What do elderberry seeds look like

How toxic are elderberries really?

Are raw elderberries poisonous or edible? The question arises again and again when the small, black-purple berries of the black elder (Sambucus nigra) and the scarlet berries of the red elder (Sambucus racemosa) ripen. From a botanical point of view, these are not berries, by the way, but stone fruits that hang on the bushes from August to late summer. At first glance, the shiny fruits, which in some regions are also called lilacberries, appear very appetizing. Its deep red juice is also very healthy: it is rich in vitamins A, B and C, potassium and secondary plant substances, which act as natural antioxidants to protect the human body from free radicals.

That is why raw elderberries are poisonous

Raw black elderberries contain sambunigrin, among other things. The glycoside can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if you ingest large amounts. However, a few berries will not produce symptoms as the poison is very weak. Healthy people could usually ingest 4 grams of berries per kilogram of body weight without any symptoms of intoxication. If you are processing elderberries, you should still cook them, as the glycosides are broken down by the action of heat.

Natural laxative

Even if they look good to eat: Elderberries should only be enjoyed in very small quantities - if at all - fresh from the bush directly into your mouth. Not only the leaves and unripe fruits, but also the seeds of the ripe fruits contain weak toxins: the cyanogenic glycosides, also known as hydrogen cyanide glycosides. A glycoside that is strongly represented in elderberries is the so-called sambunigrin. In connection with water, it splits off small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which can lead to gastrointestinal problems in humans. If you only nibble a few elderberries as an adult, you usually don't have to worry too much about your health. However, children and sensitive people should be careful: Consuming raw elderberries can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in them. By the way, due to their laxative effect, elderberries were used specifically as laxatives in the past.

Sambunigrin is not heat-resistant

In the raw state, the fruits of the black elderberry (left) and red elderberry (right) are slightly poisonous

The good news: when heated, the toxins break down. In cooked form, therefore, no health impairments are to be expected from elderberries. In order for the glycosides to decompose, you should heat the fruit to over 80 degrees for at least 20 minutes. There are no limits to the preparation options. Elderberries can be wonderfully processed into jelly, jam or compote. They also taste very good as punch or liqueur. Homemade elderberry juice has proven itself for the cold season, as it revs up our immune system. It is best to use a steam extractor for this. By the way: You should also cook homemade elderflower syrup - even if you just let the flowers steep in sugar water and sieve them off before processing.

Red elder is more poisonous than black elder

If you want to enjoy the fruits of the red elder (Sambucus racemosa), you should be particularly careful: They contain a higher concentration of toxic substances than the fruits of the black elder. In their case, the poison in the seeds cannot be rendered harmless by heating. You should therefore remove the stone cores during preparation by sieving them out. The juice can then also be processed into tasty jelly, syrup or liqueur.

You can start harvesting the black elderberries as soon as the fruits have turned blue-black. Depending on the region, this is the case from the end of July to the beginning of August. Cut off the entire fruit umbels and remove any spoiled or unripe fruit. You can use a fork to remove them from the panicles. Be sure to remove all of the stems and only leave the fully ripe berries. Alternatively, you can freeze the fruit including the cones and simply shake off when frozen. But even after that, the following applies: first heat the elderberries before you enjoy them.