Elderberry syrup is a wonderful, immune-boosting tonic for the winter months. Kids love it, too, because it’s delicious. Let’s talk about why to use it and how to make it.
Elderberries are the fruits of the elder tree, which is usually Sambucus nigra or S. cerulea. If you’re located in far western parts of the Pacific Northwest, please don’t use the red fruits of the Sambucus racemosa tree, as they can cause severe stomach upset. Even so, S. nigra and S. cerulea fruits have to be cooked to be edible. All the Sambucus species fall into the Adoxaceae family (used to be categorized into the Caprifoliaceaes).
Elder trees are large, deciduous shrubs that grow up and out to ~20 feet. Typically, they grow in temperate regions, but some species are found in more tropical latitudes, as well. I’ve seen them in southern Mexico, where they are known as sauco. Most commonly, you’ll find them in Europe and North America. They grow in forested areas with patches of sun, on roadsides, and where they’ve been planted in landscaping. They’re not too particular about wet or dry soils. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, and the 5-7 leaflets are pinnate, with serrated margins. Look for its hollow stems – a friend told me she has made flutes from them!
Elderflowers and elderberries have a long history of use in medicine and as a beverage. In Europe, they are made into cordials, wines, and syrups. Have you had St. Germain liqueur in cocktails? It’s made from elder blossoms. The flowers also make an excellent diaphoretic, or fever-reducer, and soothe the skin and eyes when used externally. The berries have potent antiviral, antimicrobial, and antioxidant action, making them great for boosting immunity, warding off colds and flu, and reducing respiratory system bacteria. Not just the berries and flowers are medicinal—the bark is, too, though it is not commonly used in modern herbal practice—all these plant parts contain phenolics, glycosides, and terpenoids—those secondary metabolites in plants that give them some of their medicinal oomph.
To make approximately 2 quarts of elderberry syrup, follow these instructions: Place enough berries into a large cooking pot so that 2 quarts of water cover them (probably 6-8 cups fresh berries or 3-4 cups dried ones (because if they’re dry, they’ll expand as they cook)). Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let the mixture bubble away and cook down the berries until they burst, and then some (30 minutes at least). Mash the berries with a potato masher or other kitchen instrument. Keep simmering until liquid is reduced to 1.5 quarts (you can guess on this—it doesn’t have to be exact). Strain out the berries and press all the liquid (the strong tea or decoction) from them. While the tea is still hot, stir in 3-6 cups of organic sugar. Use the lesser amount in that range to reduce your sugar intake, and if you don’t mind keeping your syrup in the fridge for best storage. Use the larger amount to make your syrup more shelf stable and preserve it longer. Alternatively, you can use honey. If you opt for raw honey, cool the tea a little before mixing it in so that you keep the beneficial properties of the raw honey intact. Lastly, add in about a half cup of any hard alcohol you have around—vodka, brandy, Everclear—anything will do. I recently used a mandarin-flavored vodka; it left the syrup tasting daintily of citrus. The alcohol helps preserve it. Keep your syrup in the fridge and take 1-2 tablespoons daily throughout the winter as an immune tonic. Take that amount every couple of hours if you feel a cold coming on. If you catch it early, you can reduce the severity of illness.
Don’t love syrup? Elderberries can be made into tea or tinctures, too. To make a quart of elderberry tea (trust me, you’ll want to drink a whole quart—it’s that good), place ½ cup dried elderberries in a cooking pot with just over a quart of water. Bring to a boil and then turn down low to simmer for 10-15 min. Turn off the heat, mash the berries with a potato masher or a large fork, and let steep for another 10 min. Strain, sweeten if desired, and enjoy! Drink 2-3 cups daily to ward off a cold or other virus and to boost immunity.
Looking for more elderberry learning resources? Here is another great syrup recipe from Rosemary Gladstar, and here is more info on elder’s medicinal properties from LearningHerbs. Have fun learning about this incredibly useful and delicious herb!