Elderberry is one of those beautiful botanicals that blurs the line between medicine and foodstuff. Used for centuries in Europe, elder is finally making it's way into the daily lives of natural leaning Americans, mostly by the way of a delicious syrup made from it's ripe (often dried) berries.
The Elder used in most commercial products is derived from Sambucus nigra, the black elder. Unbeknownst to most, Sacramento is teeming with elder all along it's river banks. Our native elder, Sambucus mexicana is not as well studied as the black elderberry, but is just as medicinal. Next time you find yourself along the trail in late summer look out for clusters of cream colored flowers and ripening berries. A word of caution though, make sure you are able to properly identify Elder before picking it's berries, and make sure that the berries are either completely dried or heated to deactivate the naturally occurring cyanide that is contained with in the raw plant.
Two parts of the elder shrub are often used for medicine making. The cream colored blossoms make an excellent diaphoretic and are commonly combined in a tea blend alongside yarrow and mint to lower fevers. The ripe berries are often used for immune support during the winter months and is rich in vitamin c and a wide range of important flavonoids, including quercetin and anthocyanins. Elderberry is especially helpful in viral infections such as the flu, herpes outbreaks, and gentle immune support for folks with HIV.
One of my favorite things about elder is how approachable it is, lending itself to a myriad of preparations that even a beginner herbalist can easily create and enjoy at home. It is considered safe for most folks over 6 months of age, including those that are pregnant or lactating.
Elderberry syrup is perhaps the most well-known preparation. There are plenty of recipes out there to explore, but I would like to take a moment to give a shout out to the equally effective (and delicious!) lesser known ways to enjoy this beautiful medicine. Have fun and experiment with different preparations to find what suites your family's tastes. The dosages listed below are just suggestions. Elderberry is as much as a food as it is a medicine so play with it and find your range!
One of my favorite ways to enjoy elderberry (and blossom) is to make a simple tincture. All you have to do is place one ounce of dried elderberries and/ or blossom (two ounces if using fresh) into a clean and dry mason jar. cover with at least 4 ounces of vodka or brandy until the berries are fully submerged. Cover and label your jar and place in a cool, dark cupboard. Shake daily and let steep anywhere from 2-6 weeks. Once you are done steeping your tincture, strain the liquid from the spent berries and keep the resulting tincture in a glass jar or dropper bottle. Kept out of direct sunlight this tincture will last for years. Enjoy 1-3 teaspoons per day during cold and flu season.
Glycerites are a great way to coax little ones to take their medicine since it is naturally sweet. A glycerite is made exactly like a tincture, but food grade vegetable gycerine is used in place of the alcohol. Kept in a cool and dry place a glycerite will keep for 6 months to a year, A children's dose ranges between 1/4-1 tsp per day, up to a tablespoon if they are actively fighting an illness.
Made just like a tincture but replace the alcohol with raw apple cider vinegar. This is a great option for people avoiding both excess sugars and alcohol. The vinegar can be taken by the teaspoon or added to homemade salad dressings for a flavorful flu fighting punch. The shelf-life for vinegars are 6 months- 1 year.
*Since the vinegar is highly acidic cover ypur creation with either a plastic lid or a piece of parchment paper to prevent the metal lid from corroding.
Oxymels have been used by herbalist since the middle ages and for good reason! They are easy to create and are especially useful for respritory complaints. To make an oxymel place one ounce of dried elderberries in a clean and dry jar and covering with equal parts of apple cider vinegar and raw honey. Make sure that the berries are fully submerged and let steep for 2-6 weeks before straining. This preparation keeps longer than a traditional syrup (anywhere from 3-6 months in the fridge) and makes an excellent cough syrup or add a tablespoon to fizzy water for a sophesticated and medicinal treat. Enjoy up to 3 tablespoons per day.
A simple tea
If you aren't a fan of concocting your own remedies, no worries! You can make a simple medicinal tea by steeping a heaping tablespoon of elder flower or berry in 8 oz of boiling water for 15 minutes, covered. Strain, and enjoy up to 4 cups a day.