Sambucus nigrans also known as elder is my favorite medicine to use as an immune tonic. The berries are rich in antioxidants and balance your immune system particularly against viruses. I think of elderberry syrup as my flu shot especially in years when the shot has lower effectiveness.
Besides the berries, the flowers also have many benefits. Used as a tea or tincture, they are great for nasal irritation, sinusitis, and fevers with hot/dry skin (1). Used as a flower essence, elder flower is for “Integration of the shadow side. Elderflower can help us come to terms with the dark side that is within us all. It gives a sense of protection as we face this fearful challenge and promotes a deeper understanding and acceptance of the self” (2). The plant as a whole is cooling and drying with sour berries and bitter flowers.
The medicinal properties of Elder
When using the Elder plant for medicine, we use the flowers and the cooked berries. The leaves, stems, bark, and roots contain compounds which can cause gastric distress. The uncooked berries do as well. It should also be noted that red elderberries are not edible even when cooked. Blue and black elderberries can however be used interchangeably.
Berries: antiviral, immune balancing, balancing inflammation, and a rich source of antioxidants.
Flowers: antiviral, relaxing, sweat inducing, promotes urination, rich in antioxidants, and has skin protecting effects when applied topically.
Historical and Modern uses:
Elder medicine has been around for millenia; even before written records. Archaeological investigations have found prehistoric sites with large quantities of seeds dating back to 17,000 years ago in Europe (3). Many myths surround these shrubs including stories of them being gateways to fairy land, the bad luck that would follow the cutting down of a shrub, and warnings not to create a cradle of elder wood to avoid the risk of losing your child to fairies (4).
More recently, there have been many in-vitro (petri dish) and in-vivo (in people or animals) studies showing the effectiveness of this wonderful, gentle medicine. A 2011 study shows Elder as effective against Strep pyogenes (the cause of strep throat), several other pathogenic bacteria, and the influenza virus (5). Another 2011 meta analysis of animal studies found broad spectrum antiviral activity for Elder and two other plants (6). For more research, a quick search using NCBI shows many pages of results. This, combined with a consistent profile of safety and the long-term use of this plant, give herbalists, doctors, and patients a reliable and credible treatment for upper respiratory infections.
When looking at the specific actions of Elder against influenza, we see that it inhibits viral particles from entering into host cells preventing infection. Elder also increases numbers of T cells increasing the non-specific immune response against influenza and other infections. Finally, elder can help decrease the more deadly effects of influenza by preventing the virus from using our immune system against us, it does this by inhibiting the cytokine TNF-alpha and inducing the production of the cytokines IL-4 and IL-10 – this works to decrease the inflammation within the lungs that more virulent strains of influenza can cause.(7)
A syrup is a mixture of plant juice or infusion mixed with honey, glycerine, or another thick and sweet liquid.
This recipe is the jumping off point for exploring the remaining recipes. You can add additional herbs making a more targeted medicine. A quick note on honey, be sure to use raw local honey. Yes this will cost a bit more, but most of the conventional honey has been heat processed killing the useful antimicrobial enzymes and have also been adulterated with high fructose corn syrup. Many bees are now also fed high fructose corn syrup after their honey has been over-harvested; try to find a source that doesn’t follow this practice if possible. When using local honey, you will also benefit from the anti-allergy effects of consuming small amounts of pollen orally creating a tolerance to your local flora (8).
- 2/3 cup Dried black or blue elderberries (or 1 cup frozen/fresh berries)
- 3.5 cups water
- 2 Tbsp fresh or 1 Tbsp dried ginger
- 1 cinnamon stick (Cinnamomum verum)
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1 orange peel or 2 Tbsp dried orange peel
- 1 cup raw local honey (or more for a thicker syrup)
- Pour water and herbs into a medium sized saucepan (leave out the honey).
- Bring to a boil and cover, simmer 45 minutes reducing volume by 1/3 to 1/2.
- Strain contents into a non-reactive bowl (glass is great) and allow to cool to a tepid temperature. It is important to allow the liquid to cool to below 104 degrees Fahrenheit so as not to alter the taste and to preserve the beneficial enzymes.
- Add honey and stir.
- Pour into clean glass jars.
- Syrup keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- To create a thicker syrup, simmer uncovered after your initial 45 minutes until volume is further reduced, you can also add more honey.
Standard dose: 1/2 to 1 tsp for children 1 year and up, 1 Tbsp for adults – immune tonic
Acute dose: same amounts every 2 hours – reduce if you develop loose stools.
Optional add-ins for targeted medicinal effects:
- Hawthorn Berries – heart and lung health
- Licorice root – liver support and soothing for sore throats – avoid if you have high blood pressure unless advised by a medical provider knowledgeable in both herbal medicine, hypertension, and your personal health.
- Echinacea angustifolia – extra detoxification and immune stimulation
- Echinacea purpurea – extra detoxification and immune stimulation
- White willow bark – help with pain associated with illness
To make gummies, I use gelatin, but you can alter this recipe using pectin or agar agar to make a vegan version.
To create a simple dosing strategy for kiddos, add to 1 cup syrup: 2 Tbsp gelatin dissolved in 1/2 cup boiling water and then cooled. Pour into a pre-greased mold and allow to chill for 2 hours. Eat within 1 week. I prefer silicone candy molds.
Elderberry Rose hip Jam:
With a rosehip jam, you add a syrup to dried rose hips. The pectin in the hips thickens the mixture creating an easy jam. This is a fantastic vitamin C rich way to consume your elderberry medicine. Coupled with local raw honey, this is a great tonic during allergy season.
Add dried seedless rose hips to a clean jar, cover with elderberry syrup to 1/2 inch above the level of the hips. Allow to sit in the refrigerator overnight – the pectin from the hips will solidify the concoction into a spreadable jam.
Finding your Ingredients:
Herbs can always be harvested locally and frozen or dried for later use. Otherwise, my preferred sources are Mountain Rose Herbs, Pacific Herbals, or in a pinch Natural Grocers. Be sure to use organically grown and ethically harvested plant material. Remember the medicine is concentrated when you process it that means any toxins and contaminants are also concentrated.
- Herbal ABC’s, Dr. Sharol Marie Tilgner
Sun Essences https://sunessences.org/elderflower
Alchemy of Herbs, Rosalee De La Foret
The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood
Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Medv.11; 2011PMC3056848. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056848/
Antiviral potential of medicinal plants against HIV, HSV, influenza, hepatitis, and coxsackievirus: A systematic review. Phytother Res. 2018 May;32(5):811-822. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6024. Epub 2018 Jan 22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29356205
Herbal Antivirals, Natural Remedies for Emerging and Resistant Viral Infections. Stephen Harrod Buhner 2013 Storey Publishing
Birch pollen honey for birch pollen allergy–a randomized controlled pilot study. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2011;155(2):160-6. doi: 10.1159/000319821. Epub 2010 Dec 23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21196761