The Apothecary Garden: Elderberry, The Wise Elder of Plants

Reader Contribution by Susanna Raeven
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It is snowing outside, the winter solstice and cold moon passed. The light is returning now, oh so slowly at first. There are many plants that can help us move joyfully through the dark winter time, supported by a vibrant immune system that wards off cold and flu alike.

Black elder (Sambucus nigra) is a wonderful ally in your herbal winter apothecary and a beautiful plant in your garden, blessing you with potent medicine and abundant wildlife that is attracted by her blossoms and fruit.

The Elder in your Garden

You will need a big open sunny spot in your garden that is well irrigated and mulched with a thick layer of wood chips – elder likes wet feet. So much that the Elder Mother grows wild most abundantly in wetlands and along creeks where the big shrub helps to dry the soil after flooding. Peppermint and spearmint are nice companion plants, covering and shading the soil in between and providing aromatic cooling mint teas in the summer.

Elderflower Lemonade

The fragrant umbels of tiny cream colored elder blossoms in early summer attract many butterflies and make a wonderful lemonade. Simply add a few flower heads to a home made lemonade with fresh lemon and honey or maple syrup. A tea from dried elderflower can help relieve a fever by opening the pores of the skin and inducing sweating.

Gathering elderberries in the fall can be a race with birds who enjoy the fruit just as much as we do. Daily harvests are best while the berries ripen over the course of a few weeks.

Elder Medicine

No matter if you are so fortunate to gather fresh berries from your garden or the wild, or if you buy dried berries, elderberries are one of the best winter remedies to enjoy.

Elder, like other dark colored fruit such as blackberries and blueberries, has a lot of anti-oxidants, protecting the body from free radicals, reducing inflammation and freeing the immune system to prevent the invasion of bacteria and viruses. Elderberries have strong anti-viral properties and contain ample vitamin C. The elder plant holds wisdom for the elder body in particular, keeping the immune system strong and responsive and toning the cardiovascular system, while detoxifying and building the blood. Elder is an antispasmodic, relaxes smooth muscles and relieves coughing fits and stomach cramps.

You can make your own elderberry tincture in the fall and and reap its benefits all winter long. I like to tincture elderberries in 40% brandy, it tastes delicious and has the right amount of alcohol to keep it stable.

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How to Make Elderberry Tincture

1. Fill a mason jar ½ with dried elderberries, fill to the top if the berries are fresh, then fill the jar all the way to the top with brandy.

2. Close lid tightly, label jar with the plant name, alcohol type, and date and let sit in a cool dark place. Shake jar every few days.

3. After 4 to 6 weeks strain and press the plant matter from the alcohol and voila! – you made beautiful elder medicine for yourself and your loved ones.

Elder works as a preventative and for acute infections alike. Take a teaspoon of elder tincture once or twice daily to stay healthy all winter long. If you feel you have a cold or flu coming on – take more, up to 6 teaspoons daily, to help the body cope with an infection in a short period of time.

Another wonderful way to enjoy elder medicine is elderberry syrup or elixir, made with a strong decoction of the fruit, brandy and honey. I like to combine elderberries with marshmallow root to sooth and heal inflamed lung tissue and fresh ginger for its warming and anti-inflammatory medicine. Feel free to add other plant medicines for the lungs such a elecampane root, thyme or hyssop to your syrup. We are making beautiful and potent Elderberry Elixir at Raven Crest with licorice root added.

Elderberry Elixir Recipe

yields 1 quart


14 oz dried elderberries
½ oz dried marshmallow root
½ oz fresh ginger, cut in thin slices
1 cup raw local honey
1 ½ cups brandy
cooking pot
metal ruler


1. Combine elderberries, marshmallow root and ginger with 5 cups of water in a pot. Bring to a boil and with the lid on, let simmer for 2 hours.

2. Remove lid. Measure height of liquid in pot with a metal ruler.

3. Without lid, let the decoction simmer on medium heat until ½ of the liquid has evaporated.

4. Pour through a strainer and press the remaining liquid out of the plant material. You can offer the spent plant material to your compost Goddess.

5. While the decoction is still warm, add 1 cup raw local honey and stir with a whisk until the honey is completely dissolved.

6. Add 1½ cups brandy.

Bottle, label and store in a dark cool place. No need to refrigerate, honey and alcohol are great preservatives.

Photo by Susanna Raeven

Enjoy your elder medicine workshop! You will love how your remedy keeps you healthy through the winter and it makes a great gift for friends and loved ones.

Elder blessings, Susanna Raeven

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