Elderberries had a resurgence in the last year and a half, as folks focused on health during the pandemic, turning to anything from essential oils to vitamin D pills. And while some of these pandemic purchases have made their way out of homes, elderberry products have stuck around in Charleston, where two local companies are spreading the word about the dark purple berry and its benefits.
“Last March of 2020, we actually completely sold out so quickly that we were scrambling to get more ingredients,” said Sara Gail, owner of elderberry company RD Naturals. “The demand has definitely increased and awareness has increased over the past year.”
Gail, a registered dietitian, launched her company after years of growing elderberries in her Daniel Island backyard. In the five years since opening, the company has grown to the point where Gail is willing to drive a van filled with her three core products — elderberry syrup, tinctures and gummies — cross-country to keep the momentum going.
“I personally am driving my elderberry van, and I will just kind of hustle and try to introduce my products to as many stores as I can,” Gail told the City Paper over the phone from Idaho, her latest stop. “I’m working four farmers markets per week out here, and I’ve gotten into six stores. There’s customer demand for it, and people have numerous reports of it helping them.”
“Elderberries are really well researched. Elderberry compounds actually have been shown to create a barrier between our healthy cells and viruses,” Gail added.
At least two studies have shown that elderberry extract can shorten the duration of the flu by four days, and while another study’s results found this wasn’t the case, the dark purple berry has proven itself a worthwhile supplement for many who claim it helps reduce inflammation, fatigue and even toothache pain. While there isn’t any evidence that elderberries can combat COVID-19, a trial is underway in London to see if black elderberry liquid could be used as a potential treatment for the virus.
Raw food chef and vegan nutrition specialist Tasha Robinson — who goes by “Chef TR” — is a firm believer in the ability of plant-based food, herbs and all-natural supplements to help maintain health and wellness. Robinson started using elderberries nearly 10 years ago after giving birth to twins, she told the City Paper.
“I had friends that were herbalists, and I started using [elderberries] myself,” she said. “We noticed a big difference, especially around cold and flu season.”
Elderflowers and elderberries were widely used by herbalists in America starting in the 1600s, when European settlers brought the European Elder across the Atlantic, although Native Americans were using other species of the plant well before that. For enslaved Africans, “Herbalism was a daily practice of empowerment and healing for men and women alike because there were very few other options for healing,” according to the Herbal Academy.
“I study a lot of African history — back in Egypt, they used certain herbs for childbirth. The use of medicinal herbs has been in African American history dating back to slavery,” Robinson said. “We didn’t have doctors, so we knew how to heal using different herbs.”
Robinson’s company, TR Creations, sells a do-it-yourself elderberry syrup kit that yields about 32 ounces of syrup. In addition to black elderberries, the syrup blend contains other herbs and spices, like cloves, wild cherry bark, star anise and goji berries.
TR Creations’ website bills the berries as having the ability to boost the immune system, reduce cold and flu symptoms, fight viral infections and ease allergy symptoms. But today, herbal medicines and apothecaries shouldn’t fully replace traditional medicine, Robinson said.
“First, start with your doctor, and then you may want to speak with an herbalist and see the best way to go about it. And do your research, because there’s a lot of conflicting information online,” she said. “Study the ingredients, and get information from professionals that know what they’re doing.”