• Are Elderberry Bushes Poisonous?

June 10, 2015 0 Comments

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.

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.

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.

European Black Elderberry
Black Beauty Elderberry



Red Elderberry

Blue Elderberry

American 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

(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.

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.



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