A mainstay in many herbal apothecaries, elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is one of the most widely known herbs to reach for at the first signs of the common cold or flu (note: there is currently no scientific research on its effectiveness against COVID-19 and I am not giving medical advice here). Also known as black elder, blue elderberry, bore tree, bourtree, common elder, elderberry, elkhorn, sweet elder and Jie gu mu in TCM, the elder tree is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. It prefers moist soil and grows from 10-30 feet tall, with serrated, oblong leaves opposite each other along hollow stems. Branching clusters of white flowers blossom on flat panicles in spring, with glossy purple to black berries developing in late summer/fall.
The common name elder stems from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, meaning fire, as the hollow stems were used like a bellows for starting fires. A tree that has been revered as a sacred and magical plant throughout history by various cultures, many a folktale and myth around the world tell of a nymph who abides within the elder, watching over it and offering healing to us, just so long as we show respect and honor the plant. Anytime we seek a plant's healing, it's a wonderful and enriching practice to show gratitude for its gifts, as many indigenous cultures have done throughout human existence on Earth. In this way we not only honor the plant, but our ancestor's traditions as well.
Elder flowers are rich in vitamin C, flavanoids, essential oils, mucilage, tannins and the hydrocyanic glycoside sambunigrine, while the berries are high in vitamins A and C, antioxidant flavanoid compounds and iron, with active constituents including anthrocyanins, tannins and sambunigrine.
Elderberry has been scientifically studied quite extensively. Taken at the onset of symptoms, it can both strengthen cells and interfere with a virus' ability to replicate, thereby shortening the duration of a cold or flu. This has been shown in an in-vitro study of elderberry extract and H1N1 infection, during which the elderberry flavonoids were shown to bind to the virus and block its ability to infect host cells. In a placebo-controlled, double-blind study, flu recovery was achieved within 2-3 days in nearly 90% of the elderberry treated group while it took at least 6 days for the placebo group.
While I'm not offering this as a solution to the current pandemic, elderberry syrup is a great tool to have in your medicine chest. It can be used to boost your immune system and help your body ward off potential infection as well as fight the common cold and flu, so now seemed like a good time to share this recipe!
- 1 C dried elderberries, or 2 C fresh/frozen
- 1 T dried ginger
- 1 T dried orange peel
- 3 sticks cinnamon
- 3 whole cloves
- 32 oz (1 quart) distilled water, halve for fresh/frozen
- 16 oz (1 pint) raw honey
- 8 oz (1 C) good quality 80 proof alcohol, such as vodka or brandy (optional, for preservation)
- In a large, covered stock pot, bring the water, elderberries, ginger, orange peel, cloves and cinnamon to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to lowest possible (I have a gas stove and use a burner plate to diffuse the heat) and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half.
- Allow the mixture to cool just enough to handle.
- Strain the herbs though a strainer lined with a double layer of muslin, getting all the juices out by twisting the top of the muslin and squeezing.
- Add the honey in a 1:1 ratio to the strained juices while still warm (if needed, return to lowest possible heat) and stir to dissolve.
- Add the alcohol in a 1:4 ratio to the finished syrup if you'd like it to be shelf stable for 6 mos.
- Pour the syrup into sterilized glass jars, label, date, and refrigerate.
Recommended adult dosage: 1 T 3x daily, sublingually or added to beverage of choice.
Not recommended for children under 1 year old because it contains honey.
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. For educational purposes only. If you’re pregnant, nursing, or on any medications, consult a health care professional before using new herbal products.