It starts with a scratchy throat and runny nose, or maybe just some slightly swollen tonsils and a creeping feeling of malaise. When I feel like I’m coming down with something, I turn to two herbal preparations: elderberry syrup and garlic oxymel. I’ll write a future post about oxymels, but today I want to share my spiced elderberry syrup recipe–it’s easy to make and tastes pretty good too!
The Elder Tree
First, a bit of botany: Sambucus nigra, called black elder or European elder, is the Old World species native to most of Europe. Sambucus canadensis, or American elder, is a closely-related species native to North America–so closely related, in fact, that it’s sometimes considered a subspecies of European elder and listed as Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis. All that is to say that European elder and American elder are virtually interchangeable for medicinal purposes.Much of the elder found in commerce (bulk dried as well as preparations like syrups and concentrates) in the United States is labeled S. nigra. I grow and use several varieties of S. canadensis, and you can often find it growing wild throughout the eastern United States. Sambucus cerulea, or blue elderberry, can be found growing wild on the West Coast, and has the same uses as S. nigra and S. canadensis.
Elder has a long and storied past. It’s surrounded by a great deal of folklore in Europe, and was considered the peasants’ medicine chest–it was always close at hand and nearly all parts of the plant were used medicinally. These days, only the flowers and berries are used as food and medicine, although elder leaf is making a bit of a comeback as a topical herb. (I use it in salves for bruises and as an insect repellent.)
The flowers and berries are especially good for addressing winter illnesses, particularly colds, fevers, and the flu. The berries have antiviral, diaphoretic, diuretic, laxative, and antirheumatic properties. They help strengthen cell membranes, which can prevent viral penetration, and have demonstrated antiviral activity against the flu and herpes simplex viruses. Although most of the focus over the past decade or so has been on the berries, the flowers have very similar properties and uses.
While elderberries can be used in a variety of different herbal preparations, elderberry syrup is probably the most popular one. You can find commercial elderberry syrups at your local health food store–they’re convenient, but they can be expensive. So if you have an hour of free time and can get your hands on a few basic ingredients, you can make a cost-effective elderberry syrup at home.
Simply put, elderberry syrup consists of elderberries, water, and your sweetener of choice. You can make a shelf-stable syrup if you use a sufficient amount of white sugar. But many American herbalists, wary of white sugar’s effect on immune function, make their syrups with honey (raw and local, if possible). If you choose to make your syrup with honey, do not give it to children under 1 year of age because of the potential for infant botulism.
Elderberry syrups made with honey must be refrigerated, and have a shelf-life of 3-5 months. If you see any signs of mold, discard the syrup. If you’ve never had elderberry syrup before, I recommend halving the recipe below for your first batch. If you find that you go through it quickly, it’s easy to make another batch with the full recipe. But if you find that it’s not your thing, then you won’t have wasted much.
I’m really more of a formulator than a simpler, so I like to add other herbs to my syrup. For several years now, anise hyssop, cinnamon, and lemon peel have been my go-to supporting herbs. Anise hyssop for its expectorant properties, cinnamon for its warming and stimulating qualities, and lemon peel for its vitamin C content. (And let’s not underestimate the importance of flavor–all three herbs are pretty tasty in their own right.) But anise hyssop can be hard to find commercially–it’s best to grow your own–so I’ve been playing around with using marshmallow root instead. It’s much more accessible, it’s soothing to the throat, and makes the syrup a little more viscous, which I like.
Some people favor the classic combination of ginger and clove. I’ve also seen recipes that include elderflower, rosehips, astragalus, echinacea, thyme, cardamom, and more. Most of these herbs are included for their immune-stimulating, warming, or vitamin-rich properties. Do some research on the ones that stand out to you and create your own unique formula!
I take 1 tablespoon of this syrup three to five times a day when I’m feeling under the weather. You can use Clark’s Rule or Young’s Rule to calculate dosage for children based on their age or weight. Elderberries are generally considered safe, but if you’re pregnant consult your doctor before using them therapeutically.
If you just want a simple elderberry syrup, omit the supporting herbs and only use water, elderberries, and honey.
Spiced Elderberry Syrup
2 cups water
1/2 cup dried elderberries (or 1 cup fresh berries)
1 tablespoon dried marshmallow root
1 tablespoon dried lemon peel
1/2 tablespoon sweet cinnamon chips
1 cup honey (raw and local if possible)
In a non-reactive 1-quart pot, bring 2 cups of water to a hard boil. Add the elderberries, marshmallow root, lemon peel, and cinnamon chips. (Do not cover, as you will be reducing the volume of liquid.)
Reduce heat to low and gently simmer the mixture for 30-40 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by half, to 1 cup. Remove from heat and strain into a measuring cup. (It’s better to reduce too much than too little; if you take it too far you can just add a little water to bring your volume back up to 1 cup.)
Let the liquid cool until it’s lukewarm, then add the honey and stir until it is completely dissolved.
Transfer to sterile bottles or jars, label, and store in the refrigerator up to 3-5 months. The syrup can also be frozen up to a year. Yields 2 cups of syrup.
For dried herbs, I use Mountain Rose Herbs when I need 4 oz. or more of an herb, and Jean’s Greens for smaller quantities because they sell by the ounce. If you’re interested in growing your own elder trees and are in Upstate South Carolina or Western North Carolina, Useful Plants Nursery in Black Mountain is a good source for stock.
1. “Medical Herbalism,” David Hoffman.
2. “The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety,” Simon Mills & Kerry Bone.
3. “Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections.” Zakay-Rones Z1, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15080016
4. “Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro.” Roschek B Jr1, Fink RC, McMichael MD, Li D, Alberte RS. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19682714
5. “A Modern Herbal,” Maude Grieve.