Elderberry Benefits and Its Spooky Halloween History

This post may contain affiliate links.

Elderberry Benefits

There may be more reasons than you think for using elderberry at this time of year. In college, I was fascinated with the stories humans tell about plants to transmit traditional knowledge. In each story there is a cultural memory being transmitted in the telling.

Cultural stories About Elderberry

It’s almost Halloween and a fun time to look into some of the scary stories humans have told about plants. Elderberry is an old world plant. In Europe, the variety is Sambucus nigra, and that is where some of these stories originated.

According to this lore…

…the elder bush is sacred to Holle, the guardian of the dead. This entity has been represented in various ways in several cultures. She is alternately a hag and a nurturing mother. In any case, she is not to be trifled with. The elder is never cut down or burnt without risking her wrath. It is still common knowledge that the elder is planted in your garden to watch over the plants in the area. This hag/mother figure is believed to be a bridge between life and death, communicating with and helping souls to pass over.

For these reasons, people have carried bits of elder wood in their pockets for protection, tied prayers to its branches and dreamed underneath its canopy on a midsummer night’s eve. On All Hallows Eve, when people believe the veil between the worlds is thinnest, surely the old woman in the elder is very active.

Stories like these entrench the importance of a plant into the culture that tells them. Elder (Sambucus canadensis here in the states) is indeed a magical plant. It is a medicine chest all on its own. All parts of the plant have been used for a wide range of health issues. Native Americans routinely used the bark and leaves both internally and externally for such things as parasites, bruising, sprains and unnaturally tightened tendons. Today the bark and leaves aren’t used often because of a concern that a cyanide-like compound found within the plant could present a health risk. Truthfully, the toxins in the plant are buffered in such a way that they would cause vomiting long before a toxic level was ingested.d

Modern Elderberry Benefits

These days, elder is most important to us because of its antibiotic compounds. We find the berry in syrups at this time of year to battle the flu. In fact, studies have found elderberry to be very effective in shortening the time of suffering and minimizing the symptoms of a bout with the flu. In lab settings we also find that elder has activity against such forgotten illnesses as mumps and measles. In fact, in the media hype over ebola, it is interesting to find that Stephen Buhner mentions in his recent book, Herbal Antibiotics, that elderberry has shown activity against this virus as well.

Today, our culture is not afraid of a witch living in the trunk of an elder. Our nightmare stories appear to be about the flu and ebola. Elder figures prominently in these bedtime stories because there is value there for keeping us healthy. Those of us who heed the tales will be sure to eat our elderberry syrup as we head into winter!

Get dried elderberries here and learn how to make your own elderberry syrup here!

What about you?

Are you using elder to stay healthy this time of year?


About Dawn Combs

Dawn is a wife, mother, farmer, author, ethnobotanist, professional speaker, and educator. She has over 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a B.A. in Botany and Humanities/Classics. Dawn is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows Farm. Her books include Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.

PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: In order for us to support our website activities, we may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for our endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this website.

DISCLAIMER: Information on DIY Natural™ is not reviewed or endorsed by the FDA and is NOT intended to be substituted for the advice of your health care professional. If you rely solely upon this advice you do so at your own risk. Read full Disclaimer & Disclosure statements here.


  1. Glory says

    My husband and I have made elderberry jelly and elderberry syrup for years! In fact, it is my four children’s’ favorite; out of all the jellies we make each year, they use this one up long before opening the others. They have passed their love for the elderberry products on to the grandchildren. Needless to say, we never leave Missouri and travel to Texas for a visit unless we have both elderberry jelly and elderberry syrup! We had a very nice surprise two years ago when a volunteer elderberry bush began growing outside our chicken pen! YES! Now no more climbing in ditches and creek banks for our sacred berries. On a side note, we’ve discovered that chickens CAN jump–especially when they are after those last few elderberries just out of their “normal” reach. 😀

  2. Susan says

    Hi, Great article as I only kind of knew the story of the elderflower tree. I had heard or read somehere that you should always ask the lady of the tree for permission to take her fruit and so whenever I pick elderflowers or elderberries I always ask permission to take its fruits and always thank the tree for its beautiful produce. In addition, when you cut some of the branches of they should be put back under the tree!

  3. Annamay Olsen says

    I’m delighted to be connected with this website! Ever since I made elderberry jam from the couple of bushes my mother planted in our backyard — and since I no longer live there, I’ve been in search of a descent Elderberry jam and finally found some when I went to visit the Amish — their “Old Dutch Jam” brand — with the whole berry and a deep rich flavor! Only ingredients, elderberry, sugar, pectin and citric acid. When I made it, without anyone telling me otherwise, I boiled down the berries and strained them — I’m not sure I added sugar — I was so thrilled with what I described as a deep “rooty” flavor which was great on yogurt or thin, rolled-up pancakes!

  4. Becca says

    Maybe I need to plant some in my garden next year to watch over my plants and to protect them from ME! I can’t keep anything alive! ha!
    Very interesting article – I’ve heard good things about elderberry but never knew the story.