by Danielle Charles

Doesn’t is seem like just yesterday that I posted about elderflowers and the magic of the elder plant? I am convinced that at some point I must have entered a time warp because I can hardly remember the passing of July, let alone August – and yet, here the elderberries are already! And along with them, the first signs of autumn, with the leaves beginning to show the subtlest hints of color and the days ending much too early. Despite this current blast of hot and humid air,  autumn is most certainly beginning.

And with the beginning of autumn comes the ripening of three of my most favorite fruits:  blackberries, rosehips, and of course,  the elderberries – my personal harbinger of fall. Each year I trudge into the swamp lands with my knee high boots, basket in hand, clipping heavy bunches of berries as I nervously look round for sleeping moose. The berries of the elder are certainly not as brilliant or noticeable as the flowers, but they are just as delicious and useful. Unlike the lacy flowerhead facing upwards at the sun, the clusters droop downwards with the weight of the berries and hang in the shadows – showing themselves only to the very observant passerby. You can visit my post on elderflowers for some speculation on the meaning behind these contradictory natures, but for now I will say that the flowers seem to capture the yang, outwards moving energy of the sun (being light, dispersive and drying in nature) – while the berries seem to me very yin – very inwards, dark and of the earth (sweet, nourishing and cooling).

You will also remember from my previous post on elder that both the berries and the flowers are  excellent remedies to have on hand during cold and flu season, which, by the way,  is just around the corner. The berries in particular demonstrate very strong anti-viral properties, having been found in vitro to actually bind to the H1n1 virus and block it’s ability to infect host cells with as much or more efficacy than the drug Tamiflu. These activities have been demonstrated on a variety (1o in fact) of influenza strains, and have also been proven useful in clinical trials, reducing the length of infection by an average of 4 days as well as reducing symptom severity. Additionally, the vitamin C rich berries stimulate the activity of our own immune systems against viral invaders, thus both directly and indirectly strengthening our resistance to infection. Considering there is currently no effective flu remedy on the market today, this is really quite profound. Instead of flu shots, doctors should be handing out bottles of elderberry syrup!

We have confirmed all of these activities in our labs and using clinical trials, but our ancestors knew about elder’s actions long before the idea of a virus had even appeared in the human psyche. Elder was used in both European and Native American traditions for respiratory ailments and bronchiole issues. How did they know? Some say that the plants reveal to us their uses in the ways that they grow and present themselves. The berry cluster of elder, it is said, resembles the bronchioles of the lungs, and I would most certainly agree. Sometimes the magic of plants is just bewildering! See what you think:

Elderberries we’re also used as a blood cleanser for treating skin rashes and inflammations, swollen limbs and rheumatic complaints. Today we might attribute the attributes tied up into the concept of “blood cleanser” to the laxative and diuretic effects of the berries, gently promoting elimination, paired with the strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities accorded by their high bioflavanoid content. The antioxidant activity is on par with ginger, and far surpasses that of red wine (so you may want to consider some elderberry wine this year instead of your usual red!). I find this mix of properties very useful in diabetes, where swollen lower extremities and capillary damage related to high blood sugar levels are benefited by the mix of diuretic and antioxidant effects.

Mostly, I consider elderberry as an immune tonic, to be used by anyone who suffers from depressed immunity – whether from chronic stress, chemotherapy or AIDS  – or just as a daily prophylactic against illness during the cold winter months. A little syrup taken daily can dramatically reduce the amount of illnesses contracted over the year, and is perfectly safe for children. The whole family should be using elderberry in some form throughout the fall and winter to keep immunity strong, especially as kids return to school and the body struggles to adapt to cooler, wet weather.

So, how does one incorporate this lovely and profound medicine into their everyday life? While you certainly are welcome to try out Sambucol or one of the many other commercial elderberry extracts on the market, you would then be missing out on the delicious culinary delights the berries can bring to your table. Elderberry is a perfect example of the doctrine of letting your food be your medicine, and what a delicious medicine it is!

Full of vitamin C, iron, vitamin A, Vitamin B6, calcium and potassium and providing loads of fiber, the berries are not just medicinal but very nutritious. They should not be eaten raw, as they can cause gastric upset in their uncooked form, but once cooked, are nothing but delicious. They can be combined with other berries in crumbles, compotes and cobblers; baked into pies; or made in delicious jams and jellies. You can also cook them down to make elderberry syrup or ferment them into an unbelievably delicious wine.

I like to do a little of each, but if you choose just one, elderberry syrup is the way to go. You can make the syrup from fresh or dried berries – but if you use fresh, be sure you have the correct species: the berries should be black rather than red, and drooping downwards rather than standing upright in umbels. If you harvest your own, look for the plant in swampy areas and on the border of wetlands. Otherwise, you can purchase dried berries from your local herb shop or through Mountain Rose Botanicals.

Simple Elderberry Syrup

Based off of Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe in The Family Herbal

I like to make a very basic recipe to which other herbs or spices can be added later if needed. I prefer honey as my sweetner, as it imparts its own medicinal properties to the syrup, but you can experiment with other sweetners, such as maple syrup, if you wish.

Makes 1 quart syrup

  • 4 cups fresh or 2 cups dried elderberries
  • 12 cups water
  • 2 – 3 cups honey

1. Place the berries in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer until the liquid has been reduced by half, about 45 minutes to an hour.

2. Smash the berries using the back of a spoon or a potato masher. Pass through a fine-mesh strainer or alternatively a food mill or champion juicer.

3. For each cup of liquid you have, add 1/2 – 2/3 cup honey. If you prefer to make it less sweet, be sure to refrigerate the syrup to prevent spoilage.

How to use your syrup:

  • Take 1 tablespoon of the syrup in hot water or herbal tea  daily (ginger, green tea or peppermint being especially good), as a prophylactic and immune strengthener during cold and flu season
  • Drizzle over Greek yogurt with fresh berries, sliced stone fruit (peaches, plums, etc) and/or granola  for a delicious snack or desert
  • Use in place of maple syrup over pancakes, waffles or French toast
  • Mix a few tablespoons into soda water or ginger-ale with a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of fresh mint for an alcohol free cocktail, or add a little shot of vodka to spice it up.

The syrup should keep for up to 1 year if refrigerated. If it shows any sign of mold, just scrape it off and bring it to a boil.

Happy elderberry season and a healthy immune system to you!

PS:  Head over to the Whispering Earth blog for another really beautiful article on eldeberries, and some more delicious recipes