Flowers of the elderberry bush, Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis
Flowers of the elderberry bush, Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis

By Susan Elrod, Phd

Various fruits, herbs, and flowers are used to make herbal teas.  These herbal infusions (commonly called teas, though they contain no actual Camellia sinensis, the plant used to make green, black, or white tea ) are typically blended for flavor but also may be used for medicinal benefits.  Lavender and chamomile, for example, are commonly associated with relaxation, as are ginger and licorice with stomach relief.  Elderberry and elderflower are both often included in herbal teas.  Other articles on this website have discussed the phenolic content of elderberry, but what about elderflower?

Elderflower, like many flowers, is edible and often used in beverages.  In addition to herbal tea, you can find it in sodas, wines, beer, and (perhaps most famously) St. Germaine liqueur.  If you’re a fan of the light, sweet flavor of these flowers, there’s good news: elderflower tea may have a higher phenolic content than elderberry tea.1Viapiana A, Wesolowski M. The phenolic and antioxidant activities of infusions of Sambucus nigra L. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 2017;72(1):82-87.   Regardless of what part of the elder tree comes out on top in terms of phenolic content, elderflower does contain significant amounts of polyphenols. 

As you might expect, however, elderflowers have different types of polyphenols compared to elderberries.  As discussed in other articles, the berries have a great deal of cyanidin-related compounds, as well as several other polyphenols.  Since the cyanidins give elderberries that dark purple color, it is unsurprising that they are absent from the flowers,  However, the flowers do seem to have a great deal of other compounds that have been studied and associated with medicinal benefit, including quercetin, kaempferol, and naringenin.  In a study of the effects of elderberry and elderflower extracts on markers of inflammation, elderflower performed at least as well and often better than elderberry (that is, it took lower concentrations of the elderflower extract to yield the same effect compared to elderberry).2Ho GTT, Wangensteen H, Barsett H. Elderberry and elderflower extracts, phenolic compounds, and metabolites and their effect on complement, RAW 264.7 macrophages and dendritic cells. Int J Mol Sci 2017;18(3):584.

What about when these flowers and berries are used specifically for teas?  There is good news for elderflower fans there as well. The study conducted on the phenolic content of elderberry and elderflower was performed using infusions, that is, by adding boiling water to the berries and flowers in a manner similar to that used to prepare herbal teas.1Viapiana A, Wesolowski M. The phenolic and antioxidant activities of infusions of Sambucus nigra L. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 2017;72(1):82-87.   That means that the results of the study indicate the amount of polyphenols present in such herbal teas, so you don’t have to worry about heat destroying or compromising the phenols in elderflower tea.

Furthermore, in terms of polyphenol content, elderberry and elderflower seem to compare well to other herbal tea ingredients, on par with chamomile and potentially higher than ginger or turmeric.1Viapiana A, Wesolowski M. The phenolic and antioxidant activities of infusions of Sambucus nigra L. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 2017;72(1):82-87. 3Maizura M, Aminah A, Wan Aida W. Total phenolic content and antioxidant activity of kesum (Polygonum minus), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa) extract. International Food Research Journal 2011;18(2). 4 Kaur C, Kapoor HC. Anti‐oxidant activity and total phenolic content of some Asian vegetables. Int J Food Sci Tech 2002;37(2):153-161. 5Park E, Bae W, Eom S, Kim K, Paik H. Improved antioxidative and cytotoxic activities of chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) florets fermented by Lactobacillus plantarum KCCM 11613P. Journal of Zhejiang University-SCIENCE   Elderflower tea was also comparable to green and white tea in a study of chlorogenic acid content (studies suggest chlorogenic acid is responsible for many benefits associated with coffee consumption).6Meinhart AD, Damin FM, Caldeirão L, da Silveira TFF, Filho JT, Godoy HT. Chlorogenic acid isomer contents in 100 plants commercialized in Brazil. Food Research International 2017 September 2017;99(Part 1):522-530. The exact amount of polyphenols in any herbal extract will vary according to preparation as well as the plant species, cultivar, and growing method, but it appears that elderberry and elderflower tea both provide significant amounts of polyphenols.

Related article: How Should I Think About Polyphenol Loss During Processing

1 Viapiana A, Wesolowski M. The phenolic and antioxidant activities of infusions of Sambucus nigra L. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 2017;72(1):82-87.
2 Ho GTT, Wangensteen H, Barsett H. Elderberry and elderflower extracts, phenolic compounds, and metabolites and their effect on complement, RAW 264.7 macrophages and dendritic cells. Int J Mol Sci 2017;18(3):584.
3 Maizura M, Aminah A, Wan Aida W. Total phenolic content and antioxidant activity of kesum (Polygonum minus), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa) extract. International Food Research Journal 2011;18(2).
4 Kaur C, Kapoor HC. Anti‐oxidant activity and total phenolic content of some Asian vegetables. Int J Food Sci Tech 2002;37(2):153-161.
5 Park E, Bae W, Eom S, Kim K, Paik H. Improved antioxidative and cytotoxic activities of chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) florets fermented by Lactobacillus plantarum KCCM 11613P. Journal of Zhejiang University-SCIENCE B 2017;18(2):152-160.
6 Meinhart AD, Damin FM, Caldeirão L, da Silveira TFF, Filho JT, Godoy HT. Chlorogenic acid isomer contents in 100 plants commercialized in Brazil. Food Research International 2017 September 2017;99(Part 1):522-530.