerge. In my experience tools with strong cutting action, like a juicer, will cut or break open elderberry seeds, but presses, food mills, etc…spit out the seeds intact.
      I have read that fermentation will also neutralize any glycosides that may be present from the rare crushed seed.
      Here are a couple fun wine making recipes for your reference: http://honest-food.net/2012/08/19/elderberry-wine-recipe/
      https://winemakermag.com/841-elderberry-wine

  8. I have read articles on many sites on the web and everyone says y0u must cook elderberries to eliminate the toxicity> However, no where is it clear how long to cook (boil? with water? bake? microwave?) or to what temperature? Can you provide this information? Thanks.

    1. We have had excellent luck simmering either fresh, frozen or dried elderberries in an equal part water for about 15 minutes, and no more than 20 minutes. I have looked for a reference on temperature required to destroy the glycosides and have not found one.

  9. We have these wild dark berries next to our house with juice that looks like blackberries when pinched… save to make as jam? That’s my question…

    1. Hi Constance,
      The cooked berries and dried flowers of all varieties of Sambucus Canadensis are edible. Sambucus Canadensis is now referred to as Sambucus Nigra ssp Canadensis, which means that in terms of plant taxonomy, it is now recognized that the Canadensis is really a sub-species of Nigra, the European variety.
      Thanks for the great question!

    1. Hi Jim,
      The American elderberry is very forgiving of all pruning. The plant will send up new canes each year, significantly widening its footprint each time. You can control the width of your elderberry bush simply by mowing down the young canes that you don’t want in the spring. Elderberry canes that are three years old or older tend to produce smaller and fewer bunches of berries, so its a good idea to prune out the oldest fattest canes once a year as well, again in the late fall or winter when the plant is dormant.

  10. I have just made a wine must yesterday from wild elderberries that I had frozen. I cooked them for just 5 minutes but some may still have had short bits of stems on. Now I think I should have cooked for longer, can I recook(yeast neurient, lemon juice and pectolese added already)or do I have to bin the lot. No more berries this year though.

    1. Hi Maian,
      I have no experience with wine making so can not give you any good advice. So sorry, wish I could be more helpful,
      Ann

  11. For the past decade I have crushed my black ebs in a jelly fruit strainer, I pound the berries with the wooden stomper. To preserve the fragile, unstable, heat sensitive vit c I have never heated the concentrate. I mix it with raw honey to preserve it freezing the bulk of it. Never have had any adverse symptoms(Iam a reg nurse for 39 yrs)also have fed it to many others in my family. Just read that the seeds r the problem, cooking increases the good stuff. Ive been feeding the left over mash to my chickens and eating their eggs. Probably should stop that??

    1. Giving the left over mash to your chickens is a great idea! A poultry scientist in Great Britain who loves to race pigeons created a product named Herbovet Sambucus from elderberry specifically because it kept his birds healthy and strong. Birds are able to eat the seeds without getting sick; in fact the elderberry plant is counting on birds to help it spread and far and wide, as the seeds get scarified when they pass through the bird’s digestive track. This scarification increases the odds of baby elderberries germinating from those seeds.

  12. I’ve eaten some elderberries a few week an I feel ill sick an vomiting an a funny tAste of the berries in mouth will I be OK or seek medical advice

    1. Hi James,
      If you eat enough raw elderberries they will cause vomiting and diarrhea and you won’t feel well. They do no permanent damage though and once you get the raw elderberries out of your system you should feel remarkably better. I’m not a doctor and can’t give medical advice; that said, if you have stopped eating raw elderberries and are still not feeling well, then yes, you should seek medical advice.

    1. I haven’t seen any recipes calling for cooking elderberry in dry heat or in a microwave and I’ve never tried either, so have no direct experience to draw from. All the recipes I have found call for a “wet cook”…either in water or vinegar. You can also make a tincture by soaking the raw elderberries in gin or vodka for a month or so. The elderberry is extracted by the alcohol, and the extracted berries are discarded, not eaten.

  13. Sambucus nigra purpurea is the only variety I could get in California. Sounds like the berries are edible. Any downsides to this variety?

    1. No downsides at all! It is a beautiful landscape specimen and the flowers and berries are edible provided that you cook them first.

  14. Ripe, dried elderberry fruit appears to be best eaten as is and not cooked, in small quantity. You can crunch a few in your mouth, crush them before hand into powder and mix them with whatever, or else. Some recipes mix them with a bit of pure alcohol (don’t know the kind) to make a liquid, a teaspoon of which can be taken daily or so for the some period of time. Can do your research. You can also boil them or add them to tea, for a lesser effect after those high temperatures modified its substances. This tree has been used traditionally in Romania for centuries for its flowers (they make juice out if them) and its tiny black fruits in various forms. The fruits are praised for all kinds of qualities, at least some of which seem to have a scientific basis. Of course, like with anything (even natural) so concentrated, too much of it would cause problems. I’m planning to add a few fruits to my teas, or just crunch in the mouth, we’ll see. I wonder if doing it everyday is too much, not as toxicity, but as far as getting the organism too used to the goody, perhaps.

  15. The best thing to do is smash them in a bucket or flat-bottomed cauldron. Use a potato masher or mashing hammer. Then strain the seeds out and keep the juice. The seeds are the really poisonous part – and you want to compost the seeds.

    You could drink the juice at this point.

    Mix the strained juice with brandy and let it sit for 2-3 weeks.

    If you want, add some cinamon, vanilla, nutmeg and cloves. Or crush some juniper berries, and strain away their seeds. Add the juniper juice to the mix.

  16. I purchased a bag of dried organic black elderberries. I have been making elderberry syrup by cooking in a pressure cooker and the mashing and straining the pulp. What I am wondering is can I take my mixture from the pressure cooker and place it all in my vitamixer and bring that to a thicker syrup and not throw out any pulp? Is it all edible?

    1. Yes, as long as you strain out the seeds. Once cooked, the seeds will no longer upset your stomach, but they continue to taste pretty bad and will yield an unpalatable result. So strain the seeds, then whir up the pulp and juice and enjoy!

  17. Apologies if this is redundant, but I want to be sure : is it safe to use dried elderberries as a tea without cooking them first?

    1. Hi Eileen,
      Thanks for your comment and question! Yes, as long as you steep the dried elderberries in hot water and then remove the berries after they have steeped. You want to avoid eating the seeds that are contained within the dried berries. Boiling/simmering the dried elderberries for about 10 minutes also destroys the compounds within the seeds that make them poisonous.

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