We just passed elderberry picking season. You can find them in their favorite place, a moist and vegetation-rich area, often-times near a stream or creek. There could be a species or two you could confuse with elderberry, but once you learn her serrated leaf shape and tell-tale white flowers in the early summer, you won’t ever make that mistake. And, the only species of elder that is poisonous is found way out West and has red berries.
The varietal you see on the East coast is Sambucus canadensis. It is said that the most-researched, power-packed medicinal berries are from the European varietal, Sambucus nigra. However, as the American species is now being researched more, it is found to be just as medicinally potent. You can order S. nigra easily from a catalog or purchase from a local nursery. However, why do that? It is very easy to transplant the local elder to your garden. They take root well and are very hearty (especially in the Southeast).
It makes sense that elderberries would offer themselves in late summer – early fall considering what typically happens when seasons change – the chances of us getting sick increase. Always, I have noticed with myself and others that sicknesses, colds, flus, and viruses surface around the change of seasons. I believe this happens because we are so out of sync with the seasonal cycles and the rhythms of nature. If we were eating in ways that honored the wisdom that each season provided, I think this would happen much less. Our bodies would be more prepared for the shift as well as our instincts attuned to what we needed to do to prepare our bodies.
Alas, we still get a cold or flu sometimes…
Elderberries are a great ally to have as they ward off all kinds viral strains. They have a couple particular flavonoids that do this for us. They are great for allergies as well.
Although elderberries get most of the attention, elder flowers actually have more anti-viral potency and are diaphoretic (helping you open up ventilation in the body to move heat out of the system as your body fights the virus). Elder berries and flowers are known to inhibit the ability of the virus to infect other cells of the body until it is obsolete. You can tincture the flowers in 50-70% alcohol (100-140 proof). Also, the leaves can be infused in olive oil and made into a salve for burns and skin irritations.
And, an herbalist I know in Mississippi, uses the bark for edema…mostly of the legs and ankles. There is debate about using the bark because of the cyanide content. However, the herbalists that use it do not think the amount in the bark warrants caution (and also the length of time using the bark as medicine would be factored in). Cyanide is a constituent of a plant that creates a cooling effect on the tissues of the body. Other herbs such as peach leaves and wild cherry bark also contain small amounts of cyanide that are used specifically for its cooling properties.
Herbalist Susan Weed commonly draws on old European lore and myth when talking about herbs and plants. With the elderberry bush, she says that “there is a woman who lives in the elder tree. She is called Elda Mohr by some. Ask her permission before harvesting any part of the elder and your medicine will be helpful.”
And, I have to agree with her. It seems, more than ANY other plant…when an herbalist begins to talk about elder, she is regarded in the most respectful manner. In any herb class, precautions of all kinds precede her description, attributes and uses. I make sure to ask permission and say thank you when I harvest from this plant.
A great way to bring elderberry into your life is by making an herbal syrup with it. The recipe I use is pretty simple and very folk style (notice there are no hard measurements). I make mine from fresh berries and strain out the seeds. You can also use the same recipe and use dried berries which is a great way to go as well. When you dry any berry, the flavonoid content concentrates and renders an even richer syrup or tincture.
You can order dried elderberries from Warner Herbs or The Bulk Herb Store, both out of Tennessee. You may even find the berries at your local natural food co-op.
Take a a spoonful a few times if and when you feel something coming on. You can also take the syrup preventatively as elderberry is noted to be an immunomodulator, increasing the function of the acquired immune function to help you fight viruses and any pathogenic material that may enter the body. It’s a great sweetener for chilled and warm teas as well.
Lindsay’s Elderberry Syrup
1 part fresh elderberries (or dried)
3 parts water
1/4 part maple syrup or honey
chunk of peeled ginger
brandy or elderflower tincture
(For example: 1 cup berries, 3 cups water, 1/4 cup maple syrup will make about an 8 oz jar of elder syrup)
In a stainless steel or iron pan, put the berries and water.
Reduce the the liquid to 1/2 its original at a low boil (takes about 30-50 minutes, depending on quantity, altitude, and all that).
When reduced to the level you want it, let it cool for about 5 minutes. Add the maple syrup or honey.
Place the cinnamon stick and ginger chunk in a mason jar and pour the syrup through a mesh strainer or cheesecloth into the jar. Add 1 Tablespoon brandy or elderflower tincture per 2 cups of syrup for proper preservation of the syrup.
Cap it and store it in the fridge. Make sure to label it with the date. This will last about 6 months.