The Elderberry, the purgative tree-medicine several thousand years old

The Elderberry, the purgative tree-medicine several thousand years old

Many of these vernacular names reflect one of the unique characteristics of the elderberry; that is to say the slight acidity of its fruits, which is usually expressed by the adjective sour . This, it seems, did not relieve the prehistoric populations, since many stations dating from the Bronze Age, then from the Iron, revealed the presence of deposits of elderberry seeds . We therefore know that in Switzerland and northern Italy, among other places, the primitive harvest of its berries was already carried out, and in sufficient quantity to, perhaps, imagine the manufacture of a fermented drink made from berries. of elderberry. This typically European small tree therefore has a long history ., which begins with its already distant encounter with man at least 5000 years ago, if not much more.

A little history

It may come as a surprise, but the elderberry was known to the ancient Greeks, at least to Theophrastus who gave it the name aktê . At that time, we have already identified some virtues; the story goes that Hippocrates used berries and leaves as drastic in dropsy, and the Hippocratics after him assigned identical properties to it, elderberry being indeed hydragogue, diuretic and laxative. It is therefore active, it obliges this or that to circulate from one point A to another B. This is why, among other things, it does not appreciate affections due to atony.

Dioscorides distinguishes the aktê from the chamaektê , in other words ” earth elder “, which is none other than the hièble the beautiful ( Sambucus ebulus ); a plant, in size, closer to the ground than its “bigger” brother Sambucus nigra .

As a medicine tree , the elderberry is staged in rituals that actually suggest that it participates as much in medicine as in magic. For example, Albert the Great “reports a belief stemming from sympathetic magic, according to which the bark would be laxative when it is detached from the trunk from top to bottom and emetic if one operated in the opposite direction”. The importance of the gesture. And, concerning the elderberry, that is not so stupid, this shrub being able to be as well laxative as emetic, it purges by the two extremities according to the confession that some could make!

What are the main pharmacological properties of Elderberries?

Antiviral and antibacterial properties:

  • Antibacterial:

Elderflower extract was shown in 2006 to inhibit the release, by macrophages, of pro-inflammatory cytokines induced by Porphyromonas gingivalis and Actonibacillus actinomycetemcomitans , two periodontal pathogens . It suppresses the activation of neutrophils, which have also become involved as effectors of periodontal tissue destruction. These effects could be attributed to inhibition of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) activation.

In 2011, an in vitro study demonstrated for the first time that standardized elderberry extract has antimicrobial activity against both Gram + bacteria ( Streptococcus pyogenes and group C and G streptococci), and against Gram + bacteria. – ( Branhamella catarrhalis ).

  • Antivirals:

In vitro: Elderberry extract inhibits the H1N1 virus, responsible for influenza A, in a dose-dependent manner. This activity is more particularly linked to its content of flavonoids which bind to the H1N1 virus, which prevents the entry of the virus in the host cell. The plant is effective against 10 strains of influenza virus. Elderberries seem to act on two levels: first, they neutralize the activity of hemagglutinins, antigenic glycoproteins present on the surface of the virus and responsible for binding the viral particle to a receptor located on the target cell. When the latter are deactivated, the viruses can no longer enter the host cells, and therefore replicate. They also act by stimulating the immune system by increasing the production of cytokines by monocytes (IL-1β, TNF-α,

Anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant properties:

  • At the respiratory level:

In humans, a study carried out on 12 healthy donors showed that the production of inflammatory cytokines (IL-1β, TNF-α, IL-6, IL-8) compared to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a known activator monocytes. The most marked increase is observed in the production of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). These immunostimulating properties could be of interest in subjects with influenza, as well as in immunocompromised patients with cancer or AIDS who are undergoing chemotherapy or other treatment. Traditionally, elderflowers promote and increase bronchial secretions, in addition to their diuretic and sudorific action .

  • At the intestinal level:

Similarly, in the subject with colitis, taking a diet enriched with elderberry extract reduced by half, compared to the control group, the macroscopic damage of the mucosa and the activity of myeloperoxidase (measurement of infiltration neutrophils). An increase in liposomal enzymes (acid phosphatase, cathepsin D) was also observed, which reflects an improvement in the integrity of the colonic mucosa .

Antioxidant properties:

Elderberry anthocyanins exert a strong radical action , among the most powerful in the plant world, twice that of cranberries according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Elderberries, among all fruits, are the ones that contain the highest concentration of anthocyanins (5 times more than in blueberries), among which cyanidin-3-sambubioside-5-glucoside has shown antioxidant activity .

Metabolic and vascular properties:

Endothelial cell dysfunction plays an important role in the initiation and development of cardiovascular disease. In vitro , the incorporation of anthocyanins in these cells increases their protection against oxidative stress, a major cause of their dysfunction.

The traditional use of elderberry in diabetes has been supported by evidence of antidiabetic properties . Elderberry extract also protects hemoglobin against glycation.

Are there any precautions for using Elderberry?


  • According to the EMA, the use of elderberry in pregnant or breastfeeding women is not recommended, nor in children under 12 years old.

Precautions for use:

  • Medical supervision is advised when used in insulin-dependent diabetics.
  • In the context of self-medication with elderberry, in the event of the occurrence of dyspnea, fever or purulent sputum, a doctor or a qualified health professional should be consulted.
  • Risk of heartburn, nausea and vomiting after eating undercooked fruit.


  • Inhibition of CYP3A4 described for a mixture of Echinacea purpurea and Sambucus nigra.

How to take Elderberry and at what dosage?

Dry form:

Liquid form:

Medical bibliographic sources and clinical trials:



Clementine. M.
Writer of scientific articles
Naturopath – Aromatherapist / Herbalist – Phytotherapist
Consultant in clinical phyto-aromatherapy and Ethnomedecine

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