Elderberry – A Winter Ally

 by Rose Casey

Elderberry flowers

A lovely Elder, Sambuscus nigra, grows in my garden. Her presence is an ever-welcomed joy. I love gathering her light and airy white flowers and later her deep blue-black berries. Both the flowers and berries have medicinal benefits. Today, we are only going to feature the health giving benefits found in elderberries.

Let’s first talk about harvesting elderberries as a little background before we talk about making Elderberry Cough Syrup. Be sure to gather and dry the dark blue- black berries in late summer or early fall on a dry day. The tendency is to want to harvest the berries when they “appear” dark blue, but wait! They actually deepen into a dark blue-black berry. Then, they’re ripe for harvesting! You shouldn’t have any trouble sharing berries with the birds. Elder grows tall enough and out of reach of eager humans to provide for feathered friends!

I clip the berry umbels so they drop into a gathering basket. The next step is to separate the berries from the tiny stems. This can take a little time, but it’s relaxing and connects you directly with the plant’s medicine, an invaluable part of healing and making potent medicine. Carefully remove the berries from the stems and then place them on a drying screen or basket for good air circulation. Spread them so the berries are not touching or overlapping. Tip: place the drying screen on top of your refrigerator. The berries will dry beautifully from the gentle warmth of the refrigerator. The berries will shrink by almost a third!

Elder berry

Make sure you dry the berries completely before storing them or they may mold. Store the dried berries in a glass jar and keep in a cool, dark place. If you don’t grow elder or know where to harvest some, you can most likely purchase dried elderberries at your local cooperative or a community pharmacy. And, there is always the on-line alternative, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs or similar quality on-line herb store.

So, you may ask why all the praise for using elderberry syrup during the cold and flu season? Elderberry has a long history of use for upper respiratory ailments associated with the colds and flu.  An eye opener for me was reading in Buhner’s book that elder “inhibits viral replication”.  David Hoffmann, Medical Herbalism, states that “the herb appears to strengthen cell membranes to prevent virus penetration, possibly by inhibiting the viral enzyme that weakens the membrane.” That’s why it’s important to get started with elderberry at the get go when you feel a cold or flu coming on. And, if that’s not enough power punch, elderberry is rich in antioxidants, though not surprising given the berry’s dark blue-black color.

I also love that Elderberry cough syrup is one of the best general cough remedies, especially for children. It really is a “go to” family herbal remedy that I always make in early winter season so I have it readily on hand if and when I or another family member could benefit from it. Of course, you can buy elderberry syrup in the store, but you can make it for pennies less and you know exactly what is in it together with your caring love in making it. It really is a win win situation.  Below is a classic elderberry cough syrup recipe I got from Rosemary Gladstar. There are many similar ones out there as well. I find this recipe a tried and true one to start. There are numerous other ways to make elderberry concoctions, but for now we will just start with a basic recipe.

When you’re feeling sick and fatigued it’s hard to think about making anything, even if it’s easy to make. So, I’ve found it helps to make a batch early winter and keep the syrup in the refrigerator. That way, if I find a nasty head and chest cold coming on, Elder is waiting and brings welcomed relief.

Elderberry Cough Syrup Recipe                                                                                          by Rosemary Gladstar, Family Herbal                                                                              (extra brewing notations by Rose Casey)

Ingredients                                                                                                                               1 cup of fresh or ½ cup dried elderberries (I use the dried because I’m making the syrup post growing season)                                                                                                              3 cups (distilled) water                                                                                                       1cup honey (buy from local beekeepers if possible)

Directions                                                                                                                          Place the berries in a saucepan and cover with the water. Bring to a boil, reduce  heat and simmer (uncovered) for 30 to 45 minutes. (Reduce the liquid volume by half. Tip: remove pan and pour strained berries into a pyrex dish to measure if cooked to half and return berries and liquid to stove if further reduction is needed.)

(Remove the pan from the stove and mash the berries while in the pan with a potato masher or wooden mallet or whatever tool you have handy to release as much juice from the cooked berries as possible.)

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Add 1cup honey, or adjust to taste. Stir to blend. (The honey dissolves nicely in the strained warm elderberry juice.) Store the syrup in the refrigerator.  It keeps for 2 to 3 months.

Label the bottle with name, date, source of your berries, ingredients and suggested dosage for adults and children. DO NOT GIVE TO CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF ONE due to the honey content.

To use elderberry syrup                                                                                                  Adults take 1-3 tablespoons each day to prevent colds and the flu. Children can take 1-2 teaspoons a day. To shorten the duration of an illness take liberally at the first sign of a cold or flu.  (Rosalee de la Floret)

Dosages for adults is 2 – 4 tablespoons every 2-4 hours during the early stages of a cold or flu infection. (Stephen Buhner)

 Resources                                                                                                                      Herbal Antivirals, Stephen Harrod Buhner                                                                      Family Herbal, Rosemary Gladstar                                                                              Medical Herbalism, David Hoffmann                                                                              Personal experience