Respect Your Elderberries

Elderberry drawing

I work in a school library, with hundreds of students ages 4 to 18 who pass through the library doors each day. This is the time of year when you notice how quickly the Kleenex boxes empty, when surfaces—the reference desk, computer keys, desks and door handles—mutate into a potential hotbed for germs. We can arm ourselves with a flu shot each year and hope for the best. Somehow, though, most of us understand that seasonal illness is a game of roulette in which one of our biggest competitors, viruses, don’t play favorites.

When my school’s absentee list hits the red zone, I beat a path to Honest Weight’s bulk herb aisle and reach for the elderberry jar, Latin name: Sambucas nigra. At home, I embark on a seasonal ritual of concocting what I like to think of as “nature’s flu shot” by making my own daily tonic of elderberry syrup. I find this seasonal ritual indispensable, because the berry’s antiviral properties are remarkable. Of course, you can also buy prepared elderberry syrup in a bottle. For instance, a 4 oz. bottle of Nature’s Way® Original Sambucas Bio-Certified Elderberry Syrup runs anywhere between $25 and $35. I’d sooner save that money for a bottle of Cabernet. At $29.42 a pound for elderberries bought in bulk, you can make a 1-cup recipe at home for roughly $7, and it will last a month or more (see recipe below).

The elderberry bush is a member of the honeysuckle family. It looks like a small tree, with white flowers blossoming as berry clusters sometime between late summer and fall. It is usually found in the Northeastern and Northwestern areas of the United States and Canada. Native Americans used every part of the plant, including tools made from its sinewy branches, such as arrow shafts and pipes. They also used it for coughs and rheumatism.

Elderberries’ history of use extends far beyond North America, and its place in mythology and folkore is legendary. Hippocrates regarded elderberry as a powerful healing plant. In 1644 Martin Blockwich wrote Anatomie of the Elder, a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of the elderberry bush, which was later translated from Latin into English. Every part of the plant was mentioned as medicinally useful.

Health Benefits

Elderberry has a wide range of antioxidant properties that lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, and improve circulatory health. This is an impressive list of benefits, but elderberry’s real promise is in its ability to prevent and heal coughs, colds, flu, and any number of bacterial and viral infections. The berries contain organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, and flavonoids—all bolstered by a significant amount of vitamin C. The flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to play the largest role in the therapeutic actions of elderberry flowers and berries.

All of this sounds great on paper and, like any herbal remedy or medicinal claim from the plant world, a certain suspended belief is involved here to witness the herb’s actual healing properties. This is part of the reason why I prefer concocting my own elderberry syrup anytime between late fall and early spring. There is something to the tactile sense of spooning the small, dark purple (almost black) berries out of Honest Weight’s bulk jar and boiling your concoction down to half its original volume; the process affirms a real connection with the natural world, unlike taking an antibiotic tablet for whatever ails you.

Keep in mind the berries can be prepared for any number of purposes, including wine, cordials, tea, and preserves. And, as a word of caution, also keep in mind that the raw fruit contains a component called sambunigrin, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea. This is not a fruit that you want to ingest raw!

Elderberry Syrup Recipe

Elderberry Syrup
photo courtesy of:

As a tonic for colds and flu, I follow a recipe that includes fresh, minced ginger, whole cloves and cinnamon. Add as much raw honey as you like, once you’ve strained the berry syrup and allowed it to cool. This is a very simple process and takes just a few minutes of preparation apart from the cooking process:

1 cup dried elderberries
3-4 cups of water
2-3 tablespoons of fresh ginger, finely chopped
3-5 whole cloves
Cinnamon (sticks work well here, or powder, according to preference)

Add water to 1 cup dried elderberries. Bring to a boil, and simmer for at least one hour, or until volume is reduced by half. You don’t necessarily have to end up with a thick syrup, but you can if you boil down by more than half. Strain syrup into another small pot and mash berries in order to fully extract all the beneficial juice. I typically end up with a little less than 2 cups of syrup. Let cool. Add as much raw honey as you like. Two tablespoons is a good measure to start. Funnel into glass container, cover, and refrigerate. I take at least two spoonfuls of syrup each day.

Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.