The patch of elderberry and jewelweed
“Save some for me!” I yelled to the birds on my way back from the river. I don’t typically start my days yelling at animals, but that morning they happened to be pecking away at dark berries nestled in a tall bush, berries that I was hoping to pick later that week to make a syrup effective enough to chase away a cold or flu: elderberries.
If you’d asked me at 10 years old what I thought about elderberries, I would have told you what I knew in my stubborn heart to be true... Elderberries are evil. Every time my mother made me take elderberry tincture, I’d get sick. That was just a fact. It took some years to understand that rather than cause the illness, elderberries were actually helping to ease the symptoms, and moreover, speed up my recovery process. I didn’t realize I was already on the cusp of some cold, or stomach bug, as kids frequently are, but of course, my mother knew better. A cough here, a stomach ache there and we were sent to the medicine cabinet. A young brain, however, correlated two things: elderberries and illness.
Thankfully, I no longer feel that way. My new perspective holds that a life without elderberries would be a difficult life indeed. This season was the first in which I’ve had a more hands-on approach to the harvesting process, which only furthered my appreciation of the bushes themselves. For the gathering, I had to crawl along fallen tree trunks, through dense areas of jewelweed, and, as earlier mentioned, fight off the birds.
Any herbal guide you get your hands on will praise elderberry for its ability to fight the common cold and flu, shorten the length of the illness and improve the general symptoms. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that modern science will say the same thing. Multiple studies (as cited below) have shown that elderberry syrup is especially good at fighting the flu. Across the board, patients were recovering faster than those not taking the syrup (1) and in one case, an elderberry and echinacea mixture was as effective as a conventional drug when taken at the earliest signs of sickness (3). It turns out that elderberries have specific compounds that hinder viruses from entering your cells, and also works to fight the virus from within during later stages of illness (4). That’s why it’s typically recommended that you take a form of elderberry at the first signs of a cold or flu, so as to prevent any further spread of the virus.
The various methods of medicine making create something for everyone. I personally prefer the elderberry syrup to the tincture, as it is sweeter and can be taken with tea. The syrup process happens in two steps, first creating the initial elderberry juice, then combining it with honey to create the syrup.
- Put elderberries (off stem) in a crockpot and fill with water until berries are just covered
- Let sit for 24 hours on low
- Strain and jar up the juices (the remaining pulp can be composted (we fed ours to the chickens))
- Can the jars if you made a big batch (this helps to preserve it for longer). If not, skip this step
Time to make syrup!
There are many recipes out there so feel free to experiment and find the one that works best for you. Our recipe is as follows:
- 2 cups elderberry juice
- 1/2 cup honey
- 2 tbsp brandy
- Heat the elderberry juice and honey together, do not boil - just combine
- Remove from heat and add brandy
- Continue to stir for 30 seconds
That’s it! While bottling this syrup, remember that honey settles as it cools, so it’s best to use a ladle and scoop from the bottom up, otherwise your bottles will lack consistency, with some being much sweeter than others. Unfortunately, I speak from experience here.
Final product: elderberry syrup
This season’s elderberries came in handy in many instances of near-sickness during the cold season. Living in a farm store where dozens of people come and go daily makes it that much easier for me and the family to get sick. I’m thankful for that patch of dark berried shrubs tucked behind a small forest of jewelweed on the edge of our path. I’m thankful for the animals that help disperse the seeds and create more patches just like this one for others to enjoy and benefit from. On our third and final day of harvesting, berry-stained and exhilarated, my mom suggested we take them all, but, in the spirit of reciprocity, I opted to leave some for the birds.
- Zakay-Rones, Z., Thom, E., Wollan, T., & Wadstein, J. (2004). Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections. Journal of International Medical Research, 32(2), 132–140. https://doi.org/10.1177/147323000403200205
- Tiralongo, E., Wee, S. S., & Lea, R. A. (2016). Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients, 8(4), 182. doi:10.3390/nu8040182
- Rauš, K., Pleschka, S., Klein, P., Schoop, R., & Fisher, P. (2015). Effect of an Echinacea-Based Hot Drink Versus Oseltamivir in Influenza Treatment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy, Multicenter, Noninferiority Clinical Trial. Current therapeutic research, clinical and experimental, 77, 66–72. doi:10.1016/j.curtheres.2015.04.001)
- Torabian, G., Valtchev, P., Adil, Q., & Dehghani, F. (2019). Anti-influenza activity of elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Journal of Functional Foods, 54, 353–360. doi: 10.1016/j.jff.2019.01.031
Mackenzie Varney is an apprentice herbalist on Nezinscot Farm in Maine. She has degrees in biology and health and has lived and worked on farms all her life. Connect with her on Instagram, and read all of Mackenzie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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