Pick your (delicious) poison

By Candace Nelson - 6:00 PM


Here's my latest column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

You’ll see them hanging low and ripe near streams and lakes. You’ll find them in low-laying areas along fences and roadsides. You’ll find them in ditches and along rivers.

Elderberries are growing across Appalachia in these late summer weeks — many of which will be turned into ciders, wines, jellies, syrups and cold remedies.

The small dark purple-black berries have a sweet, juicy interior with a bit of an astringent aftertaste. And that lends itself to the question of whether the berries are food or poison.

The answer? Both.

“The berries are juicy and edible when mature. The cooked berries are commonly eaten in pies and jams, and berry juice can be fermented into wine. The fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds, and roots contain a bitter alkaloid and also a glucoside that, under certain conditions, can produce hydrocyanic acid,” according to a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in 1984 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The amount of acid produced is usually greatest in young leaves. There may be other toxic constituents in this plant. The root is probably the most poisonous and may be responsible for occasional pig deaths; cattle and sheep have died after eating leaves and young shoots.”

And our Appalachian ancestors took it even a step further by using the peculiar berry as medicine. It’s not uncommon to see a local cold remedy or flu treatment made with elderflower, which many people consider powerful in treating these common ailments. Some create a tincture with the berries and alcohol to consume for better health. Some research has indicated it is effective at shortening the duration of colds and flu, though more research is needed.

The elderberry also plays a role in folklore and myths — whether it’s a goddess protective of those who treated the tree well or symbolic of witches or wards off evil spirits in stories that originated in the United Kingdom and much of Europe.

This versatile berry has a varied role in Appalachian culture. Some may avoid it due to its potentially dangerous effects, while others prize it for its flavor and value in baked goods and drinks. Many others see elderberries as a medicine to help alleviate symptoms of a common cold or flu. One thing is for sure, this little potentially poisonous berry can be quite tasty.

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