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Elderberry: A Magic Wand for Colds?

Photo by: University of Missouri Extension

As cold and flu season starts up again, I’m in awe about how popular elderberry (Sambucus nigra) treatments are in Minnesota. Last year’s StarTribune article mentioned how one small Minneapolis business sold close to 3,000 bottles of the syrupy black liquid. Even in larger retailers you can find elderberry cough drops and water soluble powders that claim to offer protection from illness. Even your humble extension educator was not immune to using herbal treatments such as these. During my childhood, my family typically used Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) instead of elderberry whenever I got sick. Maybe Echinacea was more popular at one time, but it appears the consumer bug has switched from a coneflower to the elderflower.

I spent a big chunk of my life in Iowa, and near the edge of our wooded property was a reconstructed prairie. In the buffer zone between grass and tree was a giant hedge of elderberry. What made the bush even more interesting were the wild hops which entwined their way around the branches. Needless to say, that area always had a unique aroma. Ironically, both hops and elderberries have somewhat of an identity crisis. European immigrants had brought with them many species of plants from the Old World. These included elderberries and hops, which promptly escaped and bred with their respective American counterparts. Thankfully, both native and European peoples used elderberries in similar ways. The small black berries provided an important source of vitamin C when it was cooked into food or drink. Not surprisingly, Native and European Americans also used elderberries for respiratory illnesses and inflammation, what it is most famous for today. Also, the elderberry bush held a unique cultural place in many societies, with its branches being used in flutes and even in smoking pipes.

In Europe, elderberries were important to many pagan myths. In some cases, elderberries were considered representations of gods, and required special rituals before villagers could remove the plants during construction or farming. As Christianity spread into Eastern and Central Europe, elderberries became associated with witches and other foul deeds. For example, some regions were told it was an elderberry, not a redbud (Cercis sp.) tree that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on. Yet, for the most part, people still viewed elderberry positively and incorporated it into legends and myths. One notable elderberry use I found was from a record of early Pennsylvania Dutch settlers. In this myth, if you could find an elderberry branch that was the same length as your child, and store it away from moon and sunlight, it would protect the child in the future from croup. Wow, quite a process!

What about the actual science? Well, there appears to be a measurable benefit (compared to placebo) to taking elderberry during the flu. Typically, consumers recovered several days earlier than if they had not taken the syrup. The biggest theory about why this may be relates to stimulating the immune system’s chemical responses. However, people who take immunosuppressant medication should stay away from elderberries, as scientists are unsure about possible interactions. Another word of caution; occasionally people have gotten ill from eating raw elderberries due to their natural cyanide content. It is important to only consume elderberries that have been properly cooked, something you may not know when buying online or in a parking lot.

To avoid the flu, getting a vaccine is a far smarter idea than relying on elderberry syrup. Best thing about the flu vaccine is that you can avoid getting sick in the first place, and protect vulnerable people who cannot get one. Even if you get the flu after you’ve been vaccinated, which happened a lot in 2017, you will have a better chance of recovering quicker and keeping out of the hospital than if you had not got a flu vaccine.

Works Cited (Cover Photo by University of Missouri Extension):

  • Blanchette, Aimee. “To Fight Flu, More Minnesotans on the Hunt for Elusive Elderberry Syrup.” Star Tribune, Star Tribune, 6 Mar. 2018,
  • Fogel, E. M. (1915). Beliefs and superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans. Penn State Press.
  • Guo, R., Pittler, M. H., & Ernst, E. (2007). Complementary medicine for treating or preventing influenza or influenza-like illness. The American journal of medicine, 120(11), 923-929.
  • “Influenza (Flu).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 Sept. 2018,
  • Salamon, I., & Grulova, D. (2015). Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): From natural medicine in ancient times to protection against witches in the middle ages - A brief historical overview. Acta Horticulturae, 1061, 35-40.
  • Sisson, Paul. “More People Getting Flu Shots This Year after Deadly 2017 Season.”, 28 Nov. 2018,
  • Zakay-Rones, Z., Thom, E., Wollan, T., & Wadstein, J. (2004). Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. Journal of International Medical Research, 32(2), 132-140.