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Elderberry -- Does research answer or raise questions?Posted Thursday, May 31, 2012, at 9:12 AM
For photo prints, go to www.stevenfoster.com/prints.html Photo by Steven Foster
All parts of elder are potentially toxic when fresh, but the flowers and fruits are generally thought to be safe if dried or cooked.
My colleague, herb guru Dr. James A. Duke, and I are working on a Third Edition of our Peterson Field Guide, A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, first published by Houghton Mifflin Co. in 1990, with a 2nd edition published in 2000.
In just 12 short years scientific literature on medicinal plants has exploded, and there are perhaps more studies published in the past 12 years than in the previous 100. And so it goes with elder.
Berries of the European black elder, Sambucus nigra, have been the subject of much research relative to potential antiviral activity against influenza. As we comb through literature, the overriding question for us becomes is the research on Sambucus nigra applicable to Sambucus canadensis?
The difference between the two is that the American plant almost always has seven leaflets and the European plant almost always has five.
A starting point is to look at PubMed, database of the National Library of Medicine, which has abstracts of millions of scientific papers on-line, accessible to anyone. Under the name Sambucus canadensis there are just a dozen scientific papers, but under the name Sambucus nigra there are 536 papers cited. Since Sambucus canadensis has been classified as Sambucus nigra subspecies canadensis, do the results of those 536 papers apply? To paraphrase the late medicinal plant researcher, Norman R. Farnsworth, science is confirmed if an experiment (study) is repeatable (and repeated), and if there is general scientific agreement on the results.
If a plant is not properly identified and that identity is not confirmed in a chemical or pharmacological paper, then the results can't be repeated. This happens more often than not.
Therefore, in the course of reviewing the science of herbs most papers represent a snapshot in time and have to be taken only at face value until repeated and confirmed. Using this logic, then the science on Sambucus nigra does not apply to Sambucus canadensis.
Such a complex problem for a simple plant.
Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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