Are Elderberries Poisonous? [Why & How To Enjoy Them Safely]

Flowering elder on a palm. Showing how you can check for true elderberries by using the up-and-down test
This is how you can know if it's a true elder or not

People have used elderberry (the whole plant is named elderberry), its flowers and its berries called elderberries for its health benefits for hundreds of years.

But you have to be careful.

Its berries are actually quite poisonous.

But there are ways to unlock their potent benefits and for you to be able to enjoy elderberry products safely.

If you are careful and follow the right instructions to the letter you can transform these toxic berries to potent beneficial ones.

In this article we’ll figure out what makes the elderberry poisonous, what parts of the elderberry you can detoxify and how you can go about doing it.

Table of Contents

The Whole Elderberry Is Toxic

First, let’s just be absolutely clear about what kind of poison we’re talking about and how dangerous it might be.

Elderberry can poison you with hydrogen cyanide

The leaves, bark and roots of the elderberry plant contain a poison, which is called cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin, which in contact with water releases hydrogen cyanide. (source )

Have you heard about hydrogen cyanide? Yes, that’s the one. It was hydrogen cyanide gas poisoning that was used for capital punishment in the USA before it was ruled unconstitutionally cruel.

It’s highly toxic and you should try to avoid ingesting even small amounts of it.

Not everyone stays away from eating the raw berries

The unripe berries and the seeds in the ripe berries contain this toxic substance.

Most, but astonishingly not everyone, agrees that the unripe berries should not be eaten.

Some consider consuming the ripe berries harmless, because the toxic substances are contained in the seeds, when ripe.

Which in our view, theoretically, might work if you’re certain that you won’t crush the seeds when eating them or your gut won’t be able to dissolve them.

We stay away from raw elderberries.

Cases of serious side-effects from elderberry poisoning

There have been several cases reported where gastrointestinal disorders, like vomiting and diarrhea have occurred after people have eaten too many raw of the ripe berries or made some juice of them without cooking them long enough.

Vomiting and diarrhea are two of your body's ways of trying to deal with toxic substances.

For instance, there is a very famous case of elderberry poisoning where eight people in California had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital with acute gastrointestinal and neurologic symptoms.

They had been served an elderberry juice that hadn't been cooked. 15 minutes after consuming the juice, eleven people in the gathering began to feel nauseous and started vomiting.

The eight persons flown to the hospital vere most ill and reported nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and weakness. (source )

How Poisonous Are Elderberries?

All elements of the elderberry plant, including the roots, twigs, leaves, unripe and ripe berries and their seeds contain the toxic element, cyanogenic glycoside sambunigrin, in varying degrees.

The elderflowers on the other hand contain so small amounts of the toxic elements that it's not harmful to humans.

Hydrogen cyanide is made in your gut

The major cyanogenic glycosides are mainly found in the edible parts of plants.

When you consume them, ß-glucosidase that is present in the gut comes in contact with glycosides and cyanogenic glycosides hydrolyze and produce hydrogen cyanide which as you now know is very toxic.

Unripe and uncooked berries are the worst

Several sources warn that all plant parts of elder containing cyanogenic glycosides including unripe and uncooked fruits, fresh leaves, bark and roots can cause nausea, vomiting or severe diarrhoea when consumed and should be avoided in elderberry preparations. (source )

Strong recommendation to not eat ripe berries

When it comes to the ripe berries, the toxic substances are especially concentrated in the seeds. If these seeds are swallowed, they generally pass through the digestive system untouched.

But it’s still strongly recommended that elderberries not be eaten raw as cooking releases a considerable amount of cyanide from the pulp of the fruits that diffuses harmlessly into the air. (source )

How To Prepare Elderberries For Consumption

Proper heat treatment, for instance cooking, can render the berries safe for consumption.

But be sure to only use ripe berries for your elderberry concoctions, where it’s only the seeds that are toxic.

The presence of hydrogen cyanide in elderberries seeds is the only concern of elderberry preparations, but these toxic substances are removed by heat treatment or cooking of berries since hydrogen cyanide is volatile and evaporates. (source )

Effective and simple way to detoxify elderberries: Cook them

The easiest way to make elderberries safe to eat is simply by cooking the berries for a reasonable amount of time. That way you’ll be able to make those delicious preserves, juices, syrups, pies and even candy-like gummies.

Adequately cooked elderberries are not poisonous but they will however become a little tart. But, the choice between a bit of tartness or poisoning ourselves isn’t that hard of a choice.

You need to be sure that the elderberries you’re about to eat or use have been boiled for between 15 and 20 minutes. And it’s 15-20 minutes in boiling temperatures, not simmering.

Pick The Right Elderberry

There are fake and one true elderberry.

Do not harvest any elderberry without first assessing the plant from a flora, that it’s the real, true European elderberry Sambucus nigra.

Never eat a plant that you haven’t been able to determine with certainty!

The true elderberry is by far the most common of them and luckily, differs from the others.

But you still need to make sure to watch out for the two other varieties of elderberry, grape and summer elder, that are poisonous.

True elderberry

The true elderflowers have flattened flowers that are white or slightly yellowish and have light yellow stamens. Be sure to avoid the ones with red stamens (summer elderberry). The flowers grow in wide bundles.

You can test if the flowers come from a true elder with the “up and down” test by placing the crown up and down on a flat surface, for instance your palm, and if it stays up without falling to its side, it's the real deal.

The genuine elderberries are deep purple, almost black.

Grape elderberry

The grape elderberry has yellowish-green flowers in a rounded bunch, like a grape cluster. The ripe berries are red. If you test them with the “up and down” test, these crowns won't stand.

Summer Elderberry

The summer elderberry bush is just over a meter high and withers every winter. The difference between this and the true elderflowers is that these flowers have red stamens.

Conclusion: Toxic But If Prepared Correctly Packed With Amazing Benefits

The elderberry bush is poisonous. The whole elder is toxic; the leaves, bark, root and berries. The unripe berries and the seeds in the ripe berries contain the toxic substance, which means that the berries shouldn’t be eaten raw. But if the berries are boiled for at least 15 - 20 minutes, the toxic effect disappears.

If you are to make your own elderberry products, we suggest that you are extra careful and take special care about selecting the right elderberry and when preparing them.

If you instead decide to buy elderberry products I still suggest that you are a bit careful and choose products made by larger and famous producers/brands.

History tells us that some producers don’t have the quality control and safety procedures required for handling these kinds of products.

But elderberry and the products that can be done from its flowers and berries are, in our humble opinion, well worth the effort.

You get some real benefits from them at the same time as you get to experience the amazing flavors elderberry can provide. We've written an article about many of the benefits of elder if you wish to learn more.

Try it out yourself!

Now that you're armed with the knowledge of how to prepare elderberries you might be interested in trying it out yourself?

We've written an article about different uses of elderberries and elder flowers with recipies and videos. The berries and flowers offer some unique taste experiences for someone who's willing to try them out.

Good luck!

Sara Niemelä

co-founder Care Omnia, Head Content Creator

Author Image of Sara Niemelä

Nutrition is my passion. I've spent thousands upon thousands of hours reading, analyzing, categorizing and comparing research studies.

I’m a wife and a mother of three. I enjoy the outdoors, cooking, and spending time with my family.