People always ask me what herbs I recommend to help naturally fight off or treat colds and flus. I have many favorites that I use regularly, but one that I always stay loyal to is the medicine of the elder tree. It produces berries that are anti-viral and flowers that help to clear congestion. Anyone who has ever experienced the symptoms of a common cold or flu virus will agree that this is a winning combination!

Meet the Elder

There are many species of elder tree that grow worldwide, however it is Sambuscus nigra, or the European elder, that is used medicinally. This species grows in the wild, or is cultivated, in many parts of the world, including here in Eastern Canada, where it grows more as a shrub or small tree. Its flowers are harvested when at peak in spring or early summer, and the berries are picked when ripe in the fall.

Elder has a long history of use in European folk medicine, where records of its usage date back over a thousand years. It was, and still is, a popular remedy for treating colds and flus in many countries. Wondering where elder has been all your life? Read on!

My Favorite Ways to Use Elder

One of my very favourite herbal remedies to have on hand during cold and flu season is elderberry syrup. As a remedy that’s well known, well loved, and has a sweet taste even kids will ask for, it’s an easy one to recommend. When some natural anti-viral action is called for—I use elderberry syrup!

I also love to use elderflowers, oftentimes alongside elderberry syrup, as the anti-catarrhal (mucus-reducing) and fever-reducing qualities supplied by elderflowers are often needed if one has some of the common symptoms of common cold and flu viruses, like congestion and fever. I like to use the flowers in a herbal tea, as the warmth of the tea plays a special part in helping to ease congestion, and provides much-needed comfort.

Elderberries and elderflowers are considered gentle, safe, yet effective herbal remedies. They are commonly used with school-age kids as natural cold and flu care home remedies. While it is always important to seek appropriate medical care as needed, and follow the standard protocols for when this is necessary, elder provides some wonderful support when you are still in care-at-home mode, and just need a little extra help!

Anti-viral activity

Elderberries are well-loved for their anti-viral action and ability to help fight off, or reduce the duration and severity of, the common viruses that circulate during cold and flu season. Extracts have been shown to be effective against many different strains of influenza A and B viruses, as well as herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) (Fisher, 2009). It appears that a constituent in the berries inhibits something called hemagglutinin which is produced on the surface of the viruses; this in turn prevents the virus from being able to enter the cells and replicate. Several clinical trials found that elderberry syrup effectively reduced both the duration and symptoms of influenza (Fisher, 2009). Now, how handy is this?


Anti-catarrhal herbs help the body to clear excess mucous that is due to infection or other causes. They either work by thinning mucous secretions, making them easier for the body to get rid of, or they reduce the secretions altogether! Elder flowers are specifically anti-catarrhal in the upper respiratory system, and so are helpful for clearing congestion in the nose, ears, throat and sinuses. Internal use of elder flowers for helping with the common cold has been approved by the German Commission E (the German Equivalent of the FDA).

Immune Modulating Activity

Laboratory studies have shown that elderberry extracts increase cytokine production, suggesting that the berries may stimulate non-specific immune function and possess immunomodulating activity” (Fisher, 2009).

Always Consider Whole Body Health….

While the best way to prevent illness is to make sure you are getting the nutrition you need, the sleep you need, and living a healthy, balanced, and nourishing lifestyle, many of us need a little outside help with this, either from time to time when these things fall out of balance, or on a deeper level to help us rebuild a depleted immune system. Stay tuned for a future post on building deep immunity that will help keep you healthy year round!

When to Use Elderberry

Elderberry syrup is commonly used on a preventative basis, for people who find themselves catching colds and flus frequently, or simply during acute illness when one feels a virus coming on.

Daily for Prevention:

If you are prone to catching viruses often, work in a setting where you are exposed to viruses constantly like a hospital or with young children, or have school-age kids who catch everything that is going around, you may want to befriend your local anti-viral berry—the elderberry! The syrup can be taken once daily during the times when you feel run down and know you have been exposed to a virus, to give your body a little extra help to fight it off! You will still need to work on building deep immunity, but the anti-viral action of the elderberry will certainly help you until you get there!

Acute Illness:

Elderberry syrup is wonderful to have on hand for use in the acute stage of a common cold or flu virus. When taken at the first sign of cold or flu and for the duration of the illness, the elderberry syrup will either help prevent the illness from developing, or will at the very least decrease the severity and duration of the virus.

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When to Use Elderflowers

Elderflowers are commonly used for many ailments of the respiratory tract, including influenza, lung congestion, colds, fevers, dry coughs, sinusitis, chronic nasal catarrh, and deafness due to chronic nasal catarrh. They are specific for any catarrhal inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, and are often used alongside other herbs to reduce the duration and severity of flu symptoms. They make a wonderful tea when used for these purposes.

Local and Seasonal Medicine

It always feels good to be harvesting a medicinal herb that is ripe and at its medicinal potency just as it is becoming a seasonally suitable herb to take. While the medicine of the elderberry can be used as needed any time of year, it is the fall, when the berry is ready to be harvested, that is the best time to start making the syrup, so you can have it on hand for the duration of the cold and flu season.

Where Can I Get Elderberry Syrup?

You have a few choices:

Ask your local herbalist—they likely sell it.

There are some brands of elderberry syrup sold in health food stores.

If you are a DIY person, you can easily make your own elderberry syrup. Your local herbalist likely offers a workshop where you can learn to make this and other herbal remedies yourself!

If you would like to harvest your own elderberries, make sure you are harvesting the right species, as some species are toxic. Your local herbalist probably offers plant ID walks!

A note of caution though—it’s essential the berries are harvested when ripe (black), and to make sure they are cooked prior to consumption. Unripe or improperly cooked berries can cause diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting.

Do you have an herbal question for me? Send me a note through my contact page. I’m always looking for questions that I can answer in my blog—Herbal Q&A! Have fun bringing elder into your life!

Sarah xo

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